Why Tunisia’s Promise of Democracy Struggles to Bear Fruit

The revolution of 2011 ousted a dictator and set off the Arab Spring. But then the West overlooked the country’s economic problems, intent on creating a bulwark against Islamist extremism.,

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GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In the 10 years since its popular uprising set off the Arab Spring, Tunisia has often been praised as the one success story to emerge from that era of turbulence. It rejected extremism and open warfare, it averted a counterrevolution, and its civic leaders even won a Nobel Peace Prize for consensus building.

Yet for all the praise, Tunisia, a small North African country of 11 million, never fixed the serious economic problems that led to the uprising in the first place.

It also never received the full-throated support of Western backers, something that might have helped it make a real transition from the inequity of dictatorship to prosperous democracy, analysts and activists say. Instead, at critical points in Tunisia’s efforts to remake itself, many of its needs were overlooked by the West, for which the fight against Islamist terrorism overshadowed all other priorities.

Now, as Tunisians grapple with their latest upheaval, which began when President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister and suspended Parliament over the weekend, many seem divided on whether to condemn his actions — or embrace them.

Political parties are split over the legality of his executive takeover, while activists and human rights organizations, determined to preserve Tunisia’s sovereignty and keep the goals of the 2011 revolution alive, called for the outside world to keep watching and monitoring.

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A year after the revolution, a cafe near the Interior Ministry was surrounded by razor wire to keep protesters away.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Yet the fact that Tunisians are so exasperated with their leaders amid a deep economic crisis and disastrous wave of Covid-19 infections that some are cheering a highhanded power grab is a sign of how bad things have become.

“We had tremendous progress on the freedom front and the political front despite all the crises,” said Fadhel Kaboub, an associate professor of economics at Denison University in Ohio. “But what you have kept almost intact is the exact same economic development model that produced inequality, that produced the debt crisis, that produced the social economic exclusion, that the population rebelled against.”

Mr. Kaboub is among a growing number of Tunisians questioning the much-tried Western playbook for countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy. That approach, they say, has produced oligarchies and counterrevolutions. And in emerging markets it has led to a burst of economic progress followed by a return to weakness.

For Tunisia, Mr. Kaboub said, it was a “perfect storm on the economic front,” and one that was long incoming.

Its biggest problem is its external debt, inherited from the former dictatorship. To service that debt, successive governments have been forced to focus on earning foreign currency.

And since the 1970s, Tunisia has become caught in a commonly seen development trap between the global North and South: Poorer countries export cheap agricultural products or raw materials, while importing more expensive energy and industrial goods from richer ones.

The result was a hole Tunisia could never climb out of.

Despite calls after the Tunisian revolution for the new government to write off its “odious debt” — a term used for financial obligations incurred by despotic regimes that many argue should not be binding — lawmakers there chose not to confront the country’s mainly European creditors, hoping not to ruffle relations.

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A Tunisian beach in 2015. Officials made little effort to change the structure of the Tunisian economy, which imports more than it exports, often driven by vested interests.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

They also made little effort to change the structure of the Tunisian economy, which imports more than it exports, often driven by vested interests that have monopolies on importing certain goods.

And so instead of growing wheat to feed its population, Tunisia uses its most fertile land and water to grow strawberries for export. And it imports fuel and food to support its tourist industry, even after that was rendered unviable by terrorism and the pandemic, Mr. Kaboub said.

Mohamed Dhia-Hammami, a political scientist who has studied the Tunisian transition closely, said the economic programs introduced were the same as those used in Eastern Europe after the transition from Communism, and had many of the same flaws.

“They did not prevent the rise of the oligarchy,” he said. “It is not surprising to see similar problems when the policies are the same.”

Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East Politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, who has had long experience with Tunisia, said that there was a dearth of knowledge about the country among Western officials, which hampered meaningful assistance.

“I noticed right off the bat in 2011,” she said, “the United States and other Western democracies knew almost nothing about Tunisian politics.”

Ms. Marks said structural issues such as security sector reform, judicial reform, media reform and youth unemployment should have been the main focus of the transition after the popular uprising overthrew the country’s authoritarian president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But Western officials were obsessively focused on the Islamists — namely the Ennahda, or Renaissance, party that swept early elections — and where they were going and what they represented.

“In conversations, those sorts of questions ate up almost all the oxygen in the room,” Ms. Marks said. “It was almost impossible to get anybody to ask another question.”

Later, Western officials became focused on building consensus among Tunisia’s political leaders — and for which four organizations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 — to the point that it became a “fetish,” she said.

After the 2011 revolution, Al Qaeda and other extremists were quick to mobilize networks of recruits.

Terrorism burst into the open in 2012 when the U.S. Embassy in Tunis came under attack from a mob. Over the years that followed, extremist cells carried out a string of political assassinations and suicide attacks that shattered Tunisians’ optimism and nearly derailed the democratic transition.

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Protesters outside the United States Embassy in Tunis in 2012.Credit…Amine Landoulsi/Associated Press

Mass casualties in shootings of foreign tourists at a coastal resort and in the National Bardo Museum in Tunis dealt a body blow to the faltering economy by hitting the lucrative tourism industry and foreign investment when it was needed most.

The United States stepped in with critical security and counterterrorism support in one of its most successful interventions since 2001, training and assisting Tunisian security forces, and supplying them with military equipment, but so discreetly that the American forces themselves were virtually invisible.

By 2019, some 150 Americans were training and advising their Tunisian counterparts in one of the largest missions of its kind on the African continent, according to American officials. The value of American military supplies delivered to the country increased to $119 million in 2017 from $12 million in 2012, government data show.

The assistance helped Tunisia defeat the broader threat of terrorism, but government ministers noted that the cost of combating terrorism, while unavoidable, burned a larger hole in the national budget.

But it is the structure of the economy that remains the root of the problem, Mr. Kaboub said. All of Tunisia’s political parties have identical economic plans, based on World Bank and International Monetary Fund guidelines. It was the same development platform used by the ousted president, Mr. Ben Ali, Mr. Kaboub said.

“Right now,” he said, “everybody in Tunisia is begging for an I.M.F. loan, and it is going to be seen as the solution to the crisis. But it is really a trap. It’s a Band-Aid — the infection is still there.”

Lilia Blaise contributed reporting from Tunis.

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