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Tunisia's Five-Year Itch

  • Daniella Cheslow

A statue of the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, revered for instituting universal education, health care, and women's rights.

A statue of the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, revered for instituting universal education, health care, and women's rights.

TUNIS -- Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, has made a triumphant return to the tree-lined grand boulevard bearing his name in the capital.

A towering equestrian statue honoring the late leader had been exiled to a suburb of Tunis by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who ousted Bourguiba in 1987. But hundreds of thousands of Tunisians gathered on this boulevard to demand Ben Ali's ouster in 2011, setting in motion the restoration of the monument to its rightful place this May.

Tunisians revere Bourguiba, who led the country to independence from France in 1956 and instituted universal education, health care, women's rights, and law and order. His legacy of modernization, unity, and stability through gradual change is looked upon fondly by a nation that has seen eight governments in the past five years and a spate of terrorist attacks that have hobbled a lucrative tourism industry.

Five years after the so-called Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians are trying to restore the economic prosperity and security of Bourguiba's time, while cultivating the citizens' rights and democracy that his three-decade rule lacked, and facing a population that is getting impatient waiting for results.

Restoring Prosperity

Dhouha Hamada sits in a sunny courtyard of a downtown Tunis cafe where students laugh and drink lemonade and coffee.

The 28-year-old holds a master's degree in engineering, but says she has applied for hundreds of jobs and received only three interviews. "I wake up in the morning. I drink coffee with my friends. Then I go home and I read some books," she says. "I want to do something more important."

Nearly a third of young Tunisians are unemployed, and they are losing patience with the glacial progress of the new government. In late 2010, a frustrated young street vendor ignited the revolution by immolating himself in the central city of Sidi Bouzid. In January of this year, college graduate Ridha Yahyaoui died after he climbed an electricity pole while protesting his joblessness in the city of Kasserine. His death inspired renewed protests and strikes across Tunisia.

A Tunisian waits by the locked gate to the Libyan market in Ben Gardane, located close to the border with Libya, where the local economy is largely dependent on the smuggling of contraband.

A Tunisian waits by the locked gate to the Libyan market in Ben Gardane, located close to the border with Libya, where the local economy is largely dependent on the smuggling of contraband.

Political analyst Youssef Cherif says that not only has the economy stalled, it has lost vital pillars. Neighboring Libya, formerly Tunisia's strongest trading partner, has collapsed, and tourism arrivals are down by 35 percent following high-profile attacks carried out by Islamic extremists.

"In most young Tunisians there is this perception that the state is there to offer you jobs," he says. "During the Ben Ali era, the state was always making people hope they can get jobs. Now the state leaders, political leaders, openly say that they cannot offer jobs anymore."

Tunisia's government is trying to look forward. Last year it laid out an ambitious development plan that set a goal of 5 percent annual growth, based on increased investment and trade. The current rate stands at 1 percent, but there is reason for optimism. The International Monetary Fund has approved a $2.9 billion loan to Tunisia, tied to market reforms outlined in the government plan, including reducing the bloated public sector and developing private enterprise. The World Bank, the EU, and the United States have together pledged another $6 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

The envisioned high growth rate would seem unfeasible -- except that Tunisia saw a similar rate of expansion in the 1990s under the rule of Ben Ali, largely driven by government investment.

Political Recalibration

One of the central challenges to implementing economic reforms since the revolution is Tunisia's inability to establish a lasting government. Still, Tunisia has survived the rocky transition far better than other Arab Spring countries like Egypt, which saw a military coup, or Syria and Libya, which are consumed by war. Coalition government has been key to this political pendulum swinging.

President Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia's current president, is a technocrat and founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party who served under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali. In May, Essebsi appeared at the 10th annual convention of his chief political rival, the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party. It was a milestone for the party inspired and influenced by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Outlawed under Ben Ali, Ennahda swept Tunisia's first free elections in 2011 but was forced out after the assassination of two opposition leaders and its perceived soft management of hard-line Salafist groups. That 2013 crisis threatened to destabilize Tunisia's democracy.

Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party had been founded the year earlier to oust Ennahda, and Essebsi himself was a strident critic of the party. But rather than descend into chaos, Tunisia managed a peaceful transition to new leadership.

Tunisian women cross over a trench full of garbage in the poverty-stricken town of Douar Hicher, northeast of Tunis.

Tunisian women cross over a trench full of garbage in the poverty-stricken town of Douar Hicher, northeast of Tunis.

