A decade after the Arab Spring, Tunisians have made significant progress in the field of democratization with respect to the constitution and the guarantee of public and private freedoms. However, economic performance remains modest, and many of the demands of the Tunisian Revolution are still pending.
Tunisia commemorated the 10th anniversary of the revolution with violent youth protests alongside peaceful demonstrations in major cities like Tunis, Sousse and Nabeul, and inland cities of Siliana, Kasserine and Kairouan. The protesters demanded employment and comprehensive development. They expressed their discontent with high prices, monopolies and the deterioration of the purchasing power of citizens. There was also consternation about the increasing number of COVID-19 victims and the mishandling of the pandemic.
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The reality is that the demands for employment are stagnating, ending the isolation of marginalized areas is still a distant dream, and achieving transitional justice is at a stalemate. While the population of Tunisia suffers, many members of the former regime who opposed the revolutionary struggle are still there at the forefront of the media, clinging to impunity.
The Youth Unemployment Problem
Tunisia has not yet succeeded in developing effective solutions to the unemployment problem that first sparked protests in December 2010. According to the National Institute of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the country during the third quarter of 2020 was 16.2% of the total active population, translating to approximately 6,766,000 people. This figure includes no fewer than 225,000 university graduates, with the rate rising to between 30% and 40% in several inland governorates.
The youth population in Tunisia is the most vulnerable to joblessness. The latest field survey on employment by the National Institute of Statistics showed that around 70% of all those unemployed are below 30 years of age. Unemployment is effectively marginalizing youth in Tunisia and is among the main reasons behind both the 2010 revolution and the current protests. The continuing absence of employment opportunities for young people, the spread of favoritism among government and business elites, the rampant administrative and financial corruption and nepotism resulted in a perception of injustice that fueled discontent among many of those who have been unemployed for a long time.
While some impacted by the unemployment crisis attend sit-ins or demonstrate, others risk death on the high seas in search of work that guarantees dignity. In 2020, nearly 10,000 Tunisians arrived in Europe illegally. According to Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum, between 150 and 200 families have left Tunisia to Europe clandestinely over the last year, evading the Tunisian coast guard.
A report by the forum found that “most of the illegal immigrants, aged between 18 and 30, share a fundamental characteristic as they lived the ‘school failure experience’ through early drop-out. They refer such drop-out to several reasons ranging from economic difficulties, and reluctance to continue to study, because the school, in their view, is no longer useful in light of the high unemployment of high-ranking people.” In addition, many who give up hope either take the path of organized crime or get involved with international terrorist networks.
There is an urgent need to develop inclusive strategies aimed at empowering youth in the labor market. This is possible through the development of educational programs, vocational services and training courses to enhance the social investment role of the state by creating new productive projects directed at the domestic or foreign consumer market that would create jobs for the young.
Marginalized Regions Remain Isolated
A decade after the revolution, the inland and remote governorates have not yet gotten their share of comprehensive development. Rather, they are still suffering from marginalization, the ravages of high rates of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and school dropouts. They lack basic facilities such as infrastructure, health services and educational institutions even though the new constitution stipulates the necessity of implementing a policy of positive discrimination concerning these underprivileged areas. It is not known where the financial allocations and in-kind assistance that the successive governments, the European Union and the Gulf states have allocated to those governorates have gone.
It is worth noting that, according to the European Commission, “Since 2011, EU assistance to Tunisia has amounted to almost €3 billion (over €2 billion in grants and €800 million in macro-financial assistance).” With an average of €300 million ($360 million) per year between 2017 and 2020, these funds go toward the “Promoting good governance and the rule of law,” “stimulating a sustainable economic growth generating employment” and “Reinforcing social cohesion between generations and regions.” It is likely that these marginalized areas suffer locally from financial corruption and administrative misbehavior and are dominated by bureaucratic lobbies. Such underprivileged areas are often exploited politically by party and trade union elements to serve as a reservoir of popular protest against government policies.
Likewise, ruling parties only pay attention to these marginalized regions during election campaigns. This has made the residents suffer the brunt of inequality and injustice. It leaves them with a difficult choice: to continue staying in neglected regions despite dire conditions or to leave their lands for major cities or to board migration boats to Europe. There is a definite need to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of these regions, to provide them with resources for a decent living, to encourage greater investment in these regions and to revive the spirit of citizenship that will help regain confidence in the state.
No Truth or Dignity
In another context, the demand for justice for the victims of tyranny that the revolutionaries called for back in 2010 has not yet been fulfilled in an atmosphere where the transitional justice process is still stumbling. This includes the many obstacles that the Truth and Dignity Commission, which carries the mandate of investigating human rights abuses by the state, has faced — a lack of cooperation from state agencies and executive institutions being one of them. Observers have noticed that the perpetrators of violations did not attend the hearings and did not respond to lawsuits by judicial departments.
This failure reinforces the culture of impunity and intensifies the suffering of the victims of the dictatorial regimes of President Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). The state must make use of its authority to bring to justice the perpetrators, apologize to the victims and authorize reparations for their material and mental suffering so that they can resume their lives as part of the Second Republic.
It is true that the revolution has, to some extent, removed the fear of the government and led to a decline in repression and the power of the president, the censors and the police. Critics were also released, the culture of protest spread, politics became a public affair and governance an ordinary exercise in which competing parties maintained an atmosphere of peace and democracy, with no single party having a monopoly.
However, it is evident that some of the revolution’s goals have not been implemented. What is required is to make those goals not just promises and slogans, but a reality. The need of the hour for Tunisia is to further reform the judicial and government systems, ensure decentralization and comprehensive development to win citizens’ trust in the state, the revolution and the project of democratization.