Tunisia’s freedom cushion is not enough

In the years to come, Tunisia’s population problem will remain its unquenchable thirst for a decent quality of life even when opportunities remain remote.
Saturday 14/09/2019
People walk past Tunisian election campaign posters for presidential candidates in Tunis, September 13. (Reuters)
People walk past Tunisian election campaign posters for presidential candidates in Tunis, September 13. (Reuters)

It is easy to understand why Tunisian voters are unhappy with the nation’s political elites. Successive governments have failed to breathe new life into the nation’s stagnant economy, while politicians constantly accuse each other of corruption in ways that could only give politics a bad name.

From a wider perspective, the discontent is very much a confirmation of the long-running clash between Tunisians’ unbridled ambitions and the limited opportunities they see available to them.

For Tunisian youth, the reality check is often as unpleasant as unconvincing. Any discomfort in life is felt as both unfair and unacceptable but, in a country of scarce resources, the quest for economic growth and job creation is bound to be an uphill struggle for the government, any government. That has been the case since independence with very few moments of respite. For decades, the economic situation in Tunisia has mostly wavered between tough and tougher.

The proverbial social elevator, the one that was supposed to take Tunisia’s youth places, broke down in 2010, if not years before. Young people, including the highly educated among them, had a tough time accepting the closed horizons at home or abroad. For many young people, the line between frustration and despair was thin. Their discontent-inspired rebellion led to the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Since then, disillusionment was as big as their hopes. The continuing economic slowdown further limited their prospects for jobs and opportunities. European visa and migration restrictions did the rest.

What changed, however, was the climate of freedom. Tangible and undeniable, it exponentially expanded their ability to express themselves. In so doing, it seemed, however, to increase their frustrations more than the means of overcoming them. More than 15% of the population has remained unemployed with one-third of that group being university graduates. GDP growth of about 1% can hardly create enough employment.

For eight years or so, while there have been competent and well-intentioned senior officials and civil servants, there were too many inept or inexperienced politicians at the helm of the ship of state. Many in government were ill-equipped to meet demands of the restless population except through big-spending policies they could not really afford and promises they definitely could not fulfil.

Many of the country’s youth who had evolved in Tunisia’s hotbeds of restlessness and despair have been knocking at the gates of the country’s politics. Some, during the last election campaign, backed the most implausible of candidates, many of whom were running on the most implausible of platforms.

The same poor and disadvantaged constituencies who have been prone to radicalisation and the temptations of trafficking and illegal migration could readily accept the populist claims that Tunisia is a rich country whose natural resources have been stolen by Western powers and local corrupt stooges.

The past election campaign was not short of revelations. The legislative contest that is about to unfold is unlikely to be any different. Experienced politicians are acknowledging their abrupt discovery of the country’s new mindsets. For many Western-educated elites, it is a rude awakening to the fact the river of hostility to the West and ultraconservative temptations runs deep. “With the lid off the cauldron, we are now discovering the raw emotions and unsuspected realities,” a senior official recently told me.

Democracy is not a domain reserved for the sophisticated or the well-educated. Free expression has made parts of the elite recognise the degree of their disconnect from unpolished segments of the population.

The practice of freedom has, for eight years, cushioned the pressure of the daily grind. People could express their discontent about the government’s failures even if nothing was done about them. They can back the most outrageous of candidates if they choose but, at the end of the day, they still have to cope with stubborn socio-economic realities and the terrorist threat still lurking behind.

In the years to come, Tunisia’s population problem will remain its unquenchable thirst for a decent quality of life even when opportunities remain remote.

There are bound also to be disappointments in the flawed democratic process as well as possible new worries about a turbulent neighbourhood outside their control.

Newly elected politicians have the duty of shoring up their own credibility by introducing higher ethical standards in their own ranks. In the final analysis, they must work harder at improving the lives of Tunisians. That means relying more on pragmatism and competence than on ideological leaps of faith or conspiracy theories. That means motivating Tunisians to go back to work to help create the economic riches that no foreign country can ever steal from them.

Regardless of who ultimately has more constitutional prerogatives, whether it is the new president, the new parliament members or the new prime minister, government leaders must know that they cannot count on freedom as the only cushion for voters’ discontent. They must achieve tangible progress on the bread-and-butter front. That’s why they were elected in the first place.