For Tunisia a trying year mitigated by Nobel Peace Prize

Friday 01/01/2016
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi takes part in the new government swearing-in ceremony with Prime Minister Habib Essid (background) at the Carthage Palace, last February.

Tunis - 2015 could have been one of the most trying years of Tu­nisia’s modern history were it not for the pride and joy generated by the distinc­tion of a Nobel Peace Prize win.
Three jihadist attacks jolted the country, wreaking havoc on its key tourism industry and humbling its leaders who had aimed to make 2015 a turning point in the effort to jump-start economic growth and restore hope to the country’s rest­less youth.
Tunisia ended the year with near zero economic growth, its worst performance in five decades.
The success of the democrat­ic transition, epitomised by the swearing-in of a new government in early 2015, was marred by infighting within Nidaa Tounes, the leading political party.
But Tunisia’s main challenge is to ward off jihadists, many of whom received training in Libya and fought in Syria and Iraq. In a recent report, the London-based Soufan Group noted that Tunisian jihadists constituted the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Es­sid described terrorism as “the most serious threat facing the state”.
Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since a November 24th suicide bombing that killed 12 members of the Presidential Guard in Tunis. The bombing came on top of terror attacks on the Bardo Na­tional Museum in March and on the Sousse beach resort in June, which together cost the lives of some 60 tourists.
But thanks to the Nobel Peace Prize, announced in October, Tuni­sia basked in the world spotlight as a rare Arab case of democratic suc­cess. Its civil society Quartet was presented the prize for facilitating the country’s peaceful transition to democracy in 2013.
The Nobel prize gave the country reason to cheer and the world com­munity an occasion to highlight the success of Tunisia’s transition.
In the summer of 2013, the coun­try was teetering on civil strife as Ennahda, the main Islamist party, which had won the 2011 elections, was challenged by street protests after the killing of two leftist politi­cians. Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet mediation and events in Egypt, which led to the overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, further convinced Ennahda to leave office.
The Quartet, composed of trade unionists, businesspeople, lawyers and human rights activists, helped put in power a technocratic govern­ment to peacefully oversee the elec­tions. Nidaa Tounes, a secularist party won the legislative vote while veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi was elected president.
Although overwhelmingly com­mitted to the freedoms gained since the 2011 uprising, most Tunisians see fighting terrorism as their pri­ority. According to the survey con­ducted by the Emrhod polling agen­cy in November, 76.8% of Tunisian respondents said the threat of ter­rorism after that Tunis attack had become “very high” and is a “matter of concern”.
Tunisians are so worried they say they are willing to live with any ex­ceptional measures deemed neces­sary to thwart terrorist violence.
Another recent survey, conduct­ed by the Sigma Conseil polling agency, had more than 78% of Tu­nisians say they were ready to “sac­rifice some freedom in exchange for more security”.
Some of human rights defend­ers expressed concern over such trends.
In a joint statement, civil society organisations, including the Tuni­sian Human Rights League, warned against “misconceptions according to which restricting basic freedoms is the key to victory over terrorism”.
On the eve of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Abdessattar Ben Moussa, the head of the Tunisian Human Rights League, said “the best way to fight terrorism is to re­spect human rights”.
In 2016, and at the same time that it needs to overcome terrorism to regain the confidence of foreign investors and holidaymakers — cru­cial for badly needed economic growth — Tunisia must tackle un­employment and regional inequal­ity, which worsened in the five years since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted as president.
The threats of insecurity and socio-economic instability are ma­jor dangers faced by the nascent democracy. Some analysts say one of the factors explaining the draw of the jihadist narrative is the un­addressed despair of young people in the face of unemployment and poverty. Unemployment of univer­sity graduates stands at more than 32%, one of the highest rates in the world.
Economic difficulties have af­fected the standard of living of dif­ferent segments of the population. According to government figures, the country’s middle class shrank to 53% of the population in 2015, ver­sus 70% in 2010.
Reversing the trend and allow­ing the middle classes to thrive will require a better security climate that allows economic recovery and growth. Only then will Tunisia’s democratic success translate to better lives for the majority of the population and allow the country to meet the demands of its youth.