Tunisia’s sluggish economic recovery is spurring a growing number of strikes and protests, with the discontent compounding the ruling Islamist party’s woes amid a political crisis and growing insecurity, Agence France Presse reports:
Public offices, businesses and entire regions have since the summer been staging walkouts and demanding pay rises, extra staff, hospitals and development projects — adding to a sense of growing turmoil in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring. The number of working hours lost through strikes rose by 71 percent in October compared with September…On Wednesday alone, workers unions and civil society groups called general strikes in three regions — Siliana, Gabes and Gafsa.
“Clearly the economic situation today is very difficult and cannot support this level of strikes,” said Ezzedine Saidane, an independent economist.
He attributed the economic difficulties primarily to the political crisis, which has dragged on for months in the absence of any agreement between the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and its secular opponents on the formation of a non-partisan transitional government, AFP reports…. For two years now, Ennahda has repeated promises of public spending and recruitment to meet the country’s social demands, constantly resorting to loans to fulfil its commitments, an option that is becoming increasingly difficult.
“When you look at the draft budget, you can see that 40 percent is allocated to salaries, 40 percent to debts and subsidies (on essential goods) and just 20 percent on social and economic development.”
Tunisia offers perhaps the last hope for Arab Spring democracy; only in the small nation that inspired revolts from Cairo to Tripoli has the negotiating table won out over the gun, so far, Reuters reports:
A fragile political balance could yet be upset by infighting, economic malaise or the threat of violent militants determined to stamp their fundamentalist view onto the Arab World’s most secular nation.
“We had five revolutions in the region and the others faced so many obstacles. Tunisia’s is the last hope,” Islamist party chief Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters. “We have conflict here, but we fight with words, with courts and laws, not bullets.”
In some quarters, the instability is prompting calls for a return to the stability of autocratic rule.
“The security situation makes a lot of people nervous, because they are used to the eerie stability of a police state, in which nothing really ever happened,” says Oxford University analyst Monica Marks. “But, for average, Tunisians this is a fragile situation, but it’s also a frightening situation. And that kind of fear and feeling of instability I think, make people very vulnerable to these discourses of stability, of authoritarianism bringing more stability.”
The national dialogue allows Ennahda, by maintaining control of the National Constituent Assembly, to avoid the risks of leaving power, as happened in Egypt, analyst Hala al-Youssoufi writes for Al-Monitor:
The opposition, with Nidaa Tounes at the forefront, managed to get the resignation of Islamists from the government, which enables the opposition to return to power through the so-called new “independent” government, where the balance of power will work better for it. However, the basic question is: What did the Tunisian people get in return for all of this?
“Even with the protests, with tens of thousands of people we never saw one glass broken,” said Noureddine Ben Ticha, a Nidaa Tounes leader. “But the future of the country is very worrying. All the elements of a social explosion are there.”
Arab Spring process is reversible
“Maybe Tunisia is becoming a model for dealing with the difficulties of a democratic transition. In Egypt they failed,” said Lotfi Zitoun, a senior Ennahda official. “Before Egypt, we thought the Arab Spring process was irreversible… In Egypt we saw it can be stopped.”
But Ennahda has not been immune to growing mistrust, AFP reports, with some party members criticizing government decisions, such as where to locate five new university-linked hospitals.
Zitoun, an advisor to former Islamist prime minister Hamadi Jebali, called the failure to invest in the regions of Gafsa and Gabes a “clear example of the dubious work of the government … in the context of political instability and difficult economic circumstances.”
“It will revive accusations of nepotism and regional favoritism,” he wrote in a scathing post on his Facebook page.
Civil society, notably in the form of Tunisia’s powerful labor movement, is keeping the dialogue process alive.
“We are currently pressuring them to convince them to reach a consensus in order to save Tunisia,” says Kacem Afaya of the UGTT union that is mediating negotiations between the two parties. He is worried about the consequences of not reaching a deal, PBS reports.
“It is critical that we avoid a bloody confrontation. It is essential that we succeed in bringing back safety and social stability. If we don’t find a solution in December, it will be the bankruptcy of this regime.”
Oxford University’s Marks says Tunisia’s experiment will have far-reaching consequences.
“If Tunisia can pull through these next number of years, if people can together work for compromise and have that blitzkrieg mentality, we’re going to get through this no matter what, then Tunisia could become the first democracy in the Arab world, and no longer can people say Arabs aren’t ready for democracy,” she tells PBS.
Finance minister, Elyes Fakhfakh says his country is quietly pushing ahead with a free market revolution, learning from the rising Muslim powers of Malaysia and Turkey. “We have the potential to be the Singapore of the region. We could be a very sexy story,” he tells The Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Prichard:
The plan is to be for Europe what Mexico’s “Maquiladora” industries are for the US, but more brain then brawn. Rather than relying on low-level assembly, it is aiming higher up the ladder, angling for some of those Irish niches in IT and offshore services. That is the only way to soak up the army of jobless graduates – 250,000 in a country of 11m.
There is no reason why this little strip of the Maghreb, the cradle of Carthage, cannot be a flourishing democracy even if the other revolutions go wrong, like Costa Rica beating the odds amid Central America’s wars in the 1980s. That would be a beach-head, reproof to those who claim too glibly that Arab cultures have little vocation for rational enlightenment.
“The world needs at least one democratic success story from the Arab Spring,” said the finance minister.