Why you should care

Because it’s the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.

Conversations with neighbors, taxi drivers, friends and colleagues focus mostly on mundane economic problems. “At cafés and at home, it’s the first conversation you have — the spark,” says Laryssa Chomiak, an American political scientist living in Tunis. She’s referring to the incredible rise in the cost of living that’s making it difficult for Tunisians to pay rent, buy food and simply survive.

And it’s not just inflation that worries Tunisians. Incomes are low, jobs scarce. Add to that a need for economic reforms and the specter of terrorism — three attacks in 2015 claimed 74 lives, killing tourism — and it’s easy to see that Tunisia’s one silver lining, its nascent democracy, may not stop it from being rained out by brewing storm clouds. Most experts believe the 11 million–strong home of ancient Carthage can still pull it off. But some are growing increasingly concerned that the Arab Spring’s one success story might soon become a missed opportunity.

Despite all the foreign aid and investment, some are concerned that a reversal of democracy is afoot.

A whopping 88 percent of Tunisians say economic conditions are bad, according to Pew Research. The country, meanwhile, is grappling with a 15 percent unemployment rate — a figure that more than doubles for university graduates, according to the International Labour Organization There is some money coming in from abroad. The IMF loaned $2.9 billion earlier this year to help boost job creation, and the U.S. has provided a few sets of $500 million in new loan guarantees and aid for the transition, but experts say that more is needed sooner, not later. “You still need a lot of public money, and right now the public money from Europe is going to refugees,” says Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

Tunisia doesn’t top the list because it isn’t a catastrophe. Yet. It wouldn’t take much money to turn things around, Pierini contends, but “it needs focus” and for “governments in the West to speed up their procedures” to offer support. Meanwhile, foreign investment fell from roughly $1.6 billion in 2010 to just $900 million in 2015, no doubt because of the terror attacks and fears over the slow implementation of economic reforms.

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The Tunisian Revolution as it unfolded in 2011.

Source Martin Bureau/Getty

“In terms of pure politics, I’d say Tunisia is on the road to success,” says George Joffe, a professor specializing in North Africa at Cambridge University. He notes that the Islamist Ennahda party has become a major conservative party that is willing to work alongside the secular Nidaa Tounes party. And the country is deemed to be a democratic success for having held three rounds of elections and adopting a constitution since its 2011 revolution. Another plus? The coordination between Tunisia and Western countries that’s been employed for more than a year to thwart cross-border terrorism — namely, Tunisian jihadists fleeing Libya as coalition forces crush ISIS there — seems to be working. The challenge of stopping militants from pouring over the border has “not gone away completely, but it’s a lot better than it was,” says Joffe.

In recent months, a similar collaboration has been adopted to boost foreign investment and spur job creation. Tunisia recently passed an investment code — a long-awaited must for the international community — and is hosting an investment conference next month where it will look to its international partners to deliver on financial commitments and figure out how the money will be invested. While the code isn’t perfect, GWU professor William Lawrence says, because many Tunisians would prefer social spending to codes, “it will help bring in foreign investors — there’s no question.”

Despite all the foreign aid and investment, some are concerned that a reversal of democracy is afoot. There have been no municipal elections, which were scheduled to be held earlier this year and have now been pushed back to next year at the earliest. The government says it’s committed to local elections but is caught up in procedural delays. Yet without decentralization, there’s little sense of ownership because people are not going to be in charge of their own municipal councils or have a say on local budgets, says Fadil Aliriza, Tunisia project manager at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But a more serious issue may hurt Tunisia’s democratic progress. “There’s been a whole host of economic reforms that have been passed very quickly, but in a manner that has shied away from [postrevolution] principles,” Aliriza says. From 2011 to 2014, journalists, activists and others were able to chime in, but with the latest government — installed in August — “we’ve seen a real focus on consensus.” A consensus committee is seeing agreements clinched between political elites behind closed doors without public debate. There’s “not been a lot of mobilizing of wider circles of political elites or young people,” says Lawrence, who wishes for more transparent and inclusive governance.

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Hundreds of people gathered in July 2016 to protest laws aimed at giving amnesty to officials accused of corruption.

Source Yassine Gaidi/Getty

Meanwhile, the disenfranchised joining social movements are at an uptick, Chomiak says, leading to micro-protests on an almost daily basis. They’re less concerned about codes and democratic processes than they are with social justice and reasonable wages. “I think that it would behoove the government and the international community to listen to what the widespread grievances are,” she says, explaining that the West may have misunderstood what the revolutionaries really wanted. It wasn’t just democracy; it was social equality. “What’s going on now [with civilian protests] is very reflective of what was going on those last two years under Ben Ali,” she says, referring to the prerevolution period.

The risk, of course, is that positive change and investment will all come too little, too late. With tensions bubbling and economic progress still wanting, it wouldn’t take much to push Tunisia over the edge — a terror attack, a global economic crisis that sends unemployment even higher. There are seemingly endless scenarios. “So it’s quite quick to fall off the ladder, and it’s quite slow and difficult to climb back up again,” Pierini says. And that’s an uphill battle that Tunisia, and the world, simply don’t need.

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