What should Tunisia do after the riots?
It is strange how history repeats itself. Riots erupted in Tunisia in January 2016, the same month as the riots of 2011 ushered in what has become known as the “Arab spring”.
The latest Tunisian riots began in Kasserine in central-western Tunisia, not far from Sidi Bouzid, where the riots of 2011 started. Peaceful demonstrations with legitimate grievances degenerated into confrontations with security forces and violent looting. Protests quickly spread to practically all pockets of poverty and marginalisation around the country.
Protests are the logical end-product of two factors: the pitiful security situation and the economic legacy of the post-revolution troika government; and inability of the government to make the tough decisions related to regional development and tax reform.
In the absence of reforms, the inequality gap between the upper class and the middle and poor classes widened. The political situation in Tunisia was further muddied by power struggles inside the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, with the Islamist Ennahda party naturally trying to take advantage of the rift inside Nidaa Tounes.
Nidaa Tounes liberals, entangled in an internal power feud, quickly lost sight of the “goals of the revolution” for which they had been elected in 2014. Furthermore, the social and economic dimensions in the programme of the newly appointed government were lacklustre.
The recent countrywide protests can be seen as a message to the ruling coalition. Public opinion, and the poor regions in particular, came together in January 2016 to tell the new leaders that the coalition they created is a coalition aimed at dividing the spoils of victory and also for keeping the poor poor and the rich rich. Before the revolution, the middle class in Tunisia represented 80% of the population. By the end of 2015, the middle class had shrunk to less than 60%.
What happened on January 20th and after were warnings of an impending popular revolt that could evolve into a complex and knotty situation if not dealt with adequately. The government has announced emergency measures that need to be implemented without delay or bureaucratic red tape. They also need to be generalised to governorates and zones where poverty and marginalisation are the daily lot of the local populations.
Such measures must become part of a global and coherent vision for regional development, which must be accompanied by the modernisation of public administration and governance.
The model of development must be credible, efficient and fully applicable. It must rehabilitate real work and make it the central value for society. It won’t be effective if it does not bring about an increase in productivity and does not result in wealth creation so both employees and employers benefit. The model must also be accompanied by a system of fair and transparent taxation.
The government must announce a Marshall-type plan for Tunisia’s eight poor governorates. It must call for significant local and international assistance programmes and channel them towards infrastructure projects in impoverished regions.
And, of course, a prerequisite for this is to return to calm and security since looting and burning does not solve unemployment or marginalisation but will only make them worse. Terrorists are always on the lookout for flaws and lapses in security to carry out their bloody designs.
The newly formed government must be given a chance to implement the measures and reforms it promised. It is only then that we can start assessing its success or failure.