Analysis |

Revolution Looms as Arab Spring's Poster Child Plunges to Economic Despair

Tunisia finds itself in desperate need of an immediate injection of cash. But will the public be patient enough to wait for the promised relief?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi, right, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and media mogul Rupert Murdoch at the international investment conference Tunisia 2020, November 29, 2016.
Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi, right, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and media mogul Rupert Murdoch at the international investment conference Tunisia 2020, November 29, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The success story of the only “Arab Spring” country that was able to establish a democratic regime and construct a relatively stable government is now in danger. Six years after the start of the dramatic events that changed the face of the Middle East, the harsh economic crisis in which Tunisia finds itself leaves the country in need of an immediate injection of cash so it can not only boast a new system of government, but also meet the economic needs of its 11 million citizens, mainly those of the unemployed, whose number is on the rise.

To raise this money, Tunisia organized a large economic conference at the end of last month, which drew about 2,000 senior representatives from many countries, including heads of state and directors of corporations, who pledged to help the country with more than $15 billion. Part of this sum is to come in investments, part in grants or development loans. Prominent among the donors was Qatar, whose ruler, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, promised $1.25 billion. Following him was the European Union, which promised investments of over 300 million euros.

Although these are encouraging figures, experience teaches that there is usually quite a large gap between promises and actual implementation. Tunisia will at least be able to finance the organization of the conference from the successful sale of an Airbus that was ordered for its former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was recently sold to Turkish Airlines. Libya, incidentally, has not had such luck, and a similar plane ordered for its late ruler Muammar Gadhafi is still parked in the airport in France waiting for a buyer.

A demonstration of unemployed people against the government's policy on December 10, 2016 in Tunis, Tunisia.Credit: AFP

The aid package that Tunisia received from the International Monetary Fund – $2.8 billion over four years, comes with a series of conditions, of which the most important and threatening is a cutback in subsidies, which today constitute about 10 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, and a reduction of government expenditures on salaries, so that they won’t exceed 14 percent of the GDP. It is clear to the young Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, whose new government was appointed last August, that without significant cutbacks in government expenditures he won’t be able to carry out the reforms he promised to the IMF.

Do Tunisians have the necessary patience?

The worrisome question is whether the Tunisian public will be patient enough to wait for the promised improvement in the economy, and to absorb the economic cutbacks expected in the coming year. What may benefit the Tunisian government is actually its unique democracy, which allows the population, and mainly the elites, to participate in its decisions, opens the arena of public discourse and permits criticism in the media of its decisions and activity. In that Tunisia differs from Egypt, where any criticism of the president’s policy is liable to lead to the critic’s harassment or arrest.

Also, in Tunisia several of the former heads of the General Labor Union – the largest organization in the country, which is liable to threaten its economic stability – are serving in the government. They therefore become partners in shaping economic policy and can influence the labor union, instead of being part of the problem and applying pressure on the government.

Although that is not enough to guarantee that the Tunisian public won’t take to the streets, if the assumption that a public which is more aware of the economic situation and understands the country’s difficulties is more likely to accept economic steps with greater understanding is correct, then Tunisia is likely to overcome this crisis with relative calm.

The unusual relationship in Tunisia between the regime and the public is reflected in the establishment three years ago of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which collects thousands of testimonies from people who were harmed by the regime – and not only that of the previous president, who ruled for 23 years, but dating to 1955. This is an exceptional process, in which the country has allocated about $12 million to fund the commission’s activity.

Tunisia, as opposed to Egypt, has also succeeded in reaching political agreements with the religious Ennahda party, which ceded its positions of power after its sweeping victory in the election, enabling a primarily secular coalition government to lead the country. The combination of multiparty politics and public openness is likely to contribute significantly not only to the stability of the government, but to finding solutions to the economic crisis as well.

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