Since then, Ennahda has been an advocate of compromise. At the party's convention, held in the coastal city of Hammamet, lawmaker Sayida Ounissi explained that her party would be splitting from its Islamist roots and pursuing a program of economic goals for all Tunisians.

"The way Ennahda was for the last 30 years was good enough for the context we were in," she said. "But we need today to anticipate the demands in terms of the economy, social justice, social cohesion, and employment."

President Essebsi appeared at the convention to roaring applause and blessed the change.

In January, several members of Nidaa Tounes splintered into a new party, claiming that Essebsi was trying to ensure his son would succeed him. Today, Ennahda holds the most seats in parliament, but has not demanded leadership. Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a Yale doctoral student researching Tunisian democracy, explains that "the wounds of the 2013 crisis are still fresh, and Ennahda sees no interest in rocking the boat."

Bolstering Security

The problem of terrorism that emerged under Ennahda has continued under the secular Nidaa Tounes. Tunisian members of the Islamic State group killed nearly 60 tourists in 2015, the majority in a mass shooting targeting a seaside resort one year ago this week. Holidaymakers have since ditched Tunisia, and arrivals last year fell to 5.5 million, the lowest figure in decades.

To stanch the bleeding, the government has doubled down on security. Police are concentrated heavily in the capital, Tunis. There's a new barrier under construction on the border with Libya, which has proven a training ground for Tunisian extremists. President Essebsi says countering terrorism costs some $4 billion annually, which represents 8 percent of the country's GDP.

It's not only a domestic problem; as many as 7,000 Tunisian jihadis are thought to have traveled to Syria and Iraq, and the government has imposed a travel restriction that requires men and women under age 35 to get parental consent before traveling to countries deemed high-risk for terrorist activities.

Human Rights Watch charges that Tunisian authorities have passed a broad antiterrorism law that violates civil rights by granting the state sweeping surveillance powers.

Safeguarding Rights

A key to protecting civil rights in the new Tunisia is the country's constitution, approved in 2014 after a tumultuous public debate. It recognizes freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, fair trial, and gender equality. It also guarantees freedom of worship, but sets Islam as a state religion. The National Dialogue Quartet that shepherded the constitution into being as part of Ennahda's peaceful stepping down won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the new constitution has not done away with all the holdovers from Ben Ali's time.

Rim Temimi, a photographer whose pictures of the 2011 demonstrations in Tunis were exhibited worldwide, says Tunisia's new leaders continue to use draconian Ben Ali-era laws, like one that criminalizes homosexuality or another that penalizes marijuana smokers with jail.

She speaks while drinking local Celtia beer on a terrace overlooking the sunset in Sidi Bou Said, an upscale neighborhood in the capital. Temimi, 43, says that at first she found the Jasmine Revolution exhilarating, but her confidence eroded after the assassinations of secular leaders.

"People stole the country," Temimi says. She claims the current government, headed by the octogenarian Essebsi, is out of touch with the needs of the people. "It's supposed to be a revolution of the youth, but it has been taken over by dinosaurs!"

Other Tunisians say the abstract promises of a constitution ignore their needs.

"The politicians are occupied with the new constitution," says Hamada, the unemployed engineering graduate. "I have to work." She plans to take English lessons in hopes of finding a job in Sweden.

Journalist Zouheir Latif founded a new private TV station, Telvza, in 2013, and today employs about 100 people through its various companies.

Journalist Zouheir Latif founded a new private TV station, Telvza, in 2013, and today employs about 100 people through its various companies.

A Few Steps From Bourguiba

Journalist Zouheir Latif says he returned to Tunisia after the revolution following nearly two decades of forced exile for his political activism. He founded a new private TV station, Telvza, in 2013, and today employs about 100 people through its various companies. His work has taken him around the region, including to war-torn Syria, and given him a sense that Tunisia is perhaps on the right path.

No political party could possibly deliver on all the promises of the revolution at once, he says. "We are so sentimental, our people. We fall in love [with a party] in five minutes and we fall out of love in three minutes," Latif says. "To build trust and democracy, you need time."

He speaks a few steps from the statue of Bourguiba, still wrapped in plastic in the days before its June 1 unveiling. Under Ben Ali he would not have been able to give an interview freely on the boulevard, Latif notes.

When Ben Ali removed Bourguiba's statue, he replaced it with an imposing clock tower. Now, although Bourguiba retains his grand legacy, his statue has not returned to its exact position, but rather, a few steps away.

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