Experiencing the aftermath of Tunisia’s Jasmin Revolution
In 2014–2015, I had the chance to work in Tunisia, North Africa for the French government.
Tunisia is a country known worldwide not only for its Star Wars movie settings but also for its rich phosphate resources and the ancient harbour of Carthage, home of Hannibal. Over the last decade, Tunisia made it into the headlines as the country ignited the Arab Spring. Throughout this post, which resonates with conferences and events organized by the Cornell Emerging Markets Institute, I will discuss that specific time in Tunisia, and how I had lived it as a European observer.
In the 19th century, Tunisia was an autonomous territory of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire was ruled from Constantinople, which is Istanbul today. With the Ottoman Empire weakening and European colonialism growing, Tunisia became a French Protectorate in 1882. The country had been administered by France until 1956, the year of its independence. During those years of French influence, Tunisia had a rather large autonomy with its king, the Bey. The French power would run public services including education, the healthcare system, and control foreign relations.
Under the impulsion of Habib Bourguiba, the country gained its independence in 1956. The Father of the Nation became Tunisia’s first president. He dramatically developed the country following pan Arabism principles. He was also a champion of secularism and defeated many cultural biases. In that perspective, women were given the right to vote in 1957 and the right to abortion in 1973. He remained president of the country until 1987 when its prime minister and former homeland secretary of state, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted him with a famous “health coup” declaring him “incompetent” and beset by dementia. Ben Ali remained in office until January 2011 when he was overthrown by the population.
A revolution bound to happen
My vision and understanding of the reasons behind the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia is not exhaustive and is based on my own personal experience, but I am keen to share a couple observations. Initially, when Ben Ali took power, he continued to modernize Tunisia, developing the capital city, Tunis, and the coasts. He increased tourism and granted a fair and balanced society between men and women, a unique situation in a Muslim country at that time.
As time passed, his political style would get more oppressive, leaving no room for divergent political opinions. He ended up sending opponents, critics, and journalists to jail and strongly fought against Islamism by delegating extensive power to the police and secret services. Containing and fighting Islamism brought him closer to Western countries that saw him as a close ally and a great example. They would even call the Tunisian development, “the Tunisian Miracle.” In addition to his authoritarian political manners, he confiscated all businesses through his wife’s family. The Ben Ali clan became a fully corrupted kleptocracy, monopolizing all resources of the country and preventing entrepreneurs and businessmen from becoming successful.
The discrepancies between the success of the coasts and the inland regions kept increasing, and a growing part of the young Tunisian population could not secure employment. In 2008, a large protest revolt broke out in the phosphate mines of Gafsa in the south of the country. The miners were asking for better living conditions, but their demonstrations were severely repressed by the government. This event was one of the first blunders that shook Ben Ali’s regime, especially because Tunisia is one of the world’s largest exporters of phosphate, representing 2 percent of its GDP and employing 27,000 people in the inland regions.
Two years later, following an altercation with a policewoman, a young hawker, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid. His immolation triggered the Tunisian Revolution, also called the Jasmine Revolution, spreading anger and revolt to many Arabic countries.
Immersion in political turmoil
When I arrived in Tunisia in 2013, the revolution had profoundly changed the way people thought, spoke, and behaved. Before, under Ben Ali’s regime, the entire society was under very strict control with no free speech and no free press. The entire country had been under one man, or, as I said, one clan.
In 2011, Tunisians had to elect a new assembly in charge of writing down a constitution following the Arab Spring. The Islamic party Ennahda (meaning rebirth) gathered the largest number of ballots, but not enough to govern alone. It needed to find allies within secular parties to govern the country, so they formed the Troika government. With that coalition, contradictions began. Ennahda was preaching for a constitution based on Islamic law, the Sharia, whereas both its allies and opponents were fighting for a secular constitution without any mention of Islam. Ennahda’s Sharia-based approach could challenge and question Tunisian gender equality. The debates were endless, and the different stakeholders were arguing with each other around different concepts related to freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and more. In other words, the country was both discovering and experiencing democracy under the world’s spotlights.
However, this new democracy didn’t proceed without headwinds. The country sank into recession and the government failed to change the situation: insecurity was skyrocketing, inflation rising, and disparities increasing among Tunis, the coasts, and the inner regions. Islamist terrorism was also appearing. The country was uncontrollable and the currencies were lacking. Tourism that represents about 16 percent of the Tunisian GDP collapsed. It was not rare to hear people say that “it was better before,” especially from women. On the bright side, a new constitution was adopted on January 2014 promoting numerous rights including the freedom of thought.
Nonetheless, under the pressure of the street, the government resigned in January 2014 and handed the power over to a group of technocrats and experts led by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. The transition from the previous government to the new government was supported by four professional organizations (called the Quartet) representing workers, employers, attorneys, and human rights advocates, which aimed to engage discussions with political parties. This process was also backed by international organizations, including the EU and the western countries that provided significant loans to Tunisia. The goals were to decrease the conflicts between political parties that led to different assassinations of political leaders, to keep the democratic process going, and to keep the country financially afloat. In 2015, the Quartet received the Peace Nobel Prize for its actions to pacify Tunisia.
Tunisia faces its destiny: A narrow and steep path to democracy
The roadmap of Jomaa’s government was simple: keep the country afloat, bring back safety and security, and organize House as well as presidential elections within a year. In December 2014, the first elections took place under the new constitution and Beji Caïd Essebsi, a former comrade of Bourguiba and former Minister of Ben Ali, was elected president and his secular party, Nidaa Tounes, won the House elections. It is worth noting that Ennadha, the Islamic party, did not present a candidate.
One of the initiatives the French government undertook was to capitalize on emerging momentum in technology. In Tunisia, there are many good universities and schools that train students to become developers, IT engineers, video animation specialists, and more. Many European firms outsource back-office operations in Northern Africa, and the goal was to go one step further and capitalizing on the best of both worlds from France and Tunisia. Bringing together skills and knowledge, the idea was to conquer new markets in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East. I led, drafted, and implemented this co-development initiative, which was deemed a success, as many business opportunities were created in different countries.
Today, this small country of 10 million inhabitants is the only example of a successful transition from an autocratic regime to a democracy. This new democracy should be watched and encouraged. The last presidential elections in October 2019 showed that the country is mature and ready to enter in a new era. Yallah!