Tunisia stands at a crossroad today. Five years after Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation on December 17, 2010 sparked the onset of the Arab Spring, the Middle East remains in a seemingly perpetually tumultuous and uncertain period. In the midst of the Middle Eastern instability, Tunisia has managed to remain a remarkable success story with its progress toward democratic transition. It has a two-year-old constitution widely regarded as progressive and egalitarian that encourages decentralized and transparent governance. The country’s first parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring were held in October 2014 followed by presidential elections in November of the same year; two major milestones in transition to a democratic state. However, the country has been facing growing security and unemployment challenges, two very serious issues for the young Arab democracy.
Dr. Tawfik Jelassi is Professor of Strategy and Technology Management at the Institute for Management Development (IMD) school of Business Lausanne, Switzerland. He was also the Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research, and Information & Communication Technologies in the transition government of Tunisia. Dr. Jelassi talks about Tunisia five years after the Arab Spring.
What follows is based on a French-language interview carried out on Swiss Radio and presented to ForeignPolicyConcepts for Canadian and wider English speaking audiences.
What comes to your mind when you think back to five years ago in Tunisia?
It was very moving. Millions of Tunisians never thought they would see a regime change and the end of Ben Ali’s dictatorship that lasted 23 years. All of us Tunisians were enthusiastic and completely behind the objectives of the Jasmine revolution, which was also a revolution for our freedom and dignity. It was very noble. We thought we were going to build a new open, democratic and prosperous Tunisia.
What do you think about how the Tunisian model is seen as the only Arab spring revolution that succeeded?
For me, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in October 2015 to Tunisia–thanks to dialogue and consensus between the political parties and national organizations– shows that the country was able to overcome many of the obstacles it faced starting on the 14th of January 2011. Because of our rich history, culture and a well-developed educational system, Tunisians were able to undergo a transition without taking up guns but by sitting down at the negotiation table. We were able to arrive at a consensus, which we call the national dialogue’s road map. Tunisia was also able to successfully put in place a non-partisan, technocratic government in order to finalize the democratic transition in the country.
A lot of hard work remains. What are the biggest challenges for Tunisia?
The first challenge is economic. The country’s economic machine is out of order so to speak. Today, Tunisia is in recession with zero growth. This won’t help create the 80,000 new jobs needed to employ the country’s university graduates, without getting into what to do with the 800,000 people who are currently unemployed. Actually, tackling unemployment was one of the goals of the revolution. Purchasing power, especially for the less-fortunate parts of the society, needs to improve. We need to attract investment and reduce the development inequality between the different regions of the country. The revolution started in Sidi Bouzid, in the inlands where there is still a lot of poverty. All of the interior regions are now asking themselves if they made a lot of sacrifices to bring about revolution only to have less buying power, more unemployment, more insecurity and more terrorism. What are the benefits of this revolution for them? They see their day-to-day lives as having gotten worse rather than better.
If all that has changed is that there is more unemployment and extremism, is there any hope left?
The revolution was led by the youth and not by political parties. These youth were getting desperate. Scores of graduates who have done extensive studies can’t find work. Young people are not self-immolating anymore like Mohamed Bouazizi who sparked the revolution on December 17th, 2010. Now many of the youth are looking to join extremist groups, the Islamic State in Syria or terror cells in Lybia. There is a lot of desperation. The country is breaking down.
Is the government up to the security challenge?
The security situation is making Tunisia very fragile. There have been recently a number of major terror attacks. One at the Bardo national museum killed around 20 people including many tourists. One at a major hotel in Sousse had around 40 victims. There was also an attack in November on the presidential guard which had 12 victims. All of this happened within 8 months! Tourism, which is one of the top income generators for the country, has drastically declined. About 190 hotels have closed down and hundreds of thousands of people are affected by the drop in tourism. Security is the basis for development. If the country is not safe, there will be no international or even local investors. I tend to think that the government could be up to the challenge but it needs to do better. The growing number of terrorist attacks shows that there are some gaps in the security system. The country’s intelligence services didn’t see these attacks coming. The November attack took place just a hundred meters away from the Minister of the Interior in the center of the capital city.
What are the positive things that have been gained five years after the revolution?
Tunisians have won freedom. Under Ben Ali, we couldn’t talk, organize meetings, or create political parties or associations. Today we can do all of that. Media freedom, political freedom and personal freedom are big advances for Tunisia. But some people are asking if this freedom is worth having less purchasing power and more unemployment, terrorism and insecurity on a day-to-day basis. I personally think it’s worth it, but that Tunisia is going through a difficult phase in its transition process. I’m not very optimistic about the next couple of years. Economically, Tunisia has to pay back its international loans while it doesn’t have any growth. And with the tourism sector on its knees, how can the country cope? However, I am more optimistic about the medium to long-term though we have a couple of tough years ahead of us.