Tunisia’s image as the healthy jasmine plant that grew out of the Arab Spring was recently enhanced by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the quartet of organizations that facilitated the national dialogue. Congratulations have been showered on this small country, keeping up its peaceful democracy in a turbulent neighborhood.
Yet for the average citizen of Tunisia, the smiles have faded. According to the latest International Republican Institute poll, 83 percent of Tunisians believe that their country is going in the wrong direction. After five years, public opinion suggests, there should be more to show for the sacrifices made during the Jasmine Revolution. The top two priorities for Tunisians – the economy and security – are closely intertwined and should be seen as such, but another priority – remedying political dysfunction – is the key condition for implementing positive lasting change.
According to the poll, the majority of Tunisians feel that their government’s spending priority should be creating jobs and improving living standards. Too many young Tunisians have invested in their education up to the highest professional levels yet remain unemployed years after graduation. Those who used to have careers in the tourism sector have seen their options wane in the wake of high-profile terror attacks on popular tourist sites.
Importantly, the most popular suggested remedy for improving employment and the economy is restructuring investment laws to encourage entrepreneurship. This is a healthy sign of an educated, adventurous population that prefers enterprise to government bloat, but Tunisians’ enterprising attitude needs good policy to bear fruit. Loans, licenses and business management skills building will go a long way to helping people respond to quickly changing market conditions.
On a positive note, efforts have been under way to create support for a public-private partnership law and revisions to the investment law; however, the process has been so slow there are not even drafts to review, let alone legislation to feed into the parliamentary pipeline.
In an open-ended question about the problems facing the country right now, terrorism came in at the top at 47 percent. Despite the fact that most citizens can continue to enjoy public spaces without worry, terrorism has emerged as a dark cloud hovering over all aspects of life. The string of terrorist attacks (on a museum, a beach resort and a bus carrying presidential guards), cut to the core of Tunisia’s image as a welcoming society for tourists, and quickly led to a serious shrinking of the tourist sector and many of the livelihoods attached to it.
Even worse, the growing pool of young disillusioned Tunisians who have felt left behind or left out by the revolution have provided a fertile ground for Islamic State group recruiters. Young Tunisians have left their country by the thousands to fight in Syria and Iraq. Officials have intercepted even greater numbers at the border as they attempt to leave. Research has shown that these would-be violent extremists do not trust their government and do not feel connected to society. Better economic conditions would go some way to addressing these security concerns, but in tandem there must be political changes that address the trust deficit and isolation felt by many Tunisians.
Public opinion indicates that the great majority (72 percent) of Tunisians do not feel informed enough about what their government is doing and what its priorities are. Given the fact that the majority of participants in the survey felt that their personal situation will get worse next year, the results indicate a worrying level of disillusionment and lack of trust in the government. The recent split of the ruling Nidaa Tunis party and the concurrent government reshuffle do not inspire confidence in the political process.
For government officials, it may seem to be a no-win situation; the public is losing patience, and yet real change takes time. The good news is that Tunisia has what it takes to make this work. Key steps to bolster transparency and accountability will regain public buy-in and position the reshuffled government to address the tough issues tied to economic growth and security. The virtuous cycle started by opening up government processes will also allow civil society leaders to provide constructive critique on legislative drafts, engage in awareness raising, and help build the societal trust needed for painful reforms.
Inviting the public to walk down the path of economic and security reform with government decision-makers is the next stage of the Jasmine Revolution. We believe Tunisia is up to the challenge.