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Tunisia, 10 years after the Arab Spring: a democratic success and an economic failure

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A homage to Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller whose suicide in 2010 triggered the Tunisian revolution, adorns the façade of a post office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid last December.

Riadh Dridi / The Associated Press

On January 14, 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s ousting dictator-baron for nearly a quarter of a century, knew his time was up. The self-immolation of street vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi in impoverished central Tunisia almost a month ago sparked a national uprising that had reached the presidential palace in Cartagena, in suburban Tunisia.

With the departure of power from one minute, Mr. Ben Ali dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency. At 4 p.m., with the volatile army gathering around his palace, he resigned, packed himself, his family, their nannies and any treasure they could seize in a convoy of nine cars, and headed for the airport. military El Aouina.

An hour later, his plane was gone. The Arab Spring had claimed its first strong man. Inspired by the success of the Tunisian revolution, uprisings soon began in Egypt and Bahrain. Civil wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and are not yet over in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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Tunisians applauded the exodus of Mr. Ben Ali, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2019. For the first time since the Phoenicians founded Cartagena nearly three millennia ago, Tunisia would have truly free, clean elections, a free people and a free media. Today, the country remains the only successful Arab Spring democracy and a beacon of hope for the oppressed in dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East.

However, on the 10th anniversary of the fall of Mr. Ben Alice, the Tunisian revolution is, at best, a work in progress, one that has been shaken by political instability and at worst an economic and social failure, especially for young adults, more than a third of whom are unemployed.

A Tunisian government official removes a portrait of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on January 17, 2011.

FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images

Looking back on the decade, the downfall of Mr. Ben Ali was the easy part. The Jasmine Revolution, as it is otherwise called, killed 338 people. While it was tragic, the bloodshed was relatively small compared to the first massacres in Libya, Egypt and Syria. The violent blows that the Tunisians received in the years after the revolution were terrible and each of them could have destroyed the new democracy.

Many Tunisians are desperate to the point of plotting dangerous Mediterranean crossings. Some old enough to have jobs in the last years of the Ben Ali regime say their lives were better then, even though the dictator and his friends were running a mafia state.

Ali Zarroug, 26, is unemployed and lives with his parents in Zarzis, the southern port city that is often the starting point for Tunisians linked to Italy. His people give him a few dinars occasionally, and he spends his days with his unemployed friends in the cafe. When the revolution happened, we thought the country would be better off than it was under Ben Ali, but it is getting worse every year, he said, speaking through an interpreter. In the Ben Ali era, I worked in a hotel as a waiter and was able to save money. After the revolution, tourism collapsed and nothing good happened. We did not ask [the new government] for everything, we just wanted work with dignity.

After years of doing nothing, he wants to take a boat to Italy even though he knows the trip could be fatal. He said his older brother, who worked in a gold shop in Zarzis, died while making the trip on an overcrowded raft in April 2011, in the chaos and power vacuum immediately after the revolution. He was one of about 28,000 Tunisians fleeing to Italy that year, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Mr Zarroug said he and his friends were raising money to buy their own ship and hire a captain. He is not alone in his disappointment. By 2020, almost 13,000 Tunisians made sea crossings to Italy, says IOM, five times more than in previous years. I have not benefited from the revolution, and if the situation continues like this, no one will stay in Tunisia anymore, he said.

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GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; Road map

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; Road map

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREET map contributors; HIU

Moncef Marzouki, the 75-year-old human rights activist and physician who was elected president of Tunisia in December 2011, agrees that the revolution has not yet translated into economic success, although its core democracy has been achieved. Tunisia is infinitely cheaper, but a little poorer, he said in an interview. Yes, it is disturbing, but we can achieve it. The worst would be the loss of freedom again without becoming richer.

Mr Marzouki was president until the end of 2014, overseeing the tumultuous democracy-building process that pitted Islamic and secular parties against each other and launching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights abuses since 1955. , when Tunisia was throwing its French colonial yoke.

He blames counter-revolution on anti-democratic forces inside and outside the country for Tunisia shaking economic progress. The counter-revolution did everything to introduce permanent political instability, he said. We have never been able to address the socio-economic problems occupied by repeated strikes, including teacher strikes, terrorist attacks, government crises and destabilization efforts paid for by the UAE, the financier of the Arab counter-revolution being referred to UAE and Saudi support for Tunisian parties filled with old allies Ben Ali and for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was involved in the 2013 military coup that ousted Islamic President Mohamed Morsi.

