Although the Arab Spring, a wave of uprisings that rocked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, brought down several autocratic regimes, it ultimately resulted in a renewed era of authoritarianism in Egypt and civil wars and humanitarian crises in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Tunisia, however, withstood these problems, mainly because it peacefully transitioned into a democracy. Because of this, Tunisia is often seen as a success story in contrast to all the countries in which the Arab Spring took place. But after 11 years, one wonders whether Tunisia has actually reaped the fruits of the Arab Spring. In other words, did the Arab Spring succeed in Tunisia, or did it fail to bring about the long-lasting and systemic political and economic changes that Tunisians hoped for?
Tunisia after the Arab Spring: Towards Democratization
After 23 years in power, the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime came down in 2011 after the people took to the streets in protest of Ali’s authoritarian policies. While a positive change, Ali’s departure undoubtedly caused uncertainty about Tunisia’s future. Yet Tunisians were determined, despite their different political views, to democratize their political system. For instance, in the early years after the revolution, Tunisia witnessed political polarization between Ennahda, the modern Islamist party that formed the first government after Ben Ali by winning 41% of the popular vote, and opposition parties. The drafting of a new constitution and the assassination of notable politicians were among the issues that parties were divided on.
However, believing that unity of political parties is necessary for the success of any democratic transition, Ennahda chose to cede power in 2013 and call for new elections, which it lost to the secularist party Nida Tunis. This prevented the cleavage from growing and ensured that Tunisia was still on the path towards democracy. Ultimately, Tunisia managed to hold the first free presidential election in its history and adopt a new constitution. The constitution divides power between the president and prime minister and grants Tunisians, among many things, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and equality between men and women.
What is also unique about Tunisia after the Arab Spring was the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission. The commission’s mandate was to investigate cases of corruption and human rights abuses that had been hidden since 1955 and find solutions for victims through accountability and reconciliation. The commission received more than 62,000 cases, some of which were referred to special courts in order to bring perpetrators to justice. These achievements show that Tunisia succeeded, in the short run, to build a democratic system based on power-sharing and making people’s voices heard. Therefore, “if any of the uprisings is to have a happy ending,” as scholar James Gelvin amply puts it in his book, The Modern Middle East, “the Tunisian uprising is the most likely candidate.”
The Prevailing Issue of Economic Stagnation
It is worth noting that democracy was not the only thing that Tunisians hoped to achieve, and Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, which is credited with initiating the Arab Spring, clearly demonstrates this. People rose up against corruption and economic inequality; they demanded dignity and better living conditions by shouting across their country’s streets “We need bread. We need money.”
However, the Arab Spring did not lead to positive economic changes in Tunisia. In a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute in 2020, 72% of the respondents described the economic situation in their country as “very bad.” This is because the country, since the end of the revolution, has been suffering from fiscal deficits and rising public debt and inflation rates. Amira Souissi, a nurse and mother of four, laments that the cost of living is so high that her monthly salary of $350 USD is insufficient to meet her basic needs.
Unemployment is another critical issue that the Arab Spring did not bring solutions for. While Tunisia had an unemployment rate of 13.29% in 2009 under Ben Ali, that has increased to 17.8% in 2021. Tataouine, a city in the south, has an abundance of natural resources, yet 30% of its population is unemployed. According to Drew Kinney, a political science professor, corruption is one of the main reasons why unemployment still persists. This is because Tunisia experienced “political democratization but no democratization of the economy.” Due to unemployment and price increases, the World Bank estimates that 20.1% of Tunisia’s population of 11.7 million are poor or vulnerable to poverty.
This economic stagnation has been aggravated by COVID-19. As of February 17, 2022, there have been 974,214 confirmed cases of the virus and 27,295 deaths, making Tunisia one of the most hard-hit countries in Africa by the pandemic. Worse still, the health system has fallen short of dealing effectively with the pandemic because of the lack of resources like beds and oxygen. Tunisians gained rights and freedoms after the revolution, but they also want their material demands to be met, including health care, education, housing, and decent income. As the 60-year-old bread seller, Aisha, expresses, “We won a little freedom. Under [Ben Ali] we couldn’t speak. But does this affect my life? I want freedom and dignity. Can’t I have both?”
Democracy Being Dismantled
Even the political progress that Tunisia made after the revolution seems to be eroding. The Truth and Dignity Commission has not lived up to its expectations, mainly because it faced resistance from some members of the old regime, who attempted to prevent the cruel acts that had been hidden for years from getting exposed. Furthermore, Tunisia has been in political turmoil after a series of undemocratic decisions made by President Kais Saied in response to the unfortunate economic and health situations. Saied has dismissed the government, frozen parliament, asserted control over the public prosecutor office, launched a campaign of arresting some of his critics, and dissolved a top independent judicial council. The president also contended that Tunisia’s constitution is “not eternal” and would be subject to amendments.
Saied’s decisions have been celebrated by many Tunisians and considered necessary for combating the problems the country has been grappling with. For other Tunisians, what Saied has done is, by all means, a self-coup. In concentrating more power in his hands, Saied dismantled Tunisia’s democratic system and undermined the past efforts to build it. “Tunisia was supposed to be a success story in the Arab world. But it is no longer a success story,” stated Monsef Marzouki, who served as Tunisia’s interim president from 2011 to 2014.
Was the Tunisian Revolution Successful?
Saied’s decisions, in addition to the glooming economic situation, have made the future of Tunisia more uncertain than ever. Yet what is certain is that the Arab Spring in Tunisia, like in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, failed to completely bring about a sustainable political and economic change. Many Tunisians hoped that the Arab Spring would achieve their dreams of having freedom and making a living. This is what people like Bouazizi sacrificed their lives for. It is clear, nonetheless, that the Arab Spring left the dreams of many Tunisians, like Aisha and Amira, unfulfilled.