North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia: a year of all dangers

Tunisia is both the pioneer of the Arab spring and its greatest success so far. But even here the political and economic tests are acute, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
6 February 2012

If the Arab awakening of 2010-11 is to produce a true success in 2012 and beyond, it must be in Tunisia. The Tunisian revolution was the most "peaceful" among the wave of revolutions that spread from north Africa to the middle east over the past year. The toll of 300 dead there is a tragedy, but by comparison with the catastrophic war in neighbouring Libya (with its around 50,000 casualties) or the relentless killing in Syria, the process of change was remarkable for its restraint.

The ongoing turmoil in Egypt, where the army remains in control and killings continue, also makes the Tunisian case - in which the army withdrew to leave space for political forces after helping to end the twenty-three-year domination of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - look exemplary.

Tunisia post-revolution period has also been impressive, in two ways: the election of a constituant assembly in a free and fair manner, and the capacity of the rival major political currents (Islamists and secularists) to overcome initial polarisation and establish a coalition government to lead the country through a period of transition.

Tunisia's demographic and social realities are an asset here. Its population of 10.5 million is stable and relatively well educated (with a literacy-rate of 75%), and the country has decent infrastructure and a diverse economy that avoids dependence on a single revenue source (often a factor contributing to instability).

These conditions suggest that Tunisia could in 2012 build on the revolution's achievements to move towards a stable, democratic state with a competitive political sphere, where the rule of law is the reference-point and politics serves the interests of the citizens. To make this happen, however, the country needs to overcome two sets of problems: political and socio-economic.

A pressured politics

In the political arena the Islamist-secular polarisation continues, amid an overall impression that the current coalition is in effect a government led by the (Islamist) al-Nahda party. The pre-election period suggested how easily political debate can be hijacked into an "identity discussion" dominated by the aggressive forays and manufactured controversies of radical Salafi groups. The attack on a private television company after its broadcast of the Iranian animated film Persepolis, and the issue of the right of women students to enter universities wearing the niqab, are examples. Tunisian today is not threatened by outside forces, and any attempt to use such diversions to conquer the political space will be at the expense of the real issues the country faces.

But even more challenging are the expectations of the constitutional assembly that was elected on 23 October 2011. The assembly is supposed to develop a new constitution and electoral law that opens the way to new elections. The coalition formed within the assembly on 19 December shares executive power between the president (the secularist Moncef Marzouki) and the more powerful prime minister (al-Nahda's Hamadi Jebali).

In other words, the constitutional assembly is overloaded with three functions: writing a new constitution, serving as a legislature (and deciding whether the country’s political system will be at heart presidential or parliamentary), and acting as an executive. The post-revolution government of technocrats did a good job, by all accounts, but the forces now in command of the constitutional assembly seem to be in a hurry both to define the future rules of Tunisia's political game and to exercise them immediately.

In the election campaign, most contending groups promised that the constitutional assembly would finalise the new constitution within a year, thus clearing the way to new elections. Since the assembly opened, this timescale has not been ratified, leaving the possibility that it continues beyond the one-year limit. Mouna Dridi, an expert on constitutional law, thinks that the assembly will need longer. "In 1953, the previous constitution - written under Habib Bourguiba, when there was only one political power - took three years to write a constitution. So it will be hard to do it sooner in a country with competing visions and political movements", she says.

The fact that the coalition forces in the constitutional assembly now hold executive functions is another factor arguing for an extended period to draft the constitution. Tunisians are highly sceptical towards anyone in power, and the former Islamist-secular schism is already being replaced by a ruling coalition-opposition one. The nomination as minister of foreign affairs of Rafik Abdessalem - the son-in-law of Rachid Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's leader - provoked much criticism, with some Tunisians saying that his family connection was his only qualification. The signs that the country will enter a political crisis within a year are growing.

A straitened economy

The economic problems are even more serious. The number of unemployed is officially 800,000, though the real figure could be up to a million. The absence of precise statistics is a legacy of the old regime, which peddled fantasy figures then swallowed whole by the IMF and other international bodies. The revolution created unfulfilled expectations among young people, who hoped that their social problems would be rapidly solved, and much uncertainty and upheaval.

The expression dégage - reflecting the instinct of workers, trade-unionists and unemployed youth to challenge bosses and authorities after years of repression - is on everyone's lips. The effects of such dégagisme are felt in a stand-still of the economic cycle, from the production of phosphate (one of Tunisia's major products) to even more vulnerable small and medium-sized enterprises. Since January 2011, as many as 153 foreign companies have halted their activities in the country.

The tourist minister said in December 2011 that this important sector had witnessed an annual fall of "only" 55%. He considered this positive on the grounds that the expectation was a 70% drop. The war in Libya was another major problem, for it hit both Tunisia's industrial exports and the incomes and remittances of 200,000 Tunisian workers who had to be repatriated.

In addition, the state administration lacks order and independent accounts suggest that corruption in the bureaucracy has not been reduced. In most post-revolution countries, revenues liberated from corrupt networks form a major resource for the new authorities; this is a major test for Tunisia. In short, the country will go through a difficult economic year before things can start getting better.

A regional twist

There is a further Tunisian problem that unites politics and economics: a regional one. The elections of October 2011 show that the current political forces represent the cities and coastal regions, but are absent from the countryside which is most devastated by the economic downturn. It was the hard-hit Tunisian hinterland which initiated the revolution - and incidentally the entire "Arab spring". Today, its regions are evolving outside the political space that is taking shape in the capital, Tunis.

Tunisia thus faces a tough economic and political year. The country will need great leadership skills to address its problems. A failure to do so will increase the temptation to regress to identity debates that will serve only to polarise further an already irritated society.



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