The Arab Spring at 10
Tunisia is freer but poorer than it was before Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act.
A decade ago, a Tunisian man set himself on fire, creating a regional ripple effect. Now, even though the country successfully overthrew a dictator for a legitimate democratic government, many believe they are worse off.
The Guardian has the sad tale (“‘He ruined us’: 10 years on, Tunisians curse man who sparked Arab spring“):
His act of despair still shakes the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit seller whose self-immolation triggered revolutions across the Middle East, has a boulevard named after him in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. In his home town of Sidi Bouzid, he is depicted in a giant portrait facing the local government headquarters.
But a decade since he set himself on fire in protest at state corruption and brutality, Bouazizi is out of fashion in Tunisia – along with the revolution his death inspired. His family have moved to Canada and cut most ties with Sidi Bouzid. “They were smeared,” says Bilal Gharby, 32, a family friend.
In Sidi Bouzid’s main street a passerby, Fathiya Iman, 54, when asked what she thinks of Bouazizi, looks to his picture across the road. “I curse at it,” she says. “I want to bring it down. He’s the one that ruined us.”
Qais Bouazizi, a cousin to Mohamed, says their surname was once a symbol of Tunisian pride. “Now the city of Sidi Bouzid and the last name Bouazizi feel like a curse,” he says.
Myths about Tunisia – cradle of the protest movements, the lone success story, flag-bearer for Arab democracy – crumble the further one drives from the country’s Mediterranean coastline into the neglected hinterlands whose rage fuelled the ousting from power of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the long-serving authoritarian president, in January 2011.
Ten years later, Tunisian is a democracy. It has withstood assassinations, terrorist attacks and the ideological gulfs of its leaders, at crucial moments pulling back from the precipice of returning to authoritarian rule, as happened in Egypt, and of civil war, as in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Tunisians are freer to criticise their leaders than before, and their elections are honest. Yet people are miserable and disillusioned, joining jihadi groups in among the largest numbers per capita of any country in the world, and making up the majority of boat-borne migrants to Italy this year.
While Tunisia is undoubtedly freer, it’s actually poorer.
For most, the revolution has been experienced as a drop in living standards. Economic growth has more than halved since 2010, and unemployment is endemic among young people, who make up 85% of the jobless. “Nothing changed,” says Ashraf Hani, 35, who saw from his kiosk across the road Bouazizi ignite himself after his produce and cart were confiscated. “Things are moving to the worse.”
Debates that occupy Tunis, such as whether women should have equal access to inheritance, or whether the presidency should be reserved for Muslims, feel remote to people in Sidi Bouzid, says Qais Bouazizi, 32. “It’s far away from the social questions the revolution was raised for. Our foremost slogans were about work and dignity.”
On the outskirts of Kairouan, a desert city an hour from Sidi Bouzid, Aisha Quraishi, 60, says the corruption that characterised the Ben Ali era still blights her life. Foreign aid was directed to the area to build small brick huts for her and other women to sell bread by the roadside. Most of the money vanished, she says, and she still works from a hovel made of wood and tarpaulin.
“We won a little freedom,” she says of Ben Ali’s overthrow. “Under him we couldn’t speak. But does this affect my life? I want freedom and dignity. Can’t I have both?”
By all accounts, the elected government is competent. But the transition to free institutions and free markets has been challenging.
Saida Ounissi, 33, a former minister with Ennahda, says implementing reforms in a free country is hard. She recalls a meeting with international consultants pushing Tunisia to float its currency the way Egypt did in 2016 to attract foreign investment. “They said it hit the [Egyptian] population quite hard in the beginning, but now after two years it’s giving results,” Ounissi recalls.
“I said to them, we can’t afford the two years,” she says. “We’re a democracy. The political power cannot take a decision knowing it’s going to be very hard for a majority of the population, because there are elections in this country. People can demonstrate.”
Foreign money also equates the commotion of democracy with risk. “We’ve seen a lot of investors going abroad, looking at places like Morocco or Egypt that are authoritarian countries and present the same cheap, skilled labour force but with less trouble, less social demands,” says Youssef Cherif, the director of Columbia University’s Tunis Centre.
Feeding off of the stagnation is a growing nostalgia for the old regime, embodied by the rightwing populist Abir Moussi, a lawyer and MP who harks back to the “stability” of the Ben Ali era and receives friendly coverage on Saudi Arabian and UAE-owned news channels.
We’ve seen that movie before, when Russia’s brief experiment with democracy turned to Putinism.