Arab Spring's 10th anniversary: Tunisia back to square one / News / News agency Inforos
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Arab Spring's 10th anniversary: Tunisia back to square one

Unlimited democracy and freedom of speech brought no stability or livelihoods

Arab Spring's 10th anniversary: Tunisia back to square one

Tunisia. In my early book, I called it "a European country that accidentally found itself in Africa". The Sorbonne elite provided effective development guarantees for the Tunisians and their republic. Between 1984, when I came there for the first time, and 2010, Tunisia became Africa's second-fastest growing economy. From outside it resembled a sea paradise. Half a million Russian tourists, who have started visiting local luxury resorts each and every year, can attest to this.

But there's a hitch. People were getting increasingly outraged by the fact that several brothers of President Ben Ali's wife Leila had brought to hill nearly the entire economy of this north African country located between Libya and Algeria. So, hatred of this "family" acting under first lady's umbrella, eventually preconditioned the fact that the flourishing country was thrown into the Arab Spring abyss.

To this very day Tunisia lacks in accomplishments, even though there has been no civil war there, even though regular elections endure, even though the sun keeps shining and tourists come here even despite the COVID pandemic to enjoy the empty Mediterranean beaches. This time, apparently, it's going to be a long haul.

After the family of Ben Ali was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia (it was a January 2011 swift escape from the angry mobs that raged in the capital, chanting "Down with them!"), the country came to experience a number of various management options. From election to election, the civil power switched from the Islamists to former president's supporters being still thick on the ground, but the growing economic troubles could no longer be amortized by revenues from tourism and olive oil exports. Something had collapsed in the state mechanism.

Upon the beginning of those events, I wrote that "the Tunisians should kiss President Ben Ali's hands, but instead they expelled their leader and now accuse him of all manner of offenses. They destroy their country to this cry." In 1984 the number of people living below the poverty level accounted for 14 percent; by 2010 this figure fell to 3.8 percent. According to the UN, the national per capita income has increased tenfold in twenty-five years (under Ben Ali)! Urban youth went into higher education nearly across the board. In 2010, up to 60 percent of the population was middle class. There are fifty things to say about this, as well as about the expulsion of Ben Ali which encouraged a lot of Tunisians to fondly await "genuine democracy".

Their slogans, formulated, for instance, by professor of political science Larbi Sadiki, who positioned himself as an "independent" figure, were both unacceptably naive and, what's worse, irresponsible. Saying for the crowd, he stated the following: "We have stability, but we have no democracy. We have livelihoods, but we have no freedom of speech." Talleyrand had once defined this kind of policy: "It's worse than a crime; it's a mistake!" It's a political mistake, because in Tunisia, with its "unlimited democracy" and "freedom of speech", "stability" and  "livelihoods had vanished swiftly. In contrast to other countries that suffered from the Arab Spring, a coup arranged for the sake of a "better life" was a very interesting, with many people now recalling their "bygone life" as a "beautiful far away".

Please note that under Ben Ali's political reforms, all the opposition parties had a institutionalized right to sit in the parliament, whatever the number of votes. According to the law, 20 percent of deputy seats were reserved for the opposition, even if it secured less than twenty percent of the votes in an election. On Ben Ali's watch, not a single person was executed for political reasons.

After the expulsion of Ben Ali, the local Islamists wisely abided their time and took power after the smooth-spoken Democrats bit the dust. In the October 2011 elections to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the Islamist Ennahda party, the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia), headed the poll and got 90 seats (41.47%) out of the 217. And the moral system started changing in a quite noticeable way.

In once secular and laical Tunisia, where women had equal rights with men since the late 1950s (a notable case for an Islamic country); where there was a system of pluralistic democracy, though with its own specifics; where the same liberals blatantly demanded "more democracy", and the exiled President was proud of his fellow citizens' political polyphony – in Tunisia of this kind, direct and fair elections brought to power forces that could not be attributed to "democrats" by any stretch of the imagination.

And then there were assassinations of the most prominent national opposition leaders who were able to prevent the Islamists from holding on to power. And today the Tunisien Umerique publishes the following to sum up the decade "after Ben Ali":

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Tunisia is ruled by those who hate it, by enemies, by those who loathe its people in its history! Those who rule Tunisia today obviously hate Bourguiba (the first president of Tunisia – one of the heroes in the decolonization of Africa in the 1950s and 60s – author's note), and they make no bones about it...

Those who rule Tunisia do not have their own history, do not fit into its narrative, except for, perhaps, the sad chapter devoted to the Arab spring outcome... For this reason they may not be celebrating any holiday of Tunisia, which gave them life, gave them a nation, a culture, an identity and something to be proud of – our "leaders" do not celebrate independence... They don't celebrate Republic Day... They do not celebrate the real revolution (March 20) that dealt a blow to the forces of French colonization. To them, the revolution was not the one that opposed the French, but the one that let them take revenge on Tunisia and its citizens."

This is a heartfelt cry, which, as far as I understand, echoes in the fates of many Tunisians. But the tide of events can no longer be turned, and a beautiful country that has swallowed the bait of "genuine democracy" is on a receiving end of where the road "paved with good intentions" leads...

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