TUNIS/THALA, Tunisia — A gas mask is spray-painted on a wall in the gritty Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, beneath it reads the phrase "We have suffocated." This captures the mood of Douar Hicher, where unemployment, crime and anger against Tunisia’s leaders hang heavily in the air.
“Everything is collapsing. The other day, a 25-year-old murdered his mother and his sisters here,” said Mohammed, who ekes out a living selling oranges. Pressed for a reason, the teenager offered, “They were poor; they had nothing. There is no stability, no work in Tunisia.” Young men with sullen faces filed past along the garbage-strewn streets purposelessly during working hours as if to illustrate his point.
Eight years ago, it was here and in the neighboring working class strongholds of Ettadhamen, al-Entilaka and el-Mnihla that the first protests against Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali reached Tunisia's capital. Today, many of the chronic ills that triggered the revolution and the lack of democratic institutions have thrust this North African nation of 11.7 million back into a crisis with no ready fixes in sight.
“The revolution was the biggest popular mobilization in Tunisia. An entire generation discovered the opportunity to change their lives,” said Olfa Lamloum, country director for International Alert, a global nongovernmental organization that specializes in conflict resolution and is helping with Tunisia’s transition to democracy. She added, “The result is a big zero. Young people are stuck having to choose between Lampedusa and DAESH.” Lamloum was referring to the Italian island where thousands of desperate Tunisians aided by trafficking rings have headed in recent years. DAESH is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS), which has attracted large numbers of Tunisian recruits.
Tunisian authorities said they had stopped 6,369 people from leaving the country illegally last year — almost twice as many as the year before. Some 1,600 souls perished on the way.
Their mothers blame the government. On the Jan. 14 celebrations to mark the eighth anniversary of the revolution, a group of mothers gathered in Tunis’ main Habib Bourguiba Avenue, holding up poster-size laminated photos of their sons. Some had “disappeared.” Others had made it to Italy. “We want our children back. Bring them back,” the women demanded.
Under Ben Ali, their protests would have landed them in jail. But this hard-won freedom is losing its shine as Tunisians struggle to make ends meet. Moncef Youssef, a fruit vendor in Tunis’ ancient Medina quarter, echoed frustration aired throughout the bazaar: “Life under Ben Ali was bad. Now it’s worse. Can my children fill their stomachs with freedom?” Like many, he said Tunisian politics was in need of “fresh blood [and] younger faces.” But, he lamented, “There are none so far.”
There are multiple reasons for the current impasse, which has seen the Tunisian dinar plummet, inflation jump, the middle class shrink and the tourism sector — a critical source of hard currency — struggle to recover from a spate of deadly attacks mounted by militants with links to IS and al-Qaeda. The country has remained under a state of emergency since 2015. All of this is threatening to bring down the sole democracy to survive the Arab Spring amid hushed — and overwrought — chatter about possible coups.
“It's a travesty,” observed a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor. “Tunisia is a small and easily manageable country. By the region’s standards, it's a democracy. It's got the world’s largest phosphate reserves, vast tourism potential, good agriculture, proximity to Europe, a young population, and yet. …”
According to most ordinary Tunisians and experts alike, the main culprits are the country’s corrupt and squabbling politicians and an oligarchic business elite — around 22 families allegedly monopolize the country’s wealth — who are loath to relinquish their privileges. Remnants of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary deep state, a murky constellation of bureaucrats and members of the security services, among others, are said to be determinedly torpedoing attempts at reform.
Last week, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) — the country's largest labor union with 700,00 members — called a nationwide strike, bringing the country to a halt after the government spurned its demands for pay hikes. One economist reckoned the action had cost the cash-strapped economy around $100 million in a single day. The union is threatening further strikes next month if its demands are not met. In 2015, it was among four Tunisian civil society groups awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting democracy in the wake of the revolution.
Now the UGTT stands accused, much like the oligarchs, of seeking to preserve its own influence under the guise of protecting its members.
