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Seven years after Arab Spring, Tunisia's future uncertain

Sarah Mersch cc
December 18, 2017

The Tunisian revolution, considered the catalyst for the movement that became known as the Arab Spring, began seven years ago. Today, Tunisia is still struggling to achieve democratic reforms and economic growth.

Tunisian Citizens Filling The Plaza in Front of The Prime Ministers S Office in Tunis
Image: Imago/Kyodo News

Thousands of young Tunisians have turned their backs on their country in recent years. One of them was Anis Amri, the man behind last year's attack on the Christmas market in Berlin. Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the attack, in which 12 people were killed and more than 70 injured.

Amri's actions sparked a brief but intense discussion in his homeland about the right way of dealing with jihadis, potential terrorists and migrants under obligation to return home.

But now that debate has, for the most part, fallen silent again. The primary concern for Tunisia's citizens and politicians is the dire economic situation in this country of 11 million people. Yet the two issues are closely connected.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Tunis this past March, she signed an agreement that established a procedure for swifter identification of Tunisians under obligation to leave Germany, and for the reissuing of their papers. "We will speed up repatriation," Merkel promised, "but then we will also help people arriving [back in Tunisia]."

Read more: Merkel seeks speedier deportations to Tunisia

Economy in crisis

Along with German Development Minister Gerd Müller, Merkel opened a so-called migration advice center in Tunis.

World in Progress: Tunisia's fledgling democracy

Like its counterparts in other countries, this center will advise not only Tunisians who want to travel to Germany legally, but also those who have returned from Germany, voluntarily or otherwise, and want to gain a foothold in the Tunisian job market.

However, instead of the 2,000 advice consultations it had aimed to conduct by the end of the year, by late November only about 600 people had benefited from its advice.

And even the best advice is of little use when there are hardly any jobs for the young Tunisian population. The unemployment rate is consistently high — official figures put it at around 15 percent — and Tunisia's financial and economic situation is becoming increasingly dire.

Over the past year, the Tunisian dinar has fallen around 25 percent against the euro, the country's foreign exchange reserves are at a historical low, and the balance of trade is so bad that banks are no longer allowed to extend any more credit for the import of products unless they are categorized as urgently required.

Read more: In Tunisia, returning migrants find a ray of hope

Nothing gained beyond freedom of expression

Young Tunisians hope to find luck in Europe

Tunisia is dependent on budgetary aid from the International Monetary Fund to finance its bloated bureaucracy, which consumes more than half of the government's budget. Between 2016 and 2018, this aid has amounted to around $1 billion (around €850 million), and is tied to extensive restructuring of the financial sector.

Seven years after the uprisings for "work, freedom and dignity," as the slogan declared, many young Tunisians feel that, beyond freedom of expression, they have gained little from the revolution.

Democracy dragging its feet

Tunisians are still waiting, for example, for the constitutional court to be set up, although according to the new constitution it should have already started its work in 2015. They've been waiting just as long for local elections to take place. These were supposed to be the first concrete step toward the decentralization of the country, which was also enshrined in the new constitution.

Regularly announced by the authorities, these elections have just as regularly been postponed — most recently on December 16, when it was announced that they would now take place in May 2018, instead of the end of March. Experts suspect the various governing parties don't feel ready yet, fearing they would be punished by disappointed voters for their meager political achievements.

No prospects

This situation is why the number of Tunisians trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat was higher in 2017 than at any time since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Young Tunisians out of work
Unemployed Tunisians are demanding opportunitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Messara

Italian authorities say that around 8,000 Tunisians arrived in Italy this year. More than 300 more "escape attempts" were intercepted in Tunisia, according to statistics from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), which also recorded that two-thirds of the mostly male migrants were between 20 and 30 years old.

Their reasons for attempting the crossing are mostly of a social and economic nature, rooted in the sense that there are no prospects for them in their homeland, said Valentin Bonnefoy from FTDES.

"They know, of course, that it's dangerous. But faced with the choice between dying in Tunisia or at sea, they would rather be someone who tried to find a better future elsewhere than stay at home and do nothing," he said.

With the economic situation continuing to deteriorate and the government concentrating on security issues, democratic change is proceeding at a snail's pace. Groundbreaking decisions, like the comprehensive penal reform to protect women from violence, contrast starkly with the lack of movement in other areas — areas that are fundamental to guaranteeing that the democratic achievements of the recent past will last into the future.

Tunisia – a struggling young democracy