The Specter of a Second Arab Spring

Tunis, Tunisia (TFC) – At the end of 2010, the suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi sparked an uprising that would quickly topple the Tunisian government and end the reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  This revolution fueled the Arab Spring which would affect much of North Africa and the Middle East.  Despite the destruction that the Arab Spring brought onto the region, for a variety of reasons, Tunisia was able to develop into a liberal democracy, complete with a constitution that guaranteed gender equality, pluralism, the rule of law, and a fair regional distribution of resources.  However, since the new government took power, it has failed to deliver on promises to combat unemployment and to provide an equal distribution of resources.  This has led to protests and unrest that threatens to destabilize the only democracy in North Africa.

The Tunisian Revolution was sparked in December 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated after a municipal inspector confiscated his fruit stand.  News of this act spread quickly over social media and regional peaceful protests broke out spontaneously.  A heavy handed crackdown by the police quickly led to organized nationwide protests that increasingly began to focus on economic inequality, corruption, and youth unemployment.  President Ben Ali tried to end the protests by promising job creation but the protesters did not trust the sincerity of his proposal.  Protests soon reached the capital and on 14 January 2011, President Ben Ali dissolved the government and fled the country.

Following the flight of Ben Ali, the country was able to transform itself into a fledging democracy with competitive elections and respect for human rights.  However, problems still plague the country as Islamic terror groups operate in the country.  The government has also continued to struggle to combat youth unemployment, which is currently at 15%.  However, unemployment has hit youth and college-educated graduates the hardest and 62% remain without jobs.  Furthermore, the government has been unable to address the inequality between wealthy coastal regions and impoverished inland desert regions, which has been identified as one of the driving forces of the Tunisian Revolution.

The persistence of these problems has once again stirred the rumblings of revolution.  On 17 January 2016, Ridha Yahyaoui committed suicide out of frustration with his poor employment prospects.  This inspired a spate of attempted protest suicides which eventually sparked protests against unemployment and perceived governmental neglect of the rural population.  These massive protests have since reached the capital and the government has responded with a curfew and promises of job creation in the Kasserine region, where the protests started.  Fortunately, the security services have, thus far, responded to these protests with nonlethal force.  However, the prospect of escalation is not out of the question as 423 people have been arrested and a police officer has already been killed.

These developments are very concerning as Tunisia, which is the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy, could potentially be destabilized.  The protesters have legitimate concerns about their future and quality of life.  However, it is unclear whether the government has the capabilities to solve the complex poverty-related issues that Tunisia faces.  The government’s budget has taken a severe hit as tourism revenue has dried up in the face of security threats and it would appear that the government simply lacks the resources to invest in the development of rural areas.  As a result, it will be very difficult for the government to meet the protesters’ demands.

If the protests escalate into revolution, then it could destabilize the country and create a power vacuum that jihadist groups, like ISIS and AQIM, could exploit.  This possibility is becoming more likely as elements of the security services have reportedly staged their own protests regarding their wages.  The prospect of revolution is especially alarming in light of rising tensions in Egypt, which threatens wider regional instability.  As a result, it is vital that all sides remain calm and refrain from escalating the situation.

Massive amounts of foreign assistance will also be required to provide short and long-term solutions to Tunisia’s unemployment problems and to address chronic underdeveloped rural areas.  France has pledged $1.1 billion in aid over five years to assist the Tunisian government.  However, given that this represents only a small portion of Tunisia’s GDP, it is unclear how much of an impact it will have.  Furthermore, it is unclear whether this initiative can promote long-term economic development beyond the five year timeframe of this assistance.  As a result, more foreign funding will be needed to address the root causes of the protests.

This crisis is a stark reminder of the lessons that modern history can offer us.  The last 250 years, from the French Revolution to 20th century Vietnam to the Arab Spring, have clearly demonstrated that high youth unemployment does not lend itself well to stable societies.  Governments the world over, and especially those in fragile, developing countries, would be wise to heed these historical lessons and to do their utmost to provide youth with opportunities for gainful employment and prospects for a better future.  Failure to do so will inevitably result in continued instability around the world.