‘The government and donors have not been able to adequately address the root causes of unemployment and hopelessness.’ Tunisian lawmakers argue in parliament on June 3. (Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

Tunisia’s Revolution is in Troubled Waters

The sole success story from the Arab Spring could be undermined by rampant unemployment

The Tunisian economy has long been ailing, but the unemployment rate rose to 15.1% in the first quarter of 2020, according to the North African country’s National Institute of Statistics, no doubt driven by the coronavirus crisis.

Joblessness is the worst in 18 months, according to Dr. Arnaud Kurze, professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. The unemployment rate for females, at 22%, is close to double that for men, which comes in at 12.3%.

The International Monetary Fund projects that Tunisia’s economy will continue a downward spiral that began last year, contracting by 3.3-4.3% in 2020.

Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Tunis, said unemployment was expected to rise to 25% for the population as a whole, and to 45% for young people. The latter group’s unemployment rate has been between 30% and 35% for nearly a decade, and is currently 34%.

“It is certainly a major threat to the stability of Tunisia and to the success of the [country’s] nascent democracy,” he told The Media Line.

Kurze agrees.

“From a sociopolitical perspective, economic crises tend to fuel instability, contentious politics and a legitimacy crisis of political institutions. Tunisia’s young democracy is no exception,” he explained.

“[The] current protests across the United States, albeit motivated by a very important factor of race relations – which is not present in Tunisia – have illustrated that the combination of pandemic-induced economic hardship and increasing inequality drive society into the streets,” he told The Media Line.

Tunisia is the lone country to emerge as a democracy from the Arab Spring, a succession of protests that started in 2010 to remove tyrannical leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of the protests were sparked by people in dire financial straits.

“The revolution was brought about in part due to high youth unemployment and a feeling of hopelessness amongst many in the traditionally marginalized areas of the country,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program who specializes in Tunisia’s politics and economy, told The Media Line.

“Unfortunately, the government and donors have not been able to adequately address the root causes of unemployment and hopelessness, and many people’s socioeconomic situation has not improved since 2011, leading to continued frustration,” she said.

Yerkes adds, however, that despite the economic turmoil, Tunisia’s political system is relatively strong.

“The democracy is quite healthy, overall,” she stated, noting, however, reports of democratically questionable moves such as detaining people who post negative comments about the government.

Amine Ghali, director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, sees things somewhat differently.

“There were no restrictions on liberties and civic spaces as a result of the coronavirus beyond what is needed for public safety,” Ghali told The Media Line.

“COVID-19 came as an additional challenge for our new government [led by Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, with Kais Saied as president], but it looks like they passed the test, especially when it comes to health,” he explained.

As of June 3, only 48 had died from the novel coronavirus in a nation of almost 12 million people.

Emiliano Alessandri, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, argues that creating jobs is key to preserving Tunisia’s democracy.

“Chronically high unemployment may erode support for democratic development by either empowering populist forces that may further polarize the country, or by deepening the sense of disenfranchisement, leading many to quietly withdraw support from the positive democratic energies that still exist in Tunisia,” he told The Media Line.

The government should increase the role of the private sector and make the job market a lot more democratic, Alessandri said.

“It should further dismantle the system of privileges and connections that was in place in the old regime, and move away from a public-sector-centered view of the economy,” he continued. “A lot has been done, but much more is needed in this direction.”

While Yerkes does not see anything the government can quickly do to improve the economy, she does recommend geographically targeted aid using local authorities.

“One thing the government could do is really focus on the traditionally marginalized interior and southern regions, where unemployment is higher and where people are angrier and feel much more distant from the central state,” she said. “Working with the democratically elected local officials to address unemployment in their communities in a way that works for their specific circumstances… would be a good start.”

Masmoudi believes the main way the government can tackle joblessness is to go after corruption and attract foreign capital.

“Corruption is a big problem in Tunisia since [1987], but the successive Tunisian governments have been unable or unwilling to stamp it down. Reducing or eliminating corruption would result in at least a 4% growth in GDP, according to most economic experts,” he said.

“Tunisia [also] needs to attract major investments and economic assistance from international investors and donors who want to help democracy succeed,” he went on. “So far, they have helped, but in a minimal way, and certainly not enough to make a difference.”

Kurze believes that continued government assistance to those hurt the worst by the crisis will help ease unemployment.

“Government-issued financial aid packages and subsidies to families who have been hit hardest, and specifically during this crisis, ought to continue for some time,” he stated. “Lastly, Tunisia, which has a large tourism industry representing around 6% of the total economy and millions of visitors each year, needs to have a conversation on how to reintegrate the over 10% of its active population who depend on seasonal work during the tourism season.”

This can be done with the help of non-governmental organizations, Kurze said.

“The social fabric of Tunisian society is built on strong civil society actors, such as unions and syndicates,” he explained. “These actors have a great responsibility, along with the country’s political leader, to steer Tunisians out of these troubled waters.”

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