Tunisia marked the eleventh anniversary of its Arab Spring revolution on 17 December—now the official date of commemoration, tied to the outbreak of the uprising in 2010, rather than 14 January 2011, the date on which the former ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, departed. The event this year was notable for the great passion displayed in the streets of Tunis for and against the current government of President Kais Saied.
Tunisian politics since the revolution went through several phases, with Prime Ministers and coalitions shifting, but the problems the state was being asked to confront—corruption, insecurity, joblessness—remained intractable and in many cases worsened under the Islamist leadership of Ennahda, the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood. In July 2021, President Saied broke the impasse by dismissing the government and replacing the Prime Minister with a technocratic transitional figure, Najla Bouden, the first female leader the country has had.
The Brotherhood responded with a vast campaign, domestically and internationally, labelling Saied’s actions as a “coup” and it is this controversy that stirred the protests and counter-protests this month. While the pro-Saied crowds gathered to support the President’s reform program, which has had consistent robust support among the population at large, there was a contingent of Islamist protesters shouting, “the people want the coup d’état to fall”. It is notable that the police watched on peacefully as these events unfolded.
Tunisia has made some steady progress. Ennahda gave up its efforts to be restored to power via a revocation of Saied’s decree some months ago, for example, eliminating the spectre of civil war. But entrenched problems remain, and even more trivial matters, like the football, seem to have gone against Tunisia recently. In addition, everything—especially the efforts to revive the economy—has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
A notable case is the tourist industry in Tunisia, one of its most reliable sources of income in the Ben Ali years, which has been devastated in the revolutionary era: first, rocked by a series of terrorist attacks from the Islamic State (ISIS), and then shut down by the coronavirus, drying up infusions of hard currency and forcing tens of thousands of people in and around the industry out of work.
Tunisia’s unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high, around 18%, and atop the general misery that such poverty brings there has been a terrible issue with garbage piling up in the streets. It is hardly a total solution, but the advent of a recycling sector in Tunisia has begun to make a dent in both the unemployment and rubbish problems; such innovative energies in trying times might yet be put to broader use in solving Tunisia’s other issues.
Tunisia has now got a handle on the coronavirus. Five months ago, Tunisia was suffering one of the worst death rates from the pandemic in the world; now, nearly half the population is vaccinated and the other restrictive measures seem to have stabilized the situation. There have been complaints from international NGOs about the implementation of this program, though it is difficult to see what is being demanded of Tunisia other than that it exercise capacities it simply does not have.
Security has been a persistent problem for Tunisia even after the waning of the ISIS attacks. Tunisia as a main throughway for migrants and terrorists trying to get to Europe, and as a fresh crisis brews in neighbouring Libya, Tunisia could be buffeted by the fallout. On this and other fronts, help from the European Union is imperative.
The EU has welcomed Saied’s statements on the political timetable for new elections in Tunisia, but it needs to do much more to help Tunisia shore-up its economy and security situation. As Libya has shown in the last few days, without stability there can be no democracy—there can’t even be elections.