Tunisia’s then-president Moncef Marzouki, right, embraces the father of a soldier who was killed in a militant attack a week ago in July, 2014.

FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images

Beginning in 2012, Tunisia suffered a series of terrorist attacks including the beach attack in Sousse, which killed 38 people, most of them British tourists, and the Bardo National Museum attack in Tunisia that killed 22 visitors. Tunisian soldiers were hit by several savage attacks sponsored by the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Sousse and Bardo attacks. In 2013, the country was rocked by the assassinations of two high-profile, left-wing politicians; both killings blamed Islamic extremists and sparked mass protests and strikes organized by largely secret opposition parties.

The riots were reflected in Tunisia, where almost no government lasted more than two years. Since 2011, Tunisia has used five presidents, nine prime ministers, three legislative elections, two presidential elections and three interim presidents.

The good news, except that Tunisia held together, is civil society groups and free media flourished, women were given more rights The 2014 constitution guarantees equal opportunities for men and women and more than 100 parties and movements political have been born, a confusing but thriving democratic culture. In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet four civil society groups that worked hard to consolidate the countries’ democratic progress won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Protesters chanted slogans this past December 17 in Sidi Bouzid, an economically troubled region still awaiting the ransom of the revolution.

Riadh Dridi / The Associated Press

Rached El Arbi, 30, holds a photo of himself after he was shot in January, 2011, which paralyzed him. This past January 6 was the first day of his hunger strike in the Tunisian office of the Agency for Revolutionary and Wounded Martyrs, where he and others are seeking help with medical costs.

FETHI BELAID / AFP through Getty Images

The economy has been the main victim of the revolution. Economic reform, breaking the oligarchy, and ending the corruption carried by Ben Ali kleptocracy were either ignored or failed due to lack of initiative and tools. According to World Bank data, Tunisia’s gross domestic product per capita has been steadily declining since 2014. The economy is not competitive or innovative enough to create jobs, and Tunisia’s youth are disappointed. The pandemic destroyed the tourism industry, which is vital for coastal resort towns such as Hammamet and Sfax.

A recent YouGov poll found that only 27 percent of Tunisians say life is better today than it was before the revolution. Corruption was the evil that plagued the state and society and led to the revolution, Mr Marzouki said. Corruption has been stronger than any government.

Hassib Abidi, 28, an unemployed law school graduate and civil rights activist living in Jendouba, a small town in the far northwest, has had no career luck in the years after Ben Ali. The revolution succeeded on the political side but not on the social and economic side, he said through an interpreter. Political parties are doing the same thing Ben Ali did. There is a lot of corruption in providing job opportunities.

Disappointment about lack of work is not universal. Some Tunisians who left the country during the Ben Ali era but returned after he left think it is easier than ever to start a business and say established entrepreneurs will succeed. They say the opinion of many Tunisians that the government owes them a livelihood should be broken.

One such entrepreneur is Leila Ben Garcen, 51, who returned to Tunisia in 2012 after a career in biomedical engineering in Germany and Libya and recreated herself. It restored two buildings in Tunisia’s ancient Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and turned them into boutique-rich hotels that were often full before the pandemic struck. She calls herself a social entrepreneur and employs more than a dozen young adults who dropped out of high school out of frustration and boredom.

She also started a heritage consultancy called Blue Fish, chose herself as a consultant in Beni Khalled, a small town near Tunisia, and trains young people on how to start a business. I returned to Tunisia because it was a magical time to start a business, she said. It was much more open and had more equality. The system under Ben Ali was created for his family and friends. The kids know that a degree will not get them anywhere in Tunisia, but now we can build things ourselves.

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Illustration of a man writing inscriptions in Arabic From the archives: Exclamations from Arabic Sources

It started as a simple teenage rebellion but ended up tearing Syria apart, setting in motion events that continue to shake the Middle East and the world. In 2016, The Globe and Mails Mark MacKinnon re-emphasized the story of the boys whose inscriptions would make them Arab Spring revolutionaries.

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