assessments

Tunisia's Post-Arab Spring Struggles

8 MINS READMay 24, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Tunisians gathered at a rally in the capital on Jan. 14 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring. Despite the promises of its 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia's economy has languished.
Tunisians gathered at a rally in the capital on Jan. 14 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring. Despite the promises of its 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia's economy has languished.
(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The controversial ruling coalition led by Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes will continue to dominate, despite Nidaa Tounes' fragmentation.
  • Along the borders and in the nation's isolated interior, the security situation will remain precarious, but external support will help bring some stability.
  • Vital economic aid will come from Western sources, and more investment can be expected from the Gulf countries now that their rivalry over Tunisia has run its course.

Tunisia was once the Roman world's gateway to North Africa. Today, it is a relative backwater, even in the Mediterranean Basin. Its economy has been stagnant since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, even if its political climate has been more placid than those of other Arab Spring nations. And it has acquired a paradoxical reputation as a bastion of both democracy and religious extremism.

The extremist threat emerges most clearly from Tunisia's mountainous interior, which former ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who led the country for 24 years, called "the dark regions." Border instability from the Islamic State-occupied regions of Libya has made the problem worse. Moving forward, the interplay between Tunisia's underdeveloped interior and the shifting power politics among its coastal elites will define the country.

Economic Troubles

Despite the promises of its 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia's economy has languished, thanks in large part to its inherent limitations. Tunisia is tiny, with only 11 million people and a gross domestic product of $49 billion. Its oil reserves are underdeveloped, something the government is trying to change. Tourism plummeted in the wake of two jihadist attacks on foreigners in 2015, all but eliminating its 15 percent contribution to the country's GDP. Although the unemployment rate has dropped since 2011, when it hit 15 percent for men and 27.4 percent for women, it remains relatively high. Moreover, youth unemployment, especially among university graduates, is quite high.

The government is trying to modernize the economy, de-emphasizing tourism and broadening its trade networks to include China and the Gulf nations. Before 2011, cooperation with the Gulf was contentious. Many Tunisians feared that economic ties would bring unwanted influence, undermining the secularism prized by the educated elite. These fears proved to be well-founded: After Ben Ali's ouster, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates squared off over Tunisia. At the time, the secular-leaning United Arab Emirates wanted to forestall an alliance between Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid's Nidaa Tounes party and the powerful Islamist party Ennahda. Meanwhile, Qatar was eager to show support for Ennahda, which is highly regarded by Western observers and less subversive than the region's Muslim Brotherhood. Both countries hoped to use their footholds in Tunisia to influence the complex political environment in neighboring Libya, where Qatar favors the Islamist Misratan militias and the United Arab Emirates backs Gen. Khalifa Hifter's Libyan National Army.

But the balance has since shifted in Libya. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord has made its way to Tripoli, albeit with some difficulty. At the same time, Ennahda has chosen to gradually liberalize its message. This has taken some heat off the competition over Tunisia, and for the first time since 2013, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are showing signs of easing back. This has been a boon for Tunisia: Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pushed to invest in the country after the 2011 uprising, and during the week of May 16, Qatar made good on its offer, promising to help lower Tunisia's unemployment rate.

Changing Coalitions

Before parliamentary elections in 2014, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda reached an unofficial power sharing agreement. The move upset their respective Gulf patrons to varying degrees, but it also upset Tunisia's other powerful new parties, Afek Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union (UPL). The parties had been part of the ruling coalition in congress until the Free Patriotic Union suspended its participation on May 17. Coalition reshuffles are common in Tunisia, and this one has not jeopardized the leading parties' alliance. Furthermore, Ennahda has always been controversial; under Ben Ali's administration, the party was outlawed. In January, when Nidaa Tounes lost its plurality in elections, fears emerged that Ennahda could use its 69-seat majority to challenge the nation's secular character. But this has not come to pass, and Tunisia's political environment remains relatively healthy. 

Nonetheless, political upheaval comes at a cost, and the country has progressed slowly since 2011. Although it appeared that Nidaa Tounes, largely composed of former Ben Ali elites, might weaken when members of the party started breaking off late last year, the party still dominates. Shifts in Ennahda's platform affirm Nidaa Tounes' continued clout. A landmark meeting for Ennahda on May 20 will solidify a new vision for the party as a "democratic, civil political party based on civilized values, both Muslim and modern." In addition, Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi recently said that he no longer sees a justification for political Islam in Tunisia. This is a pragmatic change, designed to capture regional and international support. Ennahda's path may even provide a model for other Islamist parties struggling to find their footing.

Meanwhile, former Nidaa Tounes leader Mohsen Marzouk left the party in December 2015 to form his own party. Like Ennahda, Marzouk has ties to Qatar. Finalized in May, Marzouk's new party continues to gain traction among Tunisians looking for a less corrupt alternative. 

Cooperation among Tunisia's numerous parties is essential to addressing its economic difficulties. And though slow going, there has indeed been some progress on this front. For example, the government recently freed the central bank from its control and moved forward with anti-corruption legislation. These efforts have helped Tunisia land $2.8 billion in loan funding over four years from the International Monetary Fund and $5 billion in World Bank loans.

The 'Dark Regions'

The World Bank loan, however, is contingent on Tunisia following through with more components of an economic development plan, expected to be announced in the coming weeks. The loan specifically targets the country's interior, a region unreached by every Tunisian economic development plan made before 2011. Since Roman times, when a demarcation ditch marked the extent of civilized territory, the country's coastal regions have been the most developed. Today, the coastal cities of Tunis, Sousse and Sfax account for 85 percent of Tunisia's GDP. The government has responded erratically to the growing calls for even development, for example by reneging on offers to ameliorate unemployment after protests broke out in Kasserine in January. 

The rise of jihadist militancy in the country's backlands has turned Tunisia's uneven development into an urgent global issue. Tunisia has proved a productive recruiting ground for Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Syria, providing more foreign fighters per capita than any other Arab state. In early 2015, estimates suggested that 6,000 Tunisians were fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. In Libya, too, Tunisians account for a large portion of fighters: A Feb. 18 attack on an Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, Libya, yielded a high number of Tunisian casualties. And a recent attack on the Tunisian city of Ben Gardane, 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Sabratha, indicates that the Islamic State may be trying to gain a foothold in Tunisia.

Aid from the United Kingdom, United States and European Union — as well as, increasingly, the Gulf nations — has helped Tunisian security forces in their fight against militancy. These donors all see Tunisia's porous borders as a major factor in the spread of the militant threat. Tunisia has already set up enhanced border security, ranging from ditches to electronic sensors, along the entirety of its border with Libya. Tunisian special operations forces have also trained and assisted border guards supplied by wealthier countries with a vested interest in containing nascent terrorist cells and limiting foreign fighter movement.

But these tighter border controls, though effective in slowing the flow of militants, may backfire. Smuggling is one of the few lucrative opportunities open to locals in the desperate border regions, and shoring up borders will inhibit black market trade. So far, the government's tepid promises of reform have done little to appease young Tunisians who are unemployed and disillusioned. In October 2015, Tunisian security experts estimated that 100,000 jihadist sympathizers were in the country — around 10 percent of the total population. And so the onus falls to fragile political coalitions to stave off further instability and solve the country's long-standing economic problems. 

But this will happen only if regional needs are met. Many Tunisians believe this can best be accomplished by granting more power to municipalities. Municipal elections, which have not been held since 2005, are supposed to address this issue. But they have been delayed time and again, most recently to March 2017. Moving forward, the greatest question is whether the Tunisian government can decentralize while still keeping the country's security situation under control.

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