Tunisia has achieved a lot. With a broad and solid consensus is emerging on the future of the country, and the secular and Islamist politicians agreeing to let the people choose, an elongated and protracted crisis has been averted as the new Parliament and new President took office. But it took four years, senseless destruction and many deaths before the Tunisians finally found a way out of the crisis. Yet, the country’s new leadership is still facing some of the same difficult problems that have been plaguing the nation for a long time.
As Tunisia celebrates the fourth anniversary of its Jasmine revolution on this January 2015, it is contemplating some major challenges ahead, starting with a highly dysfunctional economy, persistent labor strikes affecting critical sectors such as the phosphate and transportation industries, and many more obstacles to stability.
For those who continue to warn about these problems, it is one thing to have a new leadership through consensus, it is another thing to have an economy that operates with dysfunctional institutions and sectors. Their biggest concerns remain the unbalanced labor market, the lack of economic focus on inner provinces and regions, and simply the historical predominance of a bias judiciary in need of major overhaul. These are big structural issues that will require an effective government to tackle.
While the Tunisian people are looking for the new leadership to address these shortcomings in the big picture, they are even more concerned about the little practicle day-to-day issues they are facing, such as the rising cost of living, an inflation that exceeds the 5% mark, a seemingly permanently settled high unemployment rate, and insecurity and terrorism that continue to proliferate.
On this month of January 2015, the Tunisians are facing a unique environment of euphoria and despair. They are euphoric because of their achievements, and desperate because of so much remains to be achieved. On the streets, a strike in the transportation sector has crippled the country to a standstill. The celebrations have also drawn fewer participants, including the visible absence of the trade unions, who usually are central participants. Even the politicians had limited contribution to the anniversary celebrations, and by extension there has been a lesser popular participation.
For the leaders of the national trade union UGTT, despair is what kept the citizens away from the Jasmine Revolution festivities. Although they now have an elected government, there is a sense of frustration among the Tunisian people as to the trajectory of the “revolution” and its achievements. The never-ending cycle of strikes, including this latest one in the transportation sector, reflects the poor relationships that are linking the working class to the government.
From our perspective, it is inevitable that the cozy relationships between unions and government that existed during the Ben Ali regime will have to be challenged to its core if unions really wanted to represent workers and not toe the line to the government. But that would take a little while for unions to accept that their role has changed, hence their disappointment.
Among their biggest sources of disappointment is their perceived view that the outgoing interim government, and eventually the new one have been unwilling to address Tunisia’s rising cost of living. They say that it’s hurting the working class. While this is correct, the Tunisian government feels also obligated to reduce its subsidies for commodities that the Tunisians have been accustomed too. Pressures from international institutions, but also wanting to reduce the burden of a high-cost subsidy program, have all had a major effect on government policy. It is as if the reduction in subsidies is a must for the Tunisian government, acknowledging that tension is inevitable.
A quick poll of the Tunisian people and one can summarize their demands in three terms: employment, liberty and national dignity. These are the same keywords used by the Tunisians to assess the success or failure of the governments that have ruled since the fall the Ben Ali regime. Summarizing the general atmosphere and popular attitude, the secretary general of the UGTT says the country accomplished only a first set of achievements related to political stability. “Everything else is missing.” And to add, as a threat to the politicians in charge, that “while UGTT is not interested in politics, it will not be confined solely to negotiating wages and benefits.” The threat is that UGTT will be using its powers, including its ability to gather hundreds of thousands of workers to participate in the nation’s politics and policy planning and implementation. Also this is a side note to the politicians that they will keep an eye on them.
After Tunisia celebrated its achievements, it is now time to go down to nation building. The Arab world needs a model to follow, and Tunisia is well on track to become precisely that model.