Many say that things began to unravel after Beji Caid Essebsi became the country’s first democratically elected president in November 2014. The 92-year-old Essebsi, who held several key Cabinet posts under modern Tunisia’s first dictator, Habib Bourguiba, and then Ben Ali, is credited with steering the country through the tumult of the early days of the revolution. He went on to found the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, a loose coalition of secularists, business types, liberals and some former regime holdovers, which won parliamentary elections held in October 2014 but failed to garner enough seats to rule on its own.
Essebsi helped craft a governing “consensus-based" coalition with his nemesis, the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party. The latter, led by Rached Ghannouchi, the former Islamist dissident who studied philosophy at the University of Damascus, pulled in second. Its lackluster performance stemmed from widespread disillusion over its stint in power from 2011 to 2013 at the helm of a “troika” formed with two other secular parties. But Tunisia’s much-vaunted consensus is on life support with more than 80 deputies defecting from Nidaa Tounes over the past four years.
The latest spat pits Essebsi and his son Hafedh, who is in charge of Nidaa Tounes, against Youssef Chahed, the 43-year-old technocrat whom Essebsi handpicked to become a suitably malleable prime minister. But Chahed, the country’s ninth and longest-serving premier in 11 years — is at daggers drawn with Hafedh. Egged on by his father, Hafedh has sought to run the country from behind the scenes, forging his own patronage networks as head of Nidaa Tounes and embracing some of the UGTT’s populist rhetoric. This has undermined Chahed’s efforts to ram through reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a $2.8 billion loan.
Early signs of a showdown came in May 2017 when Chahed — declaring corruption to be a greater scourge than terrorism — oversaw the arrests of eight prominent businessmen and the freezing of their assets on suspicions of graft. They included Chafik Jarraya, a magnate who helped finance Nidaa Tounes and is rumored to be close to Hafedh. In July there followed Chahed’s suspension from Nidaa Tounes at Essebsi’s prompting.
But he managed to survive a no-confidence vote in parliament as further lawmakers quit the party in Chahed’s defense.
Leila Chettaoui, a former accountant, is one of them. Over foamy cappuccinos at a cafe in Tunis’ upscale La Marsa suburb, the green-eyed blonde parliamentarian spoke of ambitious plans for a new party that will be formally launched at the end of January. It remains unclear whether the party wants Chahed to run against Essebsi, who will be seeking a second term or to position himself to become prime minister again in presidential and parliamentary elections that are supposed to be held by the end of the year. Either way, Chettaoui told Al-Monitor he “must remain in government at least till the summer” because he “still has work to do.” Part of it is pushback against what she termed Essebsi’s salami tactics. “He’s erected a de facto presidential system; he is of an old guard mentality that cannot tolerate the idea of sharing power," Chettaoui charged.
To be sure, the government’s failure to appoint a constitutional court that would weigh in on such matters has created a legal void allowing the president to push beyond the limits of what ought to be a largely ceremonial role. If Essebsi “were unable to fulfill his functions or pass away, any transfer of power would be unconstitutional, perhaps opening the door to an authoritarian takeover," the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in a recent report. A Nidaa Tounes spokeswoman did not return Al-Monitor’s repeated requests to interview party members.
Paradoxically, the hemorrhaging in Nidaa Tounes has left Ennahda not the strongest but rather “the least weak political force,” argued Michael Ayari, the ICG’s man in Tunis, in an interview with Al-Monitor. The party remains leery of flexing its muscles for fear that this would provide ammunition for its opponents, who accuse Ghannouchi of being a crypto-radical with little evidence to support their claims. Many would like to see Ennahda marginalized if not outright banned.
Their worries are somewhat overblown. Four years of cohabitation with the secularists have tainted the party, most notably when it backed a 2017 law to amnesty officials accused of graft by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission — which has investigated financial and human rights crimes from 1955 through 2013. “It's the lack of democratic institutions, not Islamic radicalism, that threatens Tunisia most,” asserted Youssef Cherif, a prominent liberal commentator in an interview with Al-Monitor. “What this can lead to is not civil conflict. Tunisia won’t fail completely. Instead, we can end up as another Egypt,” he opined.
Ballooning disaffection was palpable in Tunisia’s first free municipal elections that were held in May. Turnout was a measly 33.7%, and mostly older voters showed up. Ennahda overtook Nidaa Tounes with 28.6% of the vote.
