NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Mohammed Bouazizi shocked and redirected the world’s attention to Tunisia in 2011 with a bold message. As the Tunisian street vendor publicly died from a fire he set himself, it became clear the world could no longer ignore the Middle East and North Africa’s desire for democratic reform and better living conditions. Bouazizi became a martyr and a catalyst for revolution. The subsequent revolutions across the region — later known as the “Arab Spring” — called for a number of reforms, including improving economic conditions. It has been nearly a decade since the start of the Arab Spring, prompting many to ponder the effect the revolution had on poverty in Tunisia, and whether or not economic reform was successful.
Economic Dissatisfaction Led to Tunisian Revolution
Rising disapproval of then-Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali seemingly came as a shock to those who only looked at Tunisian’s overall gross domestic product. Under Ben Ali, poverty in Tunisia steadily improved. The nation gained eight points in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index between 2009 and 2011. In addition, Tunisia’s GDP grew more than 4.5% per year between 1987 and 2008,
Despite these positive statistics, Tunisians noticed a decline in their everyday lives as well as more government corruption, unemployment, and unequal wealth distribution. While many in the capital reaped the benefits of the improving economy, those in less-populated regions remained poor and underrepresented.
This rising disapproval came to a head when Bouazizi self-immolated, bringing upon a revolution that unseated Ben Ali and established the first democratic government in Tunisia. However, the economic promise that democracy offered has not quite come true, and poverty in Tunisia still widely persists.
Unemployment has not Improved
A main economic concern in 2011 involved unemployment. Prior to the Tunisian revolution, unemployment stood at just over 18%. While the national jobless rate has decreased to 15% — seemingly proving a positive outlook — certain regions have seen a stark increase. Tataouine, a region in the south, currently has an unemployment rate of 30%.
Furthermore, since the onset of the revolution, some 94,000 highly skilled workers and professionals have emigrated. Despite this “brain drain” and the opportunities for employment that one would assume it creates, unemployment for university graduates has grown from 23% to 29%.
Drew Kinney, a professor of political science at Tulane University, attributes many of Tunisia’s persisting economic issues to corruption. “One of the main rallying cries in Tunisia is ‘we got political democratization but no democratization of the economy,’” Kinney told The Borgen Project. “Corruption has actually gotten worse since the revolution because elites are essentially protecting each other.”
There has been no regulation of labor markets or attempts to stop corruption post-revolution. In addition, many elites supported the revolution only to evade high taxes that prior authoritarian leader Ben Ali imposed, and their corruption has only worsened under democratic rule — a factor that does not help to fix poverty in Tunisia after the Arab Spring
Distrust in Democracy Follows Failing Economic Conditions
Recent democratic backsliding in Tunisia — the only country in the Arab Spring to successfully democratize — calls into question how worsening economic conditions have negatively affected democracy. The failure of the new democratically elected government to fix economic conditions has had a negative effect on the government’s legitimacy and public approval. A decade after the country’s first election, democracy in Tunisia is now faltering and under threat. However, this does not come as a shock.
Economic investment and success are only concentrated in the capital of Tunis, Kinney said, and “does not factor out to surrounding areas where many Tunisians live. They are living in utter and relentless poverty. That really has not changed. A lot of these people see democracy as a repetition of the Ben Ali state.” And as the majority of the public feels no changes in their economic situation under democratic leadership, approval for democracy declines, threatening its survival.
This dissatisfaction can be physically represented. In 2013 — two years into the country’s first publicly elected presidency — 71% of Tunisians said that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” However, this number dropped to 46% in just five years. This drastic change can be attributed to a loss of trust in democracy as the government failed to fix unemployment, poverty, and corruption.
The International Labour Organization
Democracy in Tunisia faced its biggest threat yet in August 2021. President Kais Saied fired the prime minister and shut down the country’s parliament for 30 days — a move many fear is reminiscent of Ben Ali’s authoritarian ways. With democracy hanging in a delicate balance, Tunisian supporters of democracy must work to mend the economy if they are to win back the public’s support
The International Labour Organization, a branch of the United Nations, is supporting Tunisia’s economy and aiming to reduce poverty. Its plan includes several construction projects to provide employment to regions outside the capital. One example is the construction of a market in Sidi Bouzid, giving local merchants in regions as well as construction workers employment.
Despite recent democratic backsliding and an economy that has not improved since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, projects like these provide hope.
– Caroline Bersch