Infants’ death in Tunisia reflects wider crisis

The country's political elites are unfit to manage the state's affairs but none is willing to give up their interests or those of their cohorts.
Thursday 14/03/2019
A Tunisian protester holds a baby doll in Tunis to denounce the death of newborns, March 12. (AP)
A bitter tragedy. A Tunisian protester holds a baby doll in Tunis to denounce the death of newborns, March 12. (AP)

The death of 11 newborns at a hospital in Tunis reflects the deteriorating state of Tunisia's service sectors, including public health.

The situation is exacerbated by a political elite more concerned with jockeying for power than with managing public affairs or diagnosing the ills plaguing the country.

The health crisis is no different than the critical state of other service sectors, such as education, transportation and social welfare. The state is torn by a hybrid political system, adopted in the 2014 constitution, that hacked at the central authority and distributed it between the government, the parliament and the presidency, much like vengeful blood was distributed among Arab tribes in the old days.

The result is a country whose state of affairs is managed according to interests and agendas of influential parties and powerful and shameless lobbies that have taken over various social and economic sectors. The country is in an era of unprecedented corruption in which politicians play a key role.

The most serious threat facing Tunisia is society's overwhelming sense of apathy. Tunisians, by and large, can do nothing but helplessly look on as political actors slug it out to monopolise their rule.

Each actor brandishes a favourite weapon and instrument, be it a revolutionary, religious or identitarian discourse, with nationalistic, Islamist, Salafist or Bourguibist colours. They spout democratic slogans or pretend they are defending the labour classes, women’s rights or whatever.

Meanwhile, the country’s institutions erode from within and the country races towards bankruptcy. Production is regressing, public debt is rising and inflation and prices are skyrocketing while all grants and loans are channelled to consumption.

A new class of fat cats and big fish is emerging at the expense and on the back of a tired and shrinking middle class. Poverty and unemployment are expanding while the notion of work ethic is being wiped out and a culture of hatred is slowly making its way into the social fabric, all because of an aggressive religious discourse by people obsessed with seizing power even in a failed state.

The death of the 11 newborns, who were victims of neglect in a public hospital, might be a heavy blow to the fractured head of this broken society but it is only one example of the deterioration Tunisia has seen since 2011.

The country's political elites are unfit to manage the state's affairs but none is willing to give up their interests or those of their cohorts. The situation is likely to remain stagnant for quite some time because no light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.

This democracy is only interested in courting voters with the approach of every election. When we talk about democracy in a resource-limited country like Tunisia, and with its inherited cultural practices, we must concede that the class of decision makers must be the first to sate its hunger, then the spoils of victory will be divided among the new political elite at the expense of the vast majority of the population.

In September 2018, Chawki Tabib, head of the National Anti-Corruption Authority in Tunisia, warned that Tunisian democracy was facing an existential threat. That threat, he said, did not stem from the police but from the growing power of mafiosi money and corruption groups.

As harsh as it was, Tabib’s statement may have been too lenient because corruption has become part of the system of governance and the main facet of the country's new democracy. Everywhere -- inside political parties, parliament, national organisations and the media -- everyone is pursuing individual interests, irrespective of the national interest.

Selfishness and individualism have become dominant social characteristics. There is no sense of social and civic responsibility, there is a complete lack of discipline and seriousness and there is a multiplicity of readings and interpretations of the concepts of state, national sovereignty, belonging to a homeland, public service, security and duty. Even the notions of terrorism, extremism and hatred have become subject to interpretation and let’s not even talk about the notion of a Tunisian identity.

The country continues to experience a severe brain drain, with many Tunisians seeking opportunities to migrate to Europe or the Gulf. Most young people refuse to get active in politics and a good portion of Tunisians are merely seeking opportunities to make easy money.

State institutions are suffering from an obvious deficit in the capacity to carry out their roles. As a result, most of society stews in silence. Many fear this silence will turn into a violent eruption targeting the failing political elite, an elite that underestimates and mocks people’s capacity to understand and act.