December 1, 2021
Earlier this year, outside a local cafe just off a busy street in one of Tunis’s sprawling neighborhoods, a group of teenagers talked about their country’s affairs. They hated the police, who beat and arrested their friends. They felt, on the whole, lost and hopeless. “Once I’m 18 I’ll try to cross over to Europe with my friends – at least there’s money there,” one said.
How is it that 10 years after the Tunisians ousted the autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – at the origin of what has often been hailed as the only democratic achievement of the Arab Spring – they still feel so dejected? ?
Tunisia visibly bears the imprint of its various occupants and civilizations. Traces of its indigenous Amazigh people can be found in its dialect and its cuisine. Carthaginian and Roman ruins are scattered across the landscape, from the Punic port of Tunis, shaped like a crescent moon, to the impressive Roman amphitheater of El Jem. The Muslim Arab conquest of the 7th century converted many Tunisians to Islam, while Ottoman rule shaped its buildings and towns. The French established a protectorate in 1881, which again transformed the culture, language and economy of Tunisia.
Since obtaining its independence from France in 1956, until the revolution of 2011, Tunisians had lived only under two presidents: Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both were ruthless strong men who suppressed dissent.
Bourguiba carried out sweeping reforms – many of which benefited the poor and women – that kept the debate over his legacy alive today. When Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he said his leadership would usher in a new era. He organized elections and needed to take a gentler approach to religious fundamentalists.
However, in 1991 he banned the Islamist Ennahdha party. Human rights violations escalated as Ben Ali further strengthened the national security forces. Although the middle class prospered under Ben Ali, economic inequalities have widened. He would win every election in the next 24 years with an overwhelming majority of votes.
It is this dysfunctional state and this economic misery that pushed Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit seller in the inner city of Sidi Bouzid, to set himself on fire in December 2010, triggering demonstrations across the country. On January 14, Ben Ali fled the country with his family – and suitcases of gold and silver stolen – to Saudi Arabia. He died there in 2019.
In the years following the revolution, Tunisia experienced its first free and fair elections, sweeping the ruling Ennahdha party. In 2014, a new constitution was drawn up which ensured a careful separation of powers and made Tunisia a secular state.
But the last decade has also seen assassinations of political figures and horrific terrorist attacks, while attempts to migrate across the Mediterranean Sea have increased. In the midst of successive chaotic governments, the Tunisian dinar has devalued considerably and purchasing power has sharply reduced. Tunisia is currently negotiating its fourth IMF loan in a decade.
It is in this context that an unlikely populist candidate, Kais Saied, was elected president in 2019. His image as a “clean”, “uncorrupted” law professor has won over voters – especially young people – unhappy with the political elites. .
Over the past year, Covid-19 has exacerbated political and economic unrest in Tunisia and shattered the country’s health system. On July 25, Saied invoked an emergency article of the constitution: to remove the government, suspend parliament and assume all executive powers. While the move was hugely popular, critics called it a “coup” and many fear it could open a darker new chapter in the region’s latest democracy.
LEADER: President Kais Saied
ECONOMY: GNI per capita $ 3,100 (Algeria $ 3,550; France $ 42,330).
Monetary union: Tunisian Dinar
Main exports: Insulated yarns, textiles, crude oil, pure olive oil.
Tunisia’s trade balance is structurally negative and the country imports ($ 21.6 billion) more than it exports ($ 14.9 billion). The main trading partners are France, Italy, Germany, China and Algeria.
POPULATION: 11.8 million. Annual population growth rate: 0.75%. Persons per km² 73 (United Kingdom 281).
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate 17 per 1,000 live births (Algeria 18.9). HIV prevalence: less than 1%. The Tunisian health system was already under strain due to underfunding and the large working-age population.
ENVIRONMENT: CO per capita2 emissions: 2.59 metric tonnes. Disposal of toxic and hazardous waste has proven ineffective, while water pollution from raw sewage and factory waste continues to be a problem. Tunisia has limited natural freshwater and has suffered from soil erosion and desertification.
RELIGION: 99% Sunni Muslim. Until the 20th century, there were also significant Jewish and Christian populations.
TONGUE: Arabic (official), French (trade language with Arabic, and spoken by about two-thirds of the population).
INDEX OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT: 0.739, 95th out of 189 countries (Algeria 0.748; France 0.901).
DISTRIBUTION OF REVENUES ??
There is a persistent economic divide between the wealthy Tunisian coastal elites and the poorer inland cities. More than 40% of Tunisians work in the informal economy without access to a stable income, social security or compensation linked to the pandemic. 15.2% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Tunisia has a high literacy rate (79%) which continues to improve every year. After independence, President Borguiba made education a priority with an emphasis on modernizing the system. Education was free and compulsory for all.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ??
77 years old (France 83, Algeria 77).
WOMEN’S POSITION ????
Tunisia is ahead of other North African countries in the fight against gender inequalities. Bourguiba introduced new reforms in the 1950s, banning polygamy and giving women the right to divorce. In 1973, birth control and abortion were legal – before France. But culturally, Tunisian women still face many obstacles.
Since 2011, Tunisia has experienced a transformation in terms of freedom of speech and expression. However, there have been recent arrests for social media posts criticizing the military and for blasphemy. Traces of the pre-2011 police state also remain, and some officers continue to torture and harass detainees.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ??
Homosexuality remains criminal (according to an old colonial law) and there have been several cases of forced anal exams. Police regularly harass, target and detain LGBTQI + people. Tunisian trans people are particularly at risk.
Corruption became commonplace after Ben Ali’s marriage to Leïla Trabelsi, which ushered in a new era of mafia rule with power centered around Trabelsi’s brothers. The family stole billions of dollars from Tunisia over the next decade. After 2011, governments searched but struggled to tackle persistent corruption. The recent dismissal of the government by Kais Saied has been called a coup.
This article is taken from the November-December 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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