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Farmer Mohammed Jamee hoped Tunisia’s revolution in 2010 would open up opportunities for his five children. Instead, times only got tougher. In late 2012, he moved to Tunis to find work, part of a growing urban migration from the struggling outer provinces. Today he earns $8 a day as a laborer and sends the money home.
“What good are freedoms when your daily life is worse and you can barely eat?” he says.
Tunisia’s peaceful democratic revolution in 2010 was led by a cross-section of rights activists, lawyers, Islamists, and leftists, most of whom had been oppressed and jailed by the prior regime. Their singular focus: institutions that prevented the return of a dictatorship. But after ousting a dictator, ratifying a constitution, and holding elections, they’re learning perhaps the toughest lesson in politics: It’s the economy, stupid.
The parties’ neglect of the economy was summed up by Rachid Ghannouchi, a political philosopher and leader of the Islamist party Ennahda who is running for parliament. “For decades we were ... struggling for freedoms and liberty,” he said in September. “Now all of a sudden we have to become economists, something we never even had time to think about.”
Less than a decade after leading a revolution that rocked the Middle East and inspired democratic uprisings across the Arab world, Tunisia’s revolutionaries are changing their tune.
Years of inflation and joblessness have led many Tunisians to begin losing their faith in politics, even the revolution itself. To win them over, liberals, Islamists, and human rights activists are preaching jobs, investment, and economic growth in private, on the airwaves, and on the campaign trail.
After ousting a dictator, ratifying a constitution, holding elections, and overcoming Islamic State, Tunisia’s freedom fighters are learning perhaps the toughest lesson in politics: It’s the economy, stupid.
Tunisia’s peaceful democratic revolution in 2010 was led by a cross-section of human rights activists, lawyers, Islamists, liberals, leftists, and socialists, most of whom had been oppressed and jailed by the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Their singular focus was a constitution and institutions that prevented the return of a dictatorship and guaranteed individual rights such as freedom of speech, housing, and a living wage.
Yet while the democracy they built withstood political infighting, interference by Gulf Arab powers, and security crises brought by ISIS and civil war in neighboring Libya, Tunisia’s economy never got back on track under their watch.
Since 2016 alone, the Tunisian dinar has depreciated 40% against the euro (the currency of Tunisia’s major trading partners France and Italy), inflation has been at 8% annually, and the cost of living has increased by over 30%.
Joblessness – the cause that led a young Tunisian man to set himself on fire and sparked the 2010 revolution – persists, with unemployment at 15.4%. Hundreds of young Tunisians risk their lives annually, setting out to Europe by boat.
With dissatisfaction rising and an increasing drift toward populism, political parties have brought in Western-educated economists and talked up jobs for both rounds of this year’s presidential campaign as well as the parliamentary elections this weekend.
The parties’ neglect of the economy was perhaps best summed up by Rachid Ghannouchi, the 78-year-old political philosopher and leader of the Islamist party Ennahda who returned from exile to help lead the democratic revolution.
“For decades we were in the opposition to a dictatorship, struggling for freedoms and liberty,” Mr. Ghannouchi, who is running for parliament, said in a meeting with foreign press in September.
“Now all of a sudden, we have to become economists, something we never even had time to think about.”
Pitch to voters
This shift can be seen in Sidi Hassine, one of the working-class Tunis neighborhoods that were the heartland of the revolution and where marginalization drove residents to revolt against Mr. Ben Ali.
On Wednesday, days ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, parties crisscrossed the neighborhood’s street markets and winding alleyways, canvassing with their new economic pitch.
Much of the time, they were on the defense.
At a rally in a neglected park of sand and rusted swing sets, Ennahda pumped revolutionary pop songs through loudspeakers and then opened by citing stats about their short stint as the sole party in power from 2011 to 2013.
“I know what you say: What have you politicians done for us?” a speaker said to a few dozen supporters and 100-odd passersby.
“Let me tell you, when we were in government, the Tunisian economy was never better post-revolution; unemployment was at its lowest, and economic growth was 3.6%,” he told the crowd. “Remember those days?”
Across from the park, a dozen men and women sat on the curb for their nightly gathering to gossip and escape the heat in their windowless apartments, unmoved by the campaigners’ outreach to voters such as Mohammed Jamee.
A farmer who lived off his modest, several-acre plot of land in a village outside Kairouan, 100 miles south of Tunis, Mr. Jamee had hoped the revolution would open up opportunities for his five children.
Instead, times only got tougher. With inflation and the decline of the dinar, he could no longer afford to rent the farm equipment and tractors he used to sow and harvest his wheat.
In late 2012, he moved to Tunis to find work, leaving his family behind, part of a growing urban migration from the struggling outer provinces.
He now lugs sacks of cement and brick on his bony shoulders as a day-laborer, earning $8 for 12-hour days, sending the money home.
“Before the revolution, in Ben Ali’s days, lamb cost 7 dinars ($1.50) a kilogram. Now it is so expensive we only meat on the holidays,” he says.
“What good are freedoms when your daily life is worse and you can barely eat?”
Frustrations on the street reveal deep structural problems in Tunisia’s economy, masked for decades by the former dictatorship and pushed aside by revolutionaries consumed with forging their new democracy.
As part of the socialist legacy of modern Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourguiba, the government is burdened with dozens of state-owned companies saddled with debt and bleeding millions of dollars each year, such as a tobacco company, paper mill, and railways.
The government employs more than 650,000 workers and spends 15.5% of its annual budget on employees – one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Due to the dominance of French and Italian companies, Tunisia long neglected or ignored trade ties with the rest of Africa, Asia, and North America. There are not even direct flights to America, Asia, or much of Africa.
Islamist Ennahda proposes a Scandinavian-style model by opening state companies for private investment to “run them like private companies,” with the state retaining a share, and transforming Tunisia into a logistics hub and gateway to Africa.
The Democratic Current, the party of Mohammed Abbou, a human rights activist and a drafter of the constitution, focuses on boosting regional investment in marginalized towns and provinces and local small businesses.
Other Tunisia, led by Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist who served as Tunisia’s post-revolution interim president, proposes tackling mismanagement, corruption, and “government waste” to free up funds for a social safety net and vocational training for young Tunisians.
But any attempts to reform the economy must run through Tunisia’s powerful unions, which provided the legwork for the 2010 revolution and resist any attempts to touch state-owned companies.
Just in January, the unions brought the nation to a standstill by disrupting airports, rail, and schools when the government earmarked $400 million for employee raises in 2019 – half of the unions’ demand of $800 million.
“We need to have a national discussion on what our economy should look like,” says Khalil Amiri, Ennahda economic adviser and deputy minister of scientific research. “After the revolution, we were building institutions from the ground up. Now everyone is ready for that long overdue debate.”
As Tharaya Hamrouni, an Other Tunisia candidate, went door to door in the alleyways in Sidi Hassine, residents were almost accusatory as they listed other kitchen-table issues: combating drugs, climate change, and violence in Tunisia’s schools.
“Our schools aren’t safe anymore!” shouted Kamal Sini, recounting a recent knifing at a nearby high school that killed a student. “You send your children to school and you pray to God they come home safe.”
His wife, Fatma, pushed a leaflet back into the candidate’s hand. “We revolted for a better and dignified life, and the only people who have a better life are you lot.”
“This is a political transition, and yes, we focused at first on freedoms,” Ms. Hamrouni appealed, calmly.
“But now the real work begins, and if we don’t work together, our revolution is lost.”