Revolution and Entropy

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the transition to democracy is sputtering.

By Norman Pearlstine and Tarek el-Tablawy

Children play on the street in Sidi Bouzid where Mohamed Bouazizi lived


Two years after he set himself on fire, Mohamed Bouazizi remains history’s most famous fruit vendor. Like many enterprising Tunisians, Bouazizi, 26, was subject to constant fines of as much as 10 times his daily earnings as he tried to make a living on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. After his scale and cart were seized on Dec. 17, 2010, he doused himself with a liter of paint solvent while standing in front of the provincial governor’s office. A flick of a lighter and ...

What then? Tunisia’s revolution and the Arab Spring that followed created a list of dead, imprisoned, or exiled autocrats — including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Tunisia’s own Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (Syria’s Bashar Assad hangs on, brutally.) But hope and vengeance are very different from progress, as Ben Ali’s successor as president, the physician and ex-opposition leader Moncef Marzouki, has discovered.

On Dec. 17, 2012, Marzouki went to Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the man and the moment that began all the changes in the region, only to be greeted by angry chants of “Leave! Leave!” When he told the crowd he lacked a “magic wand” to cure Tunisia’s ills, the response was a hailstorm of rocks and tomatoes. Marzouki had to be hustled into a car and sped away from the stage.

“Nothing has changed, and that’s the sad reality,” says Mohamed Amri, a close friend of the Bouazizi family. Unemployment is officially 18 percent, but a September study published by the Middle East Economic Association says about 50 percent of young Tunisians with higher education are without work. At 33, Amri is unemployed and relies on an allowance from his father to cover soaring food and living costs. “I feel like I need to be optimistic, but in the end, I’m pessimistic.”

On Dec. 12, Fitch Ratings downgraded Tunisia’s sovereign ratings, citing the slow transition to a free economy and “large twin budget and current-account deficits.” Standard & Poor’s has downgraded the country to junk status, too. Meji Djelloul, a professor of Islamic history at Manouba University in Tunis, the capital, says 80 percent of his students are eager to leave after graduating. “In 25 years of teaching I have never encountered such a sense of helplessness,” he says.

It need not be this bleak. The revolution lifted restraints on expression that had existed for decades, and Tunisians seem to agree that even without a functioning constitution, they feel more free — a significant accomplishment. The country has close social and economic ties to Europe, a highly educated populace, and infrastructure that’s among the best in the Arab world, with good roads and nine commercial airports serving a country the size of Florida.

Tunisia has the further comfort of knowing it’s not alone. In its political and economic struggles, Egypt is Tunisia’s larger, perhaps more troubled mirror. Both saw Islamists take top government positions while Salafis, who embrace the strictest, most puritanical interpretation of Islam, have pressed for an even greater role for religion in the reborn nations. (Egyptian secularists are angered by a constitution they say was forced upon them, while Tunisia’s latest constitutional draft was stripped of references to sharia, or Islamic law.) Both countries also saw their economies contract sharply in reaction to change. Egypt’s net international reserves fell almost 60 percent, to $15 billion, over the past two years. Tunisia’s economy contracted 1.8 percent in 2011. Last year growth was likely 2.7 percent and could rise to 3.3 percent this year, says the International Monetary Fund. “We are going through a complicated transition, not unlike what Eastern Europe went through,” says Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, a former professor of politics in Britain who returned to Tunisia after the revolution. “We need to prove that it is possible to have democracy in the Arab world.”

Weaker economies in Europe have hurt tourism and exports, two of Tunisia’s chief sources of revenue. That’s left officials appealing to the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, for investment. So far Tunisia hasn’t received the support it sought, let alone the aid it was promised. At its May 2011 summit in Deauville, France, the Group of Eight pledged more than $30 billion to assist new Arab governments. “When we spoke about intentions, it was $30 billion,” jokes Alaya Bettaieb, secretary of state to the minister of investment and international cooperation. “When we spoke about action, it was $250 million” that was delivered.

Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy would have been easier had the collapse of the Ben Ali regime not been so sudden. Amri, Bouazizi’s friend, suggests the man who started it all didn’t even know how flammable the paint thinner he poured on himself was, let alone the impact of his act of martyrdom. Other protesters, in Tunisia and across the Arab world, decided to set themselves afire in the weeks and months that followed. Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist best known for his work seeking property rights for peasants, has studied the underclass in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. He documented 164 deaths by self-immolation in the six months following Bouazizi’s act. “The ground was fertile socially, economically, and politically for this kind of statement,” says Ali Bouazizi, a cousin who played a key role in the revolution by filming and uploading to his Facebook page a video of the protest after the fruit seller’s death.

The embers of unrest remain hot. Tunisia’s first truly free elections in 2011 yielded a Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the country’s new charter and also serving as its parliament. Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party whose name translates to Renaissance, won 41 percent of the seats and together with two smaller secular parties formed a ruling coalition.

The constitution is still a source of great uncertainty, as are Ennahda’s broader intentions. Critics on the right maintain that the party has stressed its commitment to Tunisia’s secular tradition in public, while urging Salafis to be patient for the realization of their goals behind closed doors. Salafis, including Mouldi Mojahed, who heads the Salafi-controlled al-Asala Party, says Ennahda “has backed away from its principles.”

Neither side has been pacified. Salafis have been blamed for the serial arson of stores selling alcohol as well as the September attack on the U.S. embassy amid outrage over a YouTube clip denigrating Islam’s prophet. Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, an official in the opposition Jumhuri, or Republican, Party says, “The Islamists don’t know how to govern,” and the win by Ennahda in October 2011 was “not very reassuring to the economic stakeholders in the country.”

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has tried to walk the middle ground. “The Tunisian people have their own identity, and they agreed on this identity,” says Jebali in an interview, affirming the country’s commitment to secularism. Jebali, who spent 10 years in solitary confinement while Ben Ali controlled the country, says the new constitution won’t impose Islamic law and will respect women’s rights. He and Ennahda have also pledged to support a market economy, if not a workers’ paradise; he rages at those he suggests have riled up labor unions and “who live with the idea of the proletariat revolution, and who believe that the revolution in Tunisia was led by the proletariat.”

Sorting out how to improve the lives of ordinary Tunisians, regardless of their politics, is complicated by a lack of economic facts. At a conference organized by Utica, a group representing Tunisia’s largest employers, De Soto, the economist, estimated that the black market economy is more than 10 times the size of all companies on the country’s stock exchange. Others have suggested off-the-books trade represents as much as 30 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. The divisions between the corporate and informal sectors run deeper than matters of accounting. Wided Bouchamaoui, Utica’s president and head of one of Tunisia’s largest business enterprises, says the informal economy condones violence. “It is disastrous for legitimate businesses serving consumers,” she says.

Prime Minister Jebali acknowledges the size of the informal economy and continued problems with corruption. (The nation saw its corruption ranking, issued by Transparency International, slide from 59th in 2010 to 75th in 2012.) He pledges that Tunisia will do more to address these problems as democratic institutions take hold and the economy strengthens. In the meantime, he says priorities include addressing the “heavy taxation of the formal economy” and the inability of a “young economy to absorb unemployed youth.”

For those who have been waiting, patience is running short. Habib Kasdalli set himself afire shortly after Bouazizi when a civil servant denied him government benefits for a mental disability. Seated in a Tunis hotel, Kasdalli describes his nervous condition as his burn-scarred hands twitch. When he pulls off a blue knit cap, his scalp is grotesquely scarred. “I felt oppressed, and I felt hopelessness,” Kasdalli says. The revolution offered a respite. Relief remains a long way off.

With reporting from Jihen Laghmari in Tunis and Caroline Alexander in London


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