Matthew Herskowitz || September 8, 2016
The Arab Spring redefined the meaning of a revolution in the 21st Century. In 2011, a crescendo of demonstrations and protests ranging from the subtlety of picket signs to the severity of mass killings plunged 16 nations into near chaos and social upheaval. All of them have been considered failures. Except one.
Tunisia underwent its formal “Arab Spring” in December of 2010, when demonstrations and popular instability threatened to destroy the regime of’ Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali, the country’s president. After scuffling to churn out as many false promises to his people as possible, Ben Ali fled the country with his family. This marked the first popular uprising and successful overthrow since Iran’s Jasmine Revolution in 1979. It’s been hailed as a powerful democratizing move. Although popular and widely touted as the Arab Spring’s sole success, how successful is Tunisia 5 years removed?
The answer is complex. Foreign Policy writes that the nation is democratizing in an unprecedented way. “Tunisians have chosen parliaments and presidents in three rounds of national elections and adopted a new constitution that guarantees citizens a broad array of rights and freedoms. They’ve exulted in the newfound freedom to organize, agitate, and express opinions, and basked in the attention accompanying a Nobel Peace Prize.” So, Tunisia seems legit, right? Obviously, the second a country holds an election it automatically attains democratic immortality and everyone holds hands and sings Kumbaya.
Well, this is how us “Westerners” often paint democracy. When we read that a country has “democratized” as you might often see or read in your daily news cycle, you imagine that the government immediately recognizes individual freedoms and becomes as transparent as glass. I argue that this is an ignorant and dangerous way to look at the state of Tunisia’s deceptively fragile society. We overlook the fine print: the fact that police are bribed by drug cartels for practical immunity while honest work is nearly impossible to come by.
Labels are misleading, Tunisia’s road to democracy is so long and winding that many will starve or perish on the way, or worse: leave to fight in Syria. Since 2013, Tunisia has had the largest export of foreign fighters to the Islamic State and has scores of disenfranchised and restless inhabitants joining other groups like the Al-Nusra front, Hamas, and even Libyan militants. The problem lies in corruption that has crippled Tunisia’s economy. Low wages due to instability pushed the unemployment rate to 15.3%. That doesn’t sound like much, but to put it in perspective, that’s a 50% increase since the Arab Spring. The problem is that communities in remote parts of the country with low funding become hotbeds for terrorism, and the war on terror is fostering anti-Western hatred among the youth in much of Tunisia. The problem is that rather than trying to incorporate young Muslims in the workforce, the Tunis government is cracking down on their Muslim population in a brutal and counter-productive way, mass arresting scores of people with “rudimentary” intelligence.
The key to progression in Tunisia starts with national security. Tourism is dead due to growing radicalism and instability; specifically, the devastating Bardo Museum attacks that left scores dead in 2015. From 2011-2015, the government has done little with its vast wealth from agriculture and tourism to invest in protective measures like border security and policing. Corruption probes are a long shot due to powerful drug cartels that keep politicians placated with money. The time is now for the Tunisian government to act as they teeter on the brink of another anarchical social upheaval. One promising political progression that can lead to economic action is the decrease in political gridlock. The Tunis parliament must start to pass crucial reforms that would increase funding to intelligence agencies instead simply demonizing the country’s Muslim populace, while enfranchising impoverished communities where people don’t have to pick between joining a cartel, fleeing to Syria, starving, or being killed. This economic stimulus, specifically investing in education and infrastructure projects that would create jobs, would bring back stability in an unstable land. It would also bring back Tunisia’s third largest industry: tourism.
The fact that many deem Tunisia to be the Arab Spring’s “success” shows us that many believe that countries in the Middle East and North Africa are somehow hopeless, and any sign of progress is unbelievable. Yet, Tunisia, with all it has overcame as a nation, faces the same obstacles that every country has faced in its formation. With a new constitution, many are hopeful of Tunisia return to the similar prosperity it had in the 80s. Foreign policy experts and history buffs are right about one thing: If Tunisia, with the help of the international community, agrees to crack down on corruption as a prerequisite to further reform, they will truly become the Arab Spring’s sole “success”.