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By: Mat Nashed
History books often recount the deeds of evil or heroic men to explain the most defining moments of the past. These narratives tend to oversimplify complex events and foster an elementary understanding of world affairs, yet remembering the Jasmine Revolution is a notable exception.
On December 17, 2010, Tunisian police confiscated the scales of Mohamad Bouazizi for working as a street vendor without a permit. Bouazizi, 26, was already struggling to support his mother and six siblings and was often forced to sacrifice his daily profit to pay bribes to the police. But on this day, he tried to salvage his earnings by requesting to see the governor in the town of Sidi Bouzid. When the governor refused to see him, Bouazizi set himself on fire.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered a popular uproar in Tunisia and an awakening throughout the Arab world. After weeks of protests, Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. The news sparked a domino effect that saw popular protests erupt in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. The Arab world would never be the same again.
For decades, discontent was simmering due to rampant corruption, state repression, foreign meddling, and extremism. In retrospect, these collective grievances formed a ticking time bomb. Bouazizi simply lit the match.
Ten years later, only Tunisia has managed to transition to democracy. The other nations from the ‘Arab Spring’ either failed to dislodge authoritarian regimes or spiralled into civil war. Casual observers now refer to Tunisia as the lone success story in an otherwise tumultuous region.
That framing is partly true. Unlike Egypt, the country benefits from a small apolitical military that doesn’t harbor intentions to sabotage the democratic process. Tunisia also doesn’t possess an abundance of natural resources compared to Libya – a factor that keeps Tunis from becoming a battleground for competing global powers.
Despite these advantages, Tunisia also deserves credit. Its political class, powerful unions and civil society actors engaged in constructive dialogue to save the democratic process. Social tensions and mass protests particularly risked derailing the transition after two liberal politicians were assassinated by jihadists in 2013. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
Tunisia is now a democracy, yet a decade of political paralysis has failed to address the economic grievances that compelled Bouazizi to light himself on fire. The vast disparity in wealth between the coast and interior remains a pressing concern. The latter is traditionally reliant on contraband trade from Algeria and Libya to support swathes of the population due to the lack of jobs in the formal sector.
During the rule of Ben Ali, the government allowed select cartels to control much of the contraband market. But his ouster allowed numerous players to profit from cross border trade, including dubious groups involved in weapon and drug smuggling.
Libya’s porous borders thus pose an acute security threat to Tunis. That was clear following the series of terrorist attacks against tourists and locals in 2015. The scariest attack transpired the following year on March 7, 2016 in the southern Tunisian town of Ben Geurdane. That day, Tunisian militants aligned with the Islamic State group tried to seize the town by attacking military and police posts. They were eventually fended off by Tunisia’s fragile security forces. Authorities were unaware if the militants had returned from fighting in Libya, or from other regional conflicts such as Iraq and Syria.
Either way, the home-grown jihadist threat coupled with the proliferation of militias in Libya prompted Tunis to crackdown on smuggling routes. The Tunisian government even tried to boost its security by digging a massive ditch along half of the country’s 500-kilometer border with Libya. This security measure closed off several smuggling routes and exasperated the economic woes in the interior. The consequences of the counter-terrorism measures have devastated the economy, prompting more Tunisians to join extremist groups, migrate abroad, or simply romanticize the days of Ben Ali’s regime.
The irony is distressing. In 2011, only 8% of Tunisians thought that Ben Ali’s downfall was a loss for the country, while 12% expressed a preference for an autocratic leader. But after years of political paralysis, a growing number of Tunisians believe that democracy is ineffective in bringing the interior out of poverty.
These counter-revolutionary sentiments have made reactionary personalities more appealing for Tunisians. The rhetoric of Abir Moussi — a former ruling party official in the Ben Ali dictatorship – is particularly worrying. Moussi is now an opposition leader for the Free Destourian Party (PDL), which lead public opinion polls last November even though it only holds 17 out of 217 parliamentary seats.
Moussi is renown for making controversial statements and for demonizing the moderate Islamist Party Ennahda, which she blames them for the country’s economic woes. She also engages in revisionism by claiming that Ben Ali’s regime was the victim of a ‘plot’ to destabilize Tunisia.
To counter the creeping nostalgia for Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisia’s political class has to find a way to improve the economy. Doing so may require Tunis to closely cooperate with Libya’s internationally recognized government in the capital of Tripoli, according to Hamza Meddeb, a non-resident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
Tunisia has tried to remain neutral by avoiding close cooperation with either government entity in Libya. But Meddeb argues that the Tripoli based government and Tunis should establish a free trade zone that straddles their shared border. That would enable authorities to better monitor the goods passing into Tunisia, while giving merchants security and confidence to engage in contraband trade.
“Neutrality need not mean passivity, and it has become clear that even if the GNA fails to bring all of Libya under its control, no group will dislodge it from its position as the internationally recognized, main power broker in the western half of the country,” writes Meddeb.
Equally important, he notes, is for the government to encourage Tunisian civil society to build strong relations with Libyan counterparts that have traditionally cooperated in the contraband economy.
However, Tunisia’s economic forecast doesn’t look bright even if these recommendations are swiftly adopted. The country is facing historic economic woes, spawned by the coronavirus pandemic.
The global crisis prompted Tunisia to accept a $745 million loan from the International Monetary Fund to balance its budget and fight the coronavirus. The loan is vital for Tunisia’s long-term prosperity, but critics fear that the money is conditioned on uncompromising austerity measures that will punish the poor once the pandemic subsides. Time will tell if cuts to provisions and subsidies pushes the population over the edge.
A spark is all it takes.