Tunisia, which sparked mass uprisings throughout swathes of the Arab world, is still being hailed by the Western media as the Arab Spring’s lone success story, uniting secular and Islamist political strains. Sad to say, there is just as much discontent in the country than there was prior to the 2011 revolution that deposed President Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali. People did win a new constitution and the right to participate in free and fair polls but improvements in standards of living and security are lacking.
For one thing, hard fought-for democratic freedoms are not in evidence. Emergency laws imposed in 2015 following an attack on the Bardo Museum and the killing of 38 tourists near Sousse were extended earlier this month permitting extrajudicial detentions, curfews, the banning of public gatherings and state media censorship. The security situation is fragile. Over the last three years, Tunisians and foreign tourists have been victims of terrorist incidents. There have been three this year alone. In October, a 30-year-old female suicide bomber blew herself up in the capital injuring nine. Several Tunisian guards were killed close to the border with Algeria during July. In March, two Western nationals were stabbed in the town of El Kef. Thousands of Tunisians have joined Al Qaida and Daesh, numbering more than any other nationality, writes Sudarsan Raghaven in the Washington Post who quotes a spokesman for the International Crisis Group dubbing Tunisia as the ‘land of recruitment’. Roughly 2,000 fighters have returned home where they are subject to arrest and/or surveillance.
Why young Tunisians are so vulnerable to an ideology of hate is considered to be due to dire economic straits as well as social inequality. The economy has remained in the doldrums since 2010. Heavily in debt and under pressure from the IMF that has propped up the economy with billions of dollars, the government is forced to raise taxes, make cuts to public services and fuel subsidies to reduce its budget deficit. Despite a government drive to fight corruption, the World Bank estimates corruption costs the country in the region of one billion dollars annually. November witnessed a strike by over 650,000 public sector employees demanding increased wages. Teachers are staging protests with ‘a day of rage’ scheduled for December 18. Tunisia’s GDP standing at just over $44 billion (Dh161.5 billion) is more or less the same today as it was eight years ago when economic hardship propelled Tunisians to take to the streets. Worryingly activists have taken a leaf out of France’s yellow vest movement calling for the disenchanted to join peaceful demonstrations around the nation wearing red vests.
This year unemployment has averaged at 15.40 per cent as opposed to 13.05 in 2010. Up to 30 per cent of young graduates struggle to find jobs, prompting thousands to hire people smugglers hoping for a better life in Europe. Over 3,000 crossed the Mediterranean to Italy this year alone. Many interviewed, particularly those who live in rural areas, feel marginalised and neglected.
Adding to the country’s woes is a serious rift between the President of Tunisia Beji Qaid Al Sebsi and Rashid Ghannouchi whose Islamist party Al Nahda is a member of the coalition unity government. The president has accused Ghannouchi of running a secret apparatus that launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him in 2013. Al Nahda has tried to distance itself from its ideological brethren in the Muslim Brotherhood, painting itself as an enlightened moderate party but the fact that is backed by both Qatar and Turkey is telling. Saudi journalist Mashari Althaydi asserts that “they have statements to make to the public and other statements to make within their closed circles. He maintains the ‘private secret system’ is a common behaviour by Brotherhood formations.
Members of Tunisia’s defence committee are demanding a probe into Al Nahda’s clandestine activities including alleged political assassinations. Strains in the political hierarchy could explode in the run up to next year’s elections scheduled for October and December. Let’s quit pretending there are any shining stars in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ galaxy except in the playbooks of Western countries refusing to recognise their support of political Islam (read the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates) was a failure of mammoth proportions.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.