But the biggest winners were independents, who won 32.2% nationwide.
Tellingly, in Sidi Bouzid, the rural backwater where street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 — triggering the mass protests that toppled Ben Ali — independents bagged 40%, while Ennahda trailed at 25%. A similar picture emerged in neighboring Kasserine governorate, which is home to Chaambi Mountain where Jund al-Khilafah, an IS franchise, lurks.
One such independent is Abdel Majid Hayouni, the newly elected mayor of Thala — a hardscrabble mountaintop commune in Kasserine where Bouazizi’s self-immolation unleashed the first wave of riots. “We gave six martyrs to the revolution,” Hayouni said with visible pride. He used to belong to Nidaa Tounes but quit in disgust. “I do not want to do business with any of those parties,” he said during an interview in his glacial headquarters. “We have been waiting for the government to build a football stadium here for eight years, and they did nothing. We collect barely 10% of the money owed for services because people refuse to pay. Our youths have no diversion so they turn to drugs and contraband [with neighboring Algeria]; there is little hope.”
It was not always so. Visitors are greeted by the words “There are things worth living for in this land,” which are etched on a wall at the entrance to Thala. At the town’s only hotel, Zhine Sehili — who left his job with a tech giant in the United States to help rebuild his country — recalls when he first rented the place in 2012. Business was good with a steady stream of investors, civil society activists and NGOs renting rooms. “I was full of hope then,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, there was not a single customer as Sehili sat in front of a small fireplace — the sole source of heat in his ramshackle establishment. “It's crazy what is happening; it's very difficult to explain. We have a democracy but no country,” he told Al-Monitor.
“We sit in a town that has many natural resources, is the No. 1 source of marble and has the largest forestland in Tunisia. But what do people do? They sit in cafes and share coffee and cigarettes all day. Thala was much more prosperous under French colonization.”
Few in Kasserine are willing to say so for fear of attracting unwanted attention from police — the place is teeming with "snitches,” a fellow journalist confides. But more than a few of Kasserine’s youths are thought to have gone to Syria via neighboring Libya or Turkey to join IS. Alert International’s Lamloum asserted that the highest number of martyrs in the revolution were from Kasserine. The higher the number of martyrs in a given area, the higher their expectations from the revolution, and by extension, the higher the number of IS recruits. “The fundamental reason is not radical Islam, but lack of economic opportunity,” Lamloum told Al-Monitor.
Yet despite this bleak outlook, many Tunisians remain proud of the revolution’s gains. “The biggest achievement of our revolution is that we don’t feel compelled to fight each other,” said Mehrezia Labidi, a professional interpreter who was elected on the Ennahda ticket to the country’s first constituent assembly in 2011.
Refreshingly, few resort to the conspiracy mongering pervading the Middle East to shift blame to outsiders for their ills. Tawfiq Alouane, a retired public servant, is typical. “Let's face it: We are lazy,” he said. “Government employees go to work and spend most of their time on social media, then they complain that life is bad.” The only foreign powers that Tunisians point fingers at are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for seeking to sow discord in their country. Western diplomats concur that both countries feel threatened by Tunisia’s burgeoning democracy. “Tunisia is a bad example for them, a virus infecting them,” a European official told Al-Monitor.
Commentator Cherif agrees that, for all its problems, "Tunisia remains the only counter-example [in the region] to authoritarian rule.” He points to the sacking in June of the interior minister, Lotfi Brahem, “the kind of figure who doesn’t believe that this country can be led through democracy.”
What may seem at first to be Tunisians’ biggest vulnerability — the lack of a rigid sense of national identity — may be among their greatest strengths. “We are complicated,” laughed Naoufel Jammali, an Ennahda lawmaker from Sidi Bouzid. “We are more European than African, and we are not really Arabs. Most young people would rather speak English than French,” he said in an interview at the parliament in Tunis. Jammali added, “We have focused too much on the political process [and] over-intellectualized the revolution. It's time to focus on the problems of ordinary people instead.”
Correction: Jan. 24, 2019. An earlier version of this article said that Rached Ghannouchi was French-educated. Rather, he studied at the University of Damascus.