In Tunisia, the sole Arab Spring success, economic woes reignite unrest

Five years after a Tunisian street vendor set himself afire and touched off a revolution, the country is still struggling with joblessness and unmet economic expectations.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Fezai Rebah, an unemployed graduate, shows her master’s degree certificate during a sit-in protest to get jobs, at the local government office premises in Kasserine, Tunisia, Jan. 26, 2016.

In 2011 a young Tunisian street vendor set himself afire in protest of an authoritarian system and government corruption that squelched economic opportunity for Tunisians like him.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s protest and death became the spark that set in motion Tunisia’s revolution and the wider movement known as the Arab Spring.

This month another young Tunisian, Ridha Yahyaoui, took his own life in a public act of protest over his inability to secure employment in the country’s sinking economy. After having his application for a public-sector job rejected – allegedly in favor of candidates with family connections – Mr. Yahyaoui climbed a utility pole in his hometown of Kasserine and electrocuted himself.

Five years after Mr. Bouazizi’s fiery protest, Tunisia is known as the success story of the Arab Spring, the one Arab country that came through the revolt against authoritarian rule with a functioning democracy. But Yahyaoui’s act of desperation, and the demonstrations that ensued, are a reminder that it was lack of economic opportunity, as well as frustration over corruption, that touched off the changes in 2011.

Indeed, Tunisia’s recent unrest suggests that it is joblessness and dashed economic expectations – and not so much political or democratic aspirations – that can spark movements like the Arab Spring, regional experts say. Also, these unmet economic expectations are feeding the region’s violent extremism, say the experts, who point to the thousands of Tunisians who have gone to Syria (or next-door neighbor Libya) to fight for the Islamic State.

“We have lost sight of the major drivers behind the Arab Spring, which were lack of jobs and economic vulnerabilities – things like dashed employment hopes and lost dignity,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The Arab uprisings were not about liberal democracy à la France or America; they were very much about bread, about butter, and about everyday economic frustrations rising to a breaking point.”

Such everyday frustrations boiled over again in the wake of Yahyaoui’s death, setting off days of protests and looting that on Saturday prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. Demonstrations continued Monday, most notably with thousands of police officers taking to the streets of the capital to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

Still, Tunisia is held up as a bright spot on an otherwise dark regional landscape of failed revolutions. Libya, to Tunisia’s east, is torn by warring governments that have left parts of the country under the control of the Islamic State. Egypt, further to the east, has reverted to authoritarian rule. And Syria has been devastated by five years of civil war.

Since toppling autocratic ruler President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisians have held successive elections that have been open to an array of political parties, including moderate Islamists. But economic growth and opportunity have not followed the political success.

As Tunisia’s revolution got under way in 2011, unemployment stood at 13 percent, according to official figures. The rate has climbed to more than 15 percent today, according to the World Bank – but surpasses 40 percent among men ages 15 to 24 and in rural areas like Kasserine, where Yahyaoui mounted his protest and took his own life.

Young university graduates and professionals also face a higher-than-average unemployment rate, which stood at about 20 percent last year.

“The region’s highest unemployment is in Tunisia, with an unofficial rate probably over 40 percent,” Professor Gerges says. “What that translates into is thousands and thousands of young men loitering on the streets,” he adds, “and left to find avenues for venting their frustrations.”

No one should be surprised, he says, at the number of Tunisians who have gone to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“Tunisia’s was the only experiment of the Arab Spring that was relatively successful, and yet official numbers indicate that between 3,500 and 5,000 Tunisians have gone to Syria – making Tunisia the largest contributor of foreign fighters to ISIS,” Gerges says. “That tells me that it’s these economic frustrations that are feeding extremism, and the thousands of [economically] inactive young men who are easy targets for groups like ISIS.”

Terrorist attacks on Tunisia’s famed Bardo Museum and a beachfront hotel frequented by foreigners have sent the country’s critical tourism industry into a tailspin, while foreign investment has plummeted in the wake of Tunisia’s revolution.

Given the international community’s focus on defeating the Islamic State, one might assume that even a relative success story like Tunisia would reap the benefits in the form of increased economic support. But if anything the opposite has occurred, experts say. International lenders, eager to see Tunisia cut its deficits, are pressing the country to cut public spending and trim services.

“The international community is not just not helping; it’s really making matters worse,” says Gerges. “The IMF [International Monetary Fund] and others are saying, ‘You have to tighten your belt,’ but right now, that’s just adding to the ranks of the jobless.”

The government is calling on Tunisians to be “patient,” with Prime Minister Habib Essid cautioning on Saturday that there is “no magic wand” to solve the country’s unemployment and other economic difficulties.

The national police answered that call for patience with Monday’s march – which they claim drew 8,000 officers, all chanting that they are “fed up” with an inability to feed and house their children.

Others are warning that what Tunisia needs is not just economic growth as usual, but an end to the economic inequalities and injustices that touched off the Arab Spring.

“My son is a victim of corruption, marginalization, and broken promises,” Othman Yahyaoui, Ridha Yahyaoui’s father, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last week. “As long as nepotism continues, others will die like him.”

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