x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

In Tunisia, a sense of change infuses the air

Tunisia is offering real-time test results on the limits of popular patience, how expectations react with reality and the conditions that must trigger government action

Foreign tourists are returning in greater numbers two years after Tunisia marked the anniversary of the June 26 terrorist attack on the holiday beach resort of Sousse. Lindsay Mackenzie
Foreign tourists are returning in greater numbers two years after Tunisia marked the anniversary of the June 26 terrorist attack on the holiday beach resort of Sousse. Lindsay Mackenzie

Summer in the Maghreb is generally thought to be a time when indolence finds respectability. Not so in Tunisia this year. The soaring temperatures are matched by a sudden surge of active hope that a long season of ill-luck may be turning.

Foreign tourists are returning in greater numbers after Tunisia marked the second anniversary of the June 26 terrorist attack on the holiday beach resort of Sousse. More international flights are starting to arrive as well. Air Malta has just announced it’s returning to north Africa via Tunisia after an eight-year gap. One of the first European airlines to resume regular service to Tunis, it will create vital connections with cities such as Vienna, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Brussels, Marseille, Catania, Milan and Zurich.

And then there is the government’s vigorous campaign against corruption. With Tunisia’s young prime minister, Youssef Chahed, leading the charge, the administration began arresting mafia bosses and smuggling barons in May. It has kept up the heat since. The prime minister has even cast corruption as a security issue, saying he is “persuaded there is a link between smuggling, terrorism financing, cross-border activities and also capital flight".

The cumulative effect of such fighting talk has been a substantial increase in the prime mister’s popularity. It is also energising the people of the country that became the role model for the Arab world with its 2011 Jasmine Revolution, only to be miserably denied the economic and governance dividends of democracy, while terrorism subsequently savaged its crucial tourism sector. For the first time in six years, there is a quickening sense of the possibilities of real change.

Tunisians are all agog about their government’s sweeping crackdown on organised crime. Last month, an ally and distant relative of the deposed dictator of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi was arrested in France, almost certainly at the Tunisian government’s request. Nearly two-dozen customs officials have been removed from their posts and many more face a disciplinary tribunal. The alleged wrong-doers will be tried by military tribunals, a measure both of the government’s resolve and perhaps of the difficulty of the task at hand.

Naysayers say that the new anti-corruption campaign is a cynical ploy to neutralise dissent and settle political scores, especially within factions of the main governing Nidaa Tounes party. But many others are reading recent events as a sign that the state is finally prepared to deal with the entrenched corruption that has gridlocked Tunisia’s economy, cost it billions of dollars in lost revenue, closed off competition, choked entrepreneurial zeal and enshrined the elite from the Sahel, the eastern coastal region, in positions of power.

If Mr Chahed’s government means business, it would be a second, less flashy but more significant revolution for Tunisia. Consider the independent NGO International Crisis Group’s denunciation of Tunisia’s so-called “democratisation” of corruption, which is to say the widening arc of the compromised. This has paralysed badly-needed economic reform, it said, and key administrative positions that control access to credit and the formal economy are being monopolised, thereby reinforcing regional inequalities. That would partly explain why the country’s high unemployment rate – it flickers above 15 per cent – is even higher in the west and the south, both of which are well away from the coastal centres of tourism, commerce and industry.

That would also explain the sporadic, yet all too frequent rioting that flares up in poor regions far from the coast. Most recently, jobless young men around the southern town of Tatouine demonstrated off and on for two months from March. They were demanding assured jobs for locals with the oil companies newly drilling in the area. The protests were said to be reminiscent of the 2011 uprising.

Seventeen months ago, something similar happened in the impoverished province of Kasserine. The death by electrocution of a disaffected young car mechanic who was climbing a pylon to draw attention to his plight triggered 2011-style protests, rattling the government and calling into question once again Tunisia’s faltering experiment with democracy.

Is protest a chronic condition of post-dictatorship Tunisia then, or is it a manifestation of a deeper malaise? The beginnings of an answer may lie in a paper the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a couple of years ago. Titled Why is Democracy Performing so Poorly?, the paper noted the remarkable worldwide progress in democratization over 45 years – 110 electoral democracies in 2014, compared to 35 in 1970 – but also the “democratic recession” especially in the Middle East, after the Arab Spring. In searching for the cause of the “recession”, Professor Fukuyama zoomed in on the “performance of democracies…the failure to establish modern, well-governed states that has been the Achilles heel of recent democratic transitions.” New democracies have to keep pace with popular demands for democratic accountability, he wrote.

Like a laboratory experiment in democracy, Tunisia is offering real-time test results on the limits of popular patience, how expectations react with reality and the conditions that must trigger government action. But unlike most scientific lab experiments, this is not in a controlled environment.

It will be tricky.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs