Protests in Tunisia are different this time around

Police officers stand guard before the Interior Ministry in Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan 22, 2016.
Police officers stand guard before the Interior Ministry in Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan 22, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Events in Tunisia look, on the surface, like a replay of 2011.

A frustrated, unemployed man killed himself on Jan 17 in an act of protest that was intended to remind everyone of the self-immolation of a fruit seller that set off the Arab Spring. Protests then spread from city to city. They focused on rampant unemployment, which was one of the concerns of the protesters last time. Eventually, the government had to call a curfew to make the protests die down, which they eventually did.

Deeper down, the situation in 2016 is fundamentally different. The reason is democracy. There's no doubt that the Tunisian revolution, and the successful constitutional process that followed it, had serious shortfalls. The greatest is unquestionably the lack of meaningful economic reform; the protesters are justified in their demands for transformation.

But five years ago, the protesters' solution was the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime and its replacement by a democratic government. That demand was executed with near-miraculous success.

Today's protesters can't ask for the regime to be overthrown. Tunisia's economic stagnation is the fault of a government that they themselves elected. They can (and should) demand change - but not regime change. Contemporary protesters have learnt an essential lesson: Democracy isn't necessarily more economically efficient or wise than government by dictatorship. But it is more legitimate.

The World Bank says unemployment in Tunisia is 15.2 per cent overall, 37.6 per cent for young people and a stunning 62.3 per cent for college graduates. The numbers looked roughly similar five years ago, reaching a high of almost 19 per cent in 2011-12. Graduate joblessness then was also above 50 per cent.

Why hasn't the democratically elected government engaged in serious economic reform? One explanation is that the country's elites spent most of the last few years focused on constitutional change.

By African standards, none of these numbers are shocking. The trend to greater unemployment among the educated began years ago, and has long been thought of as a leading indicator of revolution. In Tunisia, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that graduates would prefer not to work than to take low-skilled jobs. Those young, educated people tend to be more inclined to protest than other segments of a population.

In short, the Arab Spring regime change hasn't improved the economic prospects of educated young Tunisians in any measurable way. Things may even be slightly worse now.

Why hasn't the democratically elected government engaged in serious economic reform?

One explanation is that the country's elites spent most of the past few years focused on constitutional change. Negotiation was time-consuming, especially because Tunisian political culture demanded consensus. The constitutional process dragged on longer than might have been optimal - although the slowness helped deliver a successful outcome.

Another problem is that those dissidents who became elected politicians had mostly focused on human rights and religious values, not on economics. In conversations with members of the Constituent Assembly - which became the legislature - it was extremely striking how sophisticated their constitutional ideas were. But it was also noteworthy how little they had to say about economic change. The result has been a kind of economic limbo.

The new political elites have also been cautious about disrupting the traditional economic powers. This includes both the major companies that generate a significant share of Tunisia's gross domestic product and the extremely powerful trade unions that helped make the revolution and broker the constitutional deal. No political party thus far has seen an interest in provoking the economic and financial elites. And the unions have been able to negotiate significant pay raises in the light of their enhanced political power.

Meanwhile, without economic liberalisation, Tunisia is mired in the middle of the World Bank's Doing Business ratings for ease of entrepreneurial undertaking. Many educated people still think a government job is the ideal. The man who killed himself last month was reportedly frustrated over his inability to get state employment.

All this means that reform can and should come, and that the protests are a powerful message to the political parties to make it happen. But they almost certainly aren't a dire indicator of the breakdown of Tunisia's regime.

That isn't because democracy is such a great way of running a country. It's because democracy is a great way of assuring the legitimacy of the government, even when it does a bad job of delivering what the public wants. In a functioning democracy, mass protests challenge the rulers. They don't challenge the fundamental nature of a state's political system.

The mixed message of Tunisia's five-year anniversary protests is that democracy does some things badly and some things well. It doesn't guarantee transformative government, even when the path to transformation is relatively clear. But it does help keep things relatively stable until a government is elected that knows it has to deliver change - including the painful change necessary for economic improvement.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Protests in Tunisia are different this time around'. Print Edition | Subscribe