Turmoil in Tunisia: An early warning sign that cannot be ignored

If the main tenets of the Arab Spring were manifested in freedom, democracy and human rights as a vehicle for improved livelihoods, then the signs of this potential wave are more direct, and encompassed in poverty, unemployment, mistrust and growing impatience

  
A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, holds a Tunisian flag as he sits atop the gate of the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia July 26, 2021.

A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, holds a Tunisian flag as he sits atop the gate of the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia July 26, 2021.

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
 

While dismissing the government and suspending the parliament, Tunisian President Kais Saied said: “We have taken these decisions and other decisions will be issued in the form of decrees as stipulated by the constitution until social peace returns to Tunisia.” The fact is Tunisia’s current political turmoil has been bubbling beneath the surface for months.

In late March, the country’s political troubles took a new turn. Saied laid out an invitation for a national youth dialogue, but the General Labor Union said that it had made such calls before. The union’s general secretary wanted the dialogue to include affiliated young Tunisians, adding that the president had hijacked the initiative.

The union’s priority was to address the country’s crisis before moving to governance-related solutions. The president, on the other hand, said that he would not engage in the union’s initiative before the resignation of the prime minister.

Taken at face value, this may appear irrelevant amid the recent developments. However, at its core, the fiasco between the president and the General Labor Union highlights some of Tunisia’s deeply rooted administrative issues: Competition over agency, a scramble for public support and increasing public mistrust, all of which intersect with a troubled economy.

A study by the US think tank International Republican Institute in late 2020 found that 64 percent of Tunisians believed the country needed either structural reforms and systemic change or gradual reform. Around 75 percent of Tunisians said that the national government achieved nothing of note in 2020, while 85 percent claimed that the government was doing little or nothing to address the needs of citizens, compared with 81 percent for ministries and 88 percent for parliament.

Ultimately, 87 percent indicated that Tunisia was heading in the wrong direction, a 20 percentage points increase compared with a previous poll in late 2019. By way of comparison, data from the Arab Barometer in 2011 suggests that 32 percent of Tunisians either had little or no trust at all in the government. About 26 percent of Tunisians believe that the government will be unable to resolve the country’s problems within the next five years, according to the Afrobarometer, also in 2011.

Meaning, skepticism among Tunisians in the months leading up to the current political crisis was worse than at the height of the Arab Spring demonstrations a decade ago.

Data from 2009-2011 remains alarming for both policymakers and experts. Academics produced numerous papers in the past decade proclaiming that the events of the Arab Spring were not unforeseen, as the countering camp argued. Nevertheless, more eyes were seeking early warning signs to essentially predict, and perhaps prevent, similar events from happening again.

The “had we known, we would have done better” discourse of the past decade is no longer applicable. This time, the early warning signs are clearer, louder, somewhat familiar, and perhaps much more precarious. The continued disconnect between experts, analysts and academics on one side and policymakers on the other, coupled with the inability of policymakers to comprehend the signs (or acknowledge their threat), is a strong indicator that we may witness an Arab Spring 2.0. This time, however, the outcomes might be much more destructive.

If the main tenets of the Arab Spring were manifested in freedom, democracy and human rights as a vehicle for improved livelihoods, then the signs of this potential wave are more direct, and encompassed in poverty, unemployment, mistrust and growing impatience.

Unemployment stands at around 17.8 percent in Tunisia (29 percent among youth), compared with 39.5 percent in Lebanon, 25 percent in Jordan (40-50 percent among youth), 30 percent in Libya (45.2 percent among youth), and 40 percent in Iraq. Such countries face tremendous economic crises, exacerbated by the global pandemic. Apathy is on the rise. Public confidence in governments and parliaments is in freefall.

This poses a serious threat to the social contracts, which were slightly adjusted over the past decade. With increasing levels of mistrust, and deteriorating confidence and optimism, people are becoming more wary of any proposed solution, unwilling to wait to “reap” the promised results.

Tunisia is likely to emerge out of this political crisis on its feet, aided by a strong constitution, public commitment to the success of its democracy, and a president whose words resonate with the people. But the next few months must be handled carefully and expertly.

On the other hand, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon are not supported by such strong constitutional frameworks. Their governments are unwilling or unable to resolve the economic crises, and citizens have grown alarmingly apathetic toward the usual discourse.

The global pandemic may have shattered economies in the region, but it has also somehow maintained the internal stability of many countries. Citizens have been unable to voice their contempt through large protests similar to those of 10 years ago.

The persistence of failing economies, lack of job opportunities and increasing poverty might propel people along two paths: Overlooking the pandemic and government shutdowns to vent their need for food and jobs, or finding their way into the dangerous arms of extremist and terrorist groups. The past decade showed us that both paths were taken.


Mohammed Abu Dalhoum is president of MENAACTION and a senior research analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions.

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