Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Tunisia: A Warning to Others | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The demonstrations in Tunisia are refusing to stop; these have spread throughout the cities and even reached the nation’s capital, in a clear challenge to the state. Should we be concerned about Tunisia? Or is it just another crisis over the price of bread that will be settled by certain promises being made, and military force being used?

In my opinion, Tunisia’s problem is more political than economic and goes beyond the anger of the unemployed masses. This is a problem of a lack of trust in the government, and the loss of [governmental] credibility.

It was the deplorable economic situation in Tunisia that caused the initial outburst, however the situation is not as bad as we imagine. One might be surprised to hear that Tunisia is one of the most prosperous Arab states with an unemployment rate that stands at 13 percent, which is better than many other Arab countries, for example, the unemployment rate in Yemen stands at 30 percent.

The purchasing power of a Tunisian citizen is also much greater than the equivalent in Libya, Bahrain or Sudan. Whilst the rate of the economy’s growth in Tunisia – which is a country that is considered relatively poor in natural resources – surpasses that of its neighbor Algeria, which has huge oil and gas resources.

The Tunisians are also the most educated Arab nation, with Tunisia ranking 18th in the world in terms of spending on education, and first in the Arab world, despite its limited revenue. Despite their poor income, citizens in Tunisia are in possession of more mobile phones than the citizens in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Yemen.

Does this mean that the people are wrong and that the government is right?

No, not at all! What I want to emphasize are two main points: Firstly, this problem is not limited to Tunisia. Secondly, the solution to this problem must go beyond economics. If the citizens of Tunis are dissatisfied, what can we say about the citizens of other Arab nations that are suffering from an even worse situation and reality?

This is extremely concerning, for unemployment is the real threat to Arab regimes and their stability. States may collapse as a result of acclimatizing to such unemployment crises and failing to sense any danger, in the same manner as a frog that is cooked by placing it in warm water and gradually increasing the heat until the frog is boiled. What happens is that the frog acclimatizes to the heat until it is unable to escape at the critical moment.

This leads us to ask the question: why did the situation explode in Tunisia, whose population is aware that its country does not possess significant natural resources and relies upon its agricultural and tourism industries, and that its exports are mainly imported to three European countries that have all suffered greatly under the economic crisis? The Tunisians are also not in a position to draw comparisons between the conditions in Tunisia and those elsewhere, or base their expectations upon the conditions in neighboring oil-producing countries whose governments are able to subsidize food prices and fuel, such as is the case with Libya and Algeria. The revenue earned by these two countries in one month surpasses that made by the Tunisian government in one year, from vegetable export or its tourism industry.

I do not think that Tunisia’s problem lies in unemployment, but rather in acknowledging this [problem]. This is because the political authority [in Tunisia] is alone responsible for the forming governments and has monopolized powers, and because the Tunisians, like the rest of the Arabs, view elections as a political spectacle. Therefore there is a lack of confidence and credibility, which has resulted in the issue of unemployment being transformed into an issue that has allowed the people to revolt against the government by taking to the streets, the only place where they can express themselves.

There is no quick-fix solution to the economic crisis except by using force, and whilst the authority will be successful in suppressing the demonstrators, this will be nothing more than a temporary solution. People will return to the streets, and the police will once again return to confront them until the government admits defeat and failure. The only solution is to restore the people’s trust in the government, something that is truly difficult as this would require political concessions that nobody in the Tunisian government is prepared to offer. This lack of trust is a result of the suppression of the freedom of expression, and when criticism is prohibited, rumors prevail and objectivity disappears. Tunisia must also be aware that it is not an oil-producing country that can shower its people with money, silencing them by subsidizing the price of bread, fuel, cement, and providing the with jobs that do not entail real work, as is the case with their oil-producing neighbors. Therefore, it is now a necessity, rather than an option, for the authorities to satisfy the public – politically – by guaranteeing political participation so that the public are responsible for the decisions, as well as shouldering their consequences.