Tunisia’s government is struggling to deal with the economic grievances that sparked last year’s popular uprising and a fresh wave of protests could threaten the country’s fragile political transition, according to a new report.
The Islamist-secular coalition running the government needs to do more to address rising unemployment, regional economic discrepancies and corruption, says the latest International Crisis Group.
“It so far has been unable to address them rapidly enough and is failing to quell the impatience of workers and unemployed youth who expect to reap the fruits of their involvement in past struggles,” said the report, Tunisia: Confronting Social and Economic Challenges. “Economic grievances are churning right below the surface. They could once again reach full boil.”
Tunisia has the best prospects for securing a democratic transition, say analysts (indeed, some experts suggest such a transition has already occurred), but the government risks losing legitimacy is it fails to deliver on the socio-economic grievances that provoked the anti-authoritarian revolt.
“Under a veneer of normalcy, economic grievances are festering”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “The economic and social problems that sparked the uprising a year and a half ago are not adequately discussed and could boil over again”.
Growing tensions between militant Islamists and secular democrats are feeding a sense of insecurity and undermining the authority of the country’s political institutions.
“The state has failed to restore its authority in several regions — indeed, it appears to be limping along ever since the dissolution of the omnipotent former ruling party. Corruption persists and provokes discontent and indignation,” the report adds:
A succession of caretaker governments has maintained a relative economic peace by resorting to emergency measures, but the situation inherited by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s government requires more drastic action. Tunisians of all stripes are expressing growing resentment that could disintegrate into a situation of every man for himself.
Many urgent tasks are at hand. Corruption persists and provokes discontent and indignation. Local economic and political relations are being restructured in sometimes dubious and opaque ways. This is happening in places where the central state – at times limping since the dissolution of the former ruling party – has failed to restore its authority. Likewise, the government so far has been unable to adequately curb corruption, local violence related to the redistribution of power, or the proliferation of smuggling networks which fuel inflation. Its margin for manoeuvre is constrained, caught between bureaucratic inertia, popular sit-ins and protests, political questioning of its legitimacy and a depressed global environment.
To restore socio-economic stability, the state must address popular demands without stirring up new ones that will further undercut the private and public sectors’ ability to function effectively. It needs to maintain an increasingly fragile peace, keep a complicated transition on track and regain the confidence of local communities, where people measure progress primarily in terms of material well-being. All of which must be done in an increasingly polarised political environment.
“The principal social and political forces are not itching for a political showdown”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “The various parties appear to accept democratic rules of the game and are seeking to reposition themselves on the political playing field in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections. But the risk is that socio-economic insecurity and instability could snowball into a legitimacy crisis for the government and undermine the largely peaceful political transition underway”.
New York University’s Brademas Center has launched a website devoted to the Arab Revolts.
John Brademas, a former chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy National Endowment for Democracy, was a recipient of the NED’s 2001 Democracy Service Medal.