In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia stands alone. As other countries in the upheaval have splintered into civil war or returned to dictatorship, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, on its fifth anniversary, remains on a peaceful, democratic path with an elected parliament and coalition government bound by a constitution. At the same time, the specter of a weakening economy, rising violent extremism and an increasingly disillusioned public tugs at the future.

rally in tunisia
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tara Todras-Whitehill

“Five years is a reasonable time for assessment,” Tunisia’s ambassador to the U.S., Faycal Gouia, said at a joint event on Jan. 14 of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the International Republican Institute (IRI). The date marked five years to the day after the former dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country. “We have had many successes. We now have many challenges,” Gouia said.

“We have had many successes. We now have many challenges.” – Tunisian Ambassador Faycal Gouia.

The endurance of Tunisia’s new government has tremendous importance to the region and the world, U.S. Representative David Schweikert, the Republican co-chair of the House’s Tunisia Caucus, said in a video opening the discussion. People around the globe were fixated on the “national dialogue,” he said. The mediators in that process won the Nobel Peace Prize last year by defusing the 2013-2014 political crisis between Islamists and secular parties.

“There are tough obstacles,” Schweikert concluded, “but there has to be a shining beacon that comes out of the Arab Spring.”

Gouia’s tally of the revolution’s positive outcomes included three fair elections in three years; writing and implementing a “progressive” constitution with a significant role played by NGOs, civil society, parliament—in all its factions—and the media; and protecting the role and rights of Tunisian women that have long been comparatively strong and respected for the region, even before the Arab Spring.

On the other hand, the country is threatened by regional chaos, particularly the lack of security on the Libyan border, and the growth of terrorist groups, which killed 60 people, almost all foreign tourists, in attacks last year. Social peace is becoming harder to maintain as the revolution inevitably fails to meet the expectations it unleashed, Gouia said. Corruption and capricious enforcement of the law, which he pegged at “60 to 70 percent of the reason for the revolution,” is only now being tackled as civil society gains the strength to act as a watchdog. Meanwhile, the economy, damaged by terrorism and the slow pace of structural reform, can’t provide the jobs needed by a large and restless youth population.

Going in the Wrong Direction?

The upshot is that 83 percent of Tunisians believe the country is going in the wrong direction and 86 percent describe the economy as “bad” or “very bad”, according to a survey taken in Tunisia in late November on behalf of the IRI.

“Now everything relates to the economy in what people want to see,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, during the discussion. “The success or failure of this government and transition rests on economics.”

Mastic said IRI’s international research has found that the public’s patience wears out 14 to 16 months after a new government takes power—and less in times of regime transition.

According to the survey, a majority of Tunisians believe the top spending priority of the government should be to create jobs and improve living standards. 

The government faces an economy that, according to the World Bank, was forecast to grow 1 percent last year, down from 2.6 percent in 2014, a figure already lower than before the start of the protests that culminated in revolution. Official unemployment climbed to 15.2 percent, compared with 13 percent before the revolt, with youth joblessness running at about 40 percent, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Heavy majorities of Tunisians of all ages, regions and ideologies said the government has done a poor job with young people, Mastic said.

Youth Grievances

“The government needs to focus a serious national effort on combatting youth alienation and on having their grievances heard,” he said. “Young people now don’t care and aren’t listening.”

Tunisia experienced two revolutions in its Arab Spring, said Amy Hawthorne, of the Project on Middle East Democracy. The first, for a democratic system and political rights, prevailed. The second, for socio-economic rights and a better life, has not, she said.

“We have to be honest,” Hawthorne said. “Young people are very angry at the political parties.”

Reflecting on why Tunisia had singular success establishing a democracy in the region, the panelists cited its distinctive characteristics.

Tunisia’s military has never sought political power for itself and maintained that tradition—a “crucial and unusual situation for the Middle East,” Hawthorne said. The decision of the country’s political class to bring the Islamist Ennahda party into the democratic transition was also key, she said. When tensions with secular parties reached the danger point after Ennahda’s victory in the first round of elections, the Islamists stepped down and formed the first coalition government. Ennahda was willing to stand up to its electoral base and sidestep its own goals to establish democracy, a move that spoke to the quality of its leadership and the wisdom of including the Islamists in the process from the beginning, she said.

 “Consensus and pragmatism” are two traits that make Tunisia an extraordinary country, Mastic said. He also credited Ennahda’s joining the coalition as the key feature that moved Tunisia in a democratic direction.

Strength of Civil Society

The rapid growth of civil society, suddenly freed from repression, helped build momentum to support democracy, said Joyce Kasee-Mills, a senior program officer at USIP.

Despite 24 years of dictatorship, Tunisia still had many advantages, Gouia said. With a population of 11 million, the country represents an ancient culture with a great deal of cohesion. Tunisians, 80 percent of whom are middle class, are “known to be moderate,” with an exceptionally high education level for the region, he added.

Even so, according to the United Nations, more than 5,500 Tunisians, mostly between 18 and 35 years old, have joined jihadist organizations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Mali. Tunisian leaders say those recruits mostly come from impoverished communities in the interior that are plagued by rampant joblessness and political and social alienation.

An effort to shift some power to local and regional governments in Tunisia’s highly centralized system may encourage more people in the interior to engage politically, Gouia said. The government two weeks ago created a Ministry of Local Affairs, and local elections are coming.

“Decentralization is one of the keys that can unlock so many things in Tunisia economically, politically and culturally,” said Hawthorne. But, she cautioned, local officials will have no experience at decision-making and little capacity for action. “It needs to be gradual,” she said.

For all the challenges, “The good news is that Tunisia has what it takes to make this work,” Mastic and Linda Bishai, USIP’s director of North Africa programs and the panel’s moderator, wrote in a recent op-ed assessing the revolution at the five-year mark. “Inviting the public to walk down the path of economic and security reform with government decision-makers is the next stage of the Jasmine Revolution.”

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