Tunisia protests highlight trade-off between democracy and strong economy?

Democracy Digest 

One person has died, 50 policemen have been injured and more than 200 people arrested in two nights of widespread and violent protests across Tunisia, driven by anger over steep price rises resulting from austerity measures, the Guardian reports:

Clashes erupted in more than 20 towns and cities late on Tuesday, including the southern city of Gafsa and in Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the protests that led to the ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and sparked the regional Arab spring uprisings.

The country has been hailed for its relatively smooth democratic transition but seven years after the revolution tensions over economic grievances are high, reports suggest.

Tunisia’s powerful UGTT labor union called on the government to raise the minimum wage and aid for poor families within one week, Reuters adds.

Many people were suffering real hardship but the government had to act, Dr Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, told CNN. “What people are protesting about is something that’s painful but needs to happen,” she said. “Tunisia really needs painful economic reform.”

Storm considers the protests a “healthy sign” that the country’s authoritarian legacy has waned because they show that people dare to speak out about their frustrations — just as they do in the West, sometimes violently.

“Until democracy consolidates, I think it’s a good thing that people feel they have the opportunity to demonstrate,” she said.

A new opinion poll from the Center for Insights in Survey Research indicates deep economic unease but popular satisfaction with the progress of the government’s anticorruption campaign, says the International Republican Institute (IRI):

An overwhelming majority describe the current economic situation as either “very bad” (68 percent) or “somewhat bad” (21 percent), while only 37 percent think that the financial situation of their household will improve in the next year. More than 80 percent also think that Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction.

More than half of Tunisians are either “very satisfied” (29 percent) or “somewhat satisfied” (26 percent) with the “war on corruption” announced by Prime Minister Chahed in the spring of 2017. The proportion of Tunisians who think the government is combatting corruption effectively improved since IRI’s most recent nationwide poll: the number who feel that the government is doing a “somewhat good” job at fighting corruption increased by 11 points (rising from 27 percent in April 2017 to 38 percent), and the number who think the government is doing a “very good” job rose from seven to 16 percent. 

“The ongoing protests against the government’s austerity measures reinforce the longstanding trend of dissatisfaction evident in our polling,” said Scott Mastic, Vice President for Programs at IRI [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy] “As Tunisians mark the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of authoritarianism, it is crucial that the government continue to press for meaningful reforms that address systemic corruption and enhance the country’s economic prospects.”

Mahmoud Althawadia, a political analyst, says the situation is “complicated,” BBC News reports. “In reality, there are severe price hikes … that’s something everyone agrees on, and that Tunisia is facing a difficult economic problem, and the government feels the painful measures are necessary,” he told BBC News. “The opposition and the unions say that we should not resolve the difficult economic problems at the expense of the weaker class.”

“The danger today in those protests, is that if they are not contained, and some solutions include backtracking on some issues and protecting the weaker class, like increasing the minimum wage,” he added.

The secularist-Islamist alliance in power has lost its popularity over the last three years, according to Global Risk Insights. The secularist Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda party’s differences were laid bare at multiple occasions, including during the vote of the controversial Reconciliation Law. While the alliance between the two parties is likely to hold in the short term, the 2019 elections could reshape Tunisia’s political landscape.

Olfa Lamloum, the Tunisia country manager for International Alert, a nonprofit that seeks peaceful resolution to conflicts, said she worried “that we have the same narrative as before the revolution.”

“The protesters in marginalized areas are portrayed by the authorities and mainstream media as looters or criminals,” she said, but they are expressing “a real social despair.”

Safwan M. Masri, the executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, and author of the book “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly,” said the new protests were the latest manifestation of an age-old problem: “huge economic disparity between the coastal and interior regions of the country.”

He cited as a precedent bread riots that took place in the country in 1983, the Times adds.

“I.M.F.-mandated structural adjustments ignored such inequalities back in the 1980s, and they do so again now,” he said. “Successive governments have consistently failed to address this issue and to invest in developing the central and southern regions.”

The Tunisian economy is in disarray: high unemployment, inflation and inequality between various towns and neighborhoods are just some of the issues plaguing the country. In response, the Tunisian government has passed the 2018 Finance Act, an austerity budget meant to solve the inflation issue which increases taxes and raises fuel prices, Deutsche Welle adds:

Experts are divided on whether the measures are beneficial to the country’s economic future. “It is a very risky approach because at this moment the atmosphere in the population is so intense that if you implement these measures the protests will become uncontrollable,” Dr. Isabel Schäfer, Senior Researcher of the German Development Institute, told DW.

“The Tunisian economy is in constant decline and all indicators are deteriorating year by year, which makes the country in need of structural reform,” Saidan Ezzedin, a Tunisian economist remarked to DW.



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