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.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Tunisia is nothing like Russia. There are plenty of failed states around the world which are similar to Tunisia, especially in Africa, South America and the Middle East. I think you missed the point of your own post.

    Freedom doesn’t automatically mean prosperity, and prosperity matters on a daily basis. Having a more realistic understanding of that would make for better foreign policy for wealthy nations that want to help the developing world. It’s a long distance power walk, not a marathon or a sprint.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    People want results, imagine that.

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  3. Kathy says:

    “It’s far away from the social questions the revolution was raised for. Our foremost slogans were about work and dignity.”

    This is a common lament after many revolutions.

    Essentially there is a social question and a political one. The latter is mostly what motivates the intellectuals and the well-educated, and well-to-do, people who lead the revolution. The latter is used to recruit the masses. Typically the political question makes more gains afterwards, while the social question gets left behind or ignored altogether.

    Even in Haiti, where the revolutionary leaders were mostly slaves, afterwards the leaders tried really hard to keep workers at the sugarcane and coffee plantations working. Else what would become of the Haitian economy? I know little of Haiti’s history afterwards, but look at Haiti today.

    Partly the matter is that changing the political structure is easier than changing the economic one.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    I will admit to being totally ignorant about this situation, but the quoted material above doesn’t give me any feel at all for the causal link between overthrowing the old government and the economic decline. What, specifically, changed?

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  5. dazedandconfused says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Violence crashed the tourism industry, which was coming back to Tunisia in a big big way until COVID.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    It should be noted that the relationship between the crash of tourism and the Arab spring is more one of timing than correlation. What crashed the tourism industry was the Islamist attacks in the resort areas. The attacks came at a critical time during the reform period when the new government had not yet gained full control of the powers inherent in a government.

    But Tunisia’s economy hasn’t recovered and that, in part, can be blamed on the current government.

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  7. Monala says:

    @Kathy:

    From Wikipedia:

    The external debt of Haiti is one of the main factors that has caused the country’s persistent poverty. After the Haitians declared themselves free and the country independent in 1804, France demanded that the newly formed country pay the French government and French slaveholders the modern equivalent of US$21 billion for the “theft” of the slaves’ own lives and the land that they had turned into profitable sugar and coffee-producing plantations. This independence debt was financed by French banks and the American Citibank, and finally paid off in 1947.

    Later, the corrupt Duvalier dynasty added to the country’s debts, and is believed to have used the money to expand their power and for their personal benefits. In the early 21st century, and especially after the devastating earthquake in 2010, the World Bank and some other governments forgave the remaining parts of Haiti’s debts. France forgave a more recent loan with a balance of US$77 million, but has refused to consider repaying the independence debt.

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  8. Lounsbury says:

    As an actual proper investor in the region and having an actual proper office in Tunis via an affiliate, let me respond (insofar as I have done business in Tunis pre revolution and post)
    @DrDaveT: Instability.

    The Tunisian system set up around a rather oppressive control of everything – economic and political – had a certain safety valve with the Clan Ben Ali (or more his wife’s family than the Ben Ali proper), insofar as for a small bit of smoothing the License Raj (or Royaume d’Agrements) they set up would get out of the way. I speak from experience.

    The removal of the Ben Ali regime did not change the License Raj, it did degrade the (corrupt) smoothing valve. (of course it was the increasingly rapaciousness of the Halaqa’s family that set off the Revolution, insofar as the Tunis professional class and middle class joined in, else a mere fruit sellers revolt would have been crushed like earlier ones. But having bankers and lawyers in the street, along with the working class and the lumpenproletariat, calling for your head, well…).

    Add to this instability, and a rather corrupt and extortionist trade union movement along with a Labour code out 1960s France (firing someone is a bloody nightmare so usual two-tier labour market), and one has quite the recipe of failing formal sector and a stagnating informal sector as no one in their right mind hires.

    Add to this a currency regime that badly needs devaluation and has seen it in a disorderly fashion with crippling capital controls (restrictions on access to FX, for persons and companies) for Tunisians caught with their dinars on-shore, and you have more stagnation. And add to this a bonkers and flagrantly stupid FX implementation (I am paying on my capital already in country a several hundred basis point risk fee, government’s idiotic attempt to balance its hard currency issues – obviously I am not putting more EUR into Tunisia with such a mad government impose “risk fee” on my own euros).

    At the same time no party has been able to maintain any stability outside of Ennahda, producing instable, indecisive governments. Which are unable to reform even those legal and regulatory issues that have broad agreement. Partly as the economic and social liberals that might strategically ally with Ennahda (which is generally culturally pragmatic even if distastefully retrograde in their preferred vision, but not Saudi at all) are compromised by old Ben Ali Kompromat (as it was Ben Ali’s method, him coming from the secret police background) … a mess of paralysis, with some similarities to E. Europe of the 90s re the recovery from the hang-over of the Police state.

    Yeah, people are nostalgic for the better end of Ben Ali era – as the regime did a reasonable job up to its last decade.

    @Sleeping Dog: Bollocks.

    The Islamist attacks are a direct result of the Revolution in particular due to an initial naiveté on the part of Ennahda that freed a broad range of Salafist prisoners including those that ended up not being mere religious conservatives but radical reactionaries who jumped into collab with the Al Qaeda sorts. Ennahda themselves are not so bad (their economic leanings are quite recommendable in my view), but they made major errors – although one must recognize that unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood, their leadership, particularly Ghannouchi, was clear minded enough to correct.

    But it is not mere correlation, it was direct causation.

    Well reminds me of my old blogging days….

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  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Lounsbury: Thanks, that was very informative.

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