Formidable social and economic challenges threaten to undermine – or even halt – progress in Tunisia, despite the country’s positive transition to democracy.
Tunisia: Confronting Social and Economic Challenges, the latest International Crisis Group report, shines a spotlight on the economic problems that largely were at the root of Tunisia’s uprising and that remain unresolved in its aftermath: rising unemployment, stark regional inequalities, smuggling and corruption. The government faces escalating violence caused by deteriorating material conditions, which already has claimed dozens of lives. Now that the revolutionary euphoria has subsided, frustrated workers and unemployed youth will be increasingly inspired to take matters into their own hands. The government will need to implement concrete measures to avoid further deadly conflict.
“Under a veneer of normalcy, economic grievances are festering”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “The economic and social problems that sparked the uprising a year and a half ago are not adequately discussed and could boil over again”.
The unfinished Tunisian revolution, which led to successful elections in October 2011, raised people’s hopes for quick relief from their daily struggles. A succession of caretaker governments has maintained a relative economic peace by resorting to emergency measures, but the situation inherited by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s government requires more drastic action. Tunisians of all stripes are expressing growing resentment that could disintegrate into a situation of every man for himself.
Many urgent tasks are at hand. Corruption persists and provokes discontent and indignation. Local economic and political relations are being restructured in sometimes dubious and opaque ways. This is happening in places where the central state – at times limping since the dissolution of the former ruling party – has failed to restore its authority. Likewise, the government so far has been unable to adequately curb corruption, local violence related to the redistribution of power, or the proliferation of smuggling networks which fuel inflation. Its margin for manoeuvre is constrained, caught between bureaucratic inertia, popular sit-ins and protests, political questioning of its legitimacy and a depressed global environment.
To restore socio-economic stability, the state must address popular demands without stirring up new ones that will further undercut the private and public sectors’ ability to function effectively. It needs to maintain an increasingly fragile peace, keep a complicated transition on track and regain the confidence of local communities, where people measure progress primarily in terms of material well-being. All of which must be done in an increasingly polarised political environment.
“The principal social and political forces are not itching for a political showdown”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “The various parties appear to accept democratic rules of the game and are seeking to reposition themselves on the political playing field in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections. But the risk is that socio-economic insecurity and instability could snowball into a legitimacy crisis for the government and undermine the largely peaceful political transition underway”.