Tunisia in Trouble

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned yesterday, after failing to form a new coalition government. Jebali’s departure comes after two weeks of political crisis sparked by the assassination of a secular opposition leader, an event blamed by some on the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Tunisians were the original — and arguably best — case study in the Arab Spring, ousting their dictator and spreading a revolutionary ideal throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is now two years later, however, and in Egypt many fear the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood is becoming dictatorial; in Syria the unrest has become civil war; and now even Tunisia’s revolution appears at risk.  All this serves to cast a dark shadow over the sustainability of the gains made by those who participated in the protests — be they in Tahrir Square or in Tunis.

A survey of the major dailies in the region reveals a rather gloomy outlook on the track record of the Arab Spring movements and their likelihood for success in the long term. Asharq Alawsat’s Osman Mirghani senses that, having put the honeymoon period behind them, most regimes in place since the start of the Arab Spring now have to face a different reality: “Two years on from the Arab Spring there are still more questions than answers, and many concerns are still prevalent. All the feelings of joy and optimism—along with the celebratory atmosphere in the squares—have vanished, to be replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear towards an unknown and mysterious future; a fear reinforced by the cycle of violence and unrest from Tunisia to Yemen, and from Libya to Egypt.”

The change in the status quo seems to have unsettled some that preferred the older status quo. Fearing for the fate of the Christian minorities in many of these countries, “the newly appointed patriarch of Iraq’s largest Christian community said Saturday that the Arab Spring had been hijacked by narrow interests and had promoted tension and bloodshed. Asked about the impacts on Christians of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East that eventually led to the ouster of strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya and the conflict in Syria, the head of the Chaldean Church Louis Sako said the changes had initially signaled hope. ‘But unfortunately, it went in a different direction.’”

Still, there are some who hold out hope that in the long run the societies in these countries — and indeed the whole region — will be better off as a result of the Arab Spring. The Daily Star’s Rami G. Khouri, for example, believes that one must remain optimistic in the face of the current challenges, even though “It is easy for the observer surveying this slightly chaotic regional picture to give in to pessimism and … declare the Arab uprisings a messy failure….That would be an unfortunate and inaccurate conclusion, because beneath the surface reality of turbulence that occasional turns into violence or stalemate is a much more complex, time-consuming and hopeful trend.”

Calls for optimism aside, it is clear from most editorials and commentaries that the killing of an opposition leader in Tunisia has ushered in a new era of insecurity in what had otherwise been a mostly positive story following the ousting of Ben Ali. Many seem to agree with the Gulf Times editorial’s view that the killing of Chokri Belaid has put the moderate ruling Islamist party Ennahda in a bind: “Belaid’s assassination was an attack on Tunisia’s model, which was built on a consensus between moderate Islamists, as represented by Ennahda, and moderate secularists as represented by his Congress for the Republic party and a third coalition partner Ettakatol.”

As a result of the instability following the killing of Mr. Belaid, some fear Tunisia could quickly descend into chaos, unless the government moves quickly to close the gap between itself and the protesters. The Daily Star editorial, for example, warns that Tunisia could quickly descend from a model of the Arab Spring to a “pariah,” and could be “on the threshold of losing everything it has achieved in the past two years if its leaders are not going to have the intelligence to bridge the gaps of communication and cooperation in the country and to learn from the mistakes of the former regime and what’s happening around it. It would be a shame for this revolution, which was the catalyst for change in the region, to end up not as an example but instead as a pariah.”

But others are not so sure that the instability can be solved merely by closing a communication gap. The problem at the core of all troubles across the Arab world, including Tunisia, seems to be anemic economic growth and the resulting scarce opportunities for employment. In its editorial, the Khaleej Times staff asserts that “Unless the leaders are able to improve the material prospects of the restless Tunisians, the country is bound to face more unrest. All that the Tunisians, and even the neighboring Egyptians, care about at the moment are better economic prospects. And for this, they are willing to throng the streets for as long as it takes.”

Similarly, another editorial, this time from The Peninsula, draws attention to the nearly impossible task the Tunisian government faces in the deteriorated economic conditions since the collapse of the Ben Ali regime: “After Belaid’s killing, Tunisia has virtually come to a standstill….The Tunisian premier faces a challenge of reconciling the demands of the ruling party with the aspirations of a people frustrated with a foundering economy — the unemployment rate is higher than it was at the beginning of the revolution.”

Ultimately, as some have suggested, the recent instability in Tunisia and Egypt has as much to do with the how the post-revolutionary regimes have managed their electoral victories than with anything else.  Al Hayat’s Ghassan Charbel, bemoaning the decrepit institutional state following Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule, points out that perhaps the Islamist parties might have moved too fast to turn their electoral victories into enduring ones: “Are elections results enough to draft constitutions hastily and take electoral mandates further than society can bear? Is it true that the ballot boxes have engendered victors who are well-versed on opposition roles and secretive or half secretive action, but who lack experience in the affairs of state administration? Is it true that some forces were not expecting the approaching feast so they rushed to devour it?”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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