The revolution in Tunisia has arguably been by far the most successful of the Arab Spring movements to date. Longtime president Zine El Abadine Ben Ali has been deposed, a new Constitution has been implemented, and the big-tent, secular party Nidaa Tounes won the first round of regular parliamentary elections. Now, however, the revolution must cope with the economic problems that sparked it in the first place. Unemployment and inequality, rampant across the country, are particularly acute in the western and southern inland regions. Developing these struggling provinces should be the first priority of the Tunisian government. While it will be a challenge, rectifying these imbalances would go a long way towards stabilizing the new democratic system and strengthening the economy of the entire country.
The root of the hinterland regions’ grievances lies in the investment patterns of the Ben Ali regime. Government money flowed primarily to coastal areas such as Tunis and Sfax in order to develop trade (primarily with the European Union), foreign direct investment and tourism. Private investment followed, compounding inequality. While the interior did see advances in education, health and basic services, it did not adequately modernize the agricultural sector— the largest sector of the local economy—or diversify. Many inhabitants have remained poor, landless or nearly so, and/or only seasonally employed on large neo-feudal farms. Moreover, unemployment rates were highest for the most educated segment of the population, leading to mass migrations into cities to search for jobs and widespread discontent.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Ben Ali’s regime put in place a stimulus package, but it failed to help the hard-hit interior. Many of the inhabitants there became convinced that the government did not care about them. Mohammed Bouazizi was one of these. Unable to make a living as a street vendor and harassed by police, he burned himself alive to protest endemic corruption and poverty in December 2010. This desperate act unwittingly rallied his countrymen to his cause, ultimately toppling the regime.
Tunisia’s fledgling democratic system has assuaged many of the protesters’ grievances, but has yet to comprehensively address the economic troubles at the heart of the unrest against Ben Ali. Despite the increased openness of the public sphere, residents of the hinterland have continued protesting stubbornly high levels of unemployment. As long as the central government fails to address the very real concerns of the western and southern regions, it can expect continued political and economic unrest. Left alone, unrest risks undermining popular support for democracy in favor of a return to authoritarianism or Islamic rule. Public polling conducted by Emrhod Consulting in the summer of 2015 hinted at broad support for aggressive security measures in response to the terrorist attacks, some of which might weaken the democratic freedoms Tunisians have fought to secure. For example, 72% favor closing mosques that are unaffiliated with the state, and 75% support re-examining the legality of certain political parties, according to L’Economiste Maghrebin. Dissatisfaction with the sluggish economy is also widespread, therefore increasing the chances that an anti-democratic movement might find willing adherents should the current system fail to address people’s grievances.
In addition, the poverty and joblessness of the interior have forced many young people, particularly the educated, to migrate to cities in search of employment. With the manufacturing and tourism industry suffering due to the economic crisis in Europe and recent terrorist attacks, such jobs are not forthcoming. Nearly 30% of university graduates and over 20% of those with secondary education (who can expect only low wages) could not find a job in May 2011, according to a 2013 report by the Brookings Institution. In addition, because the Tunisian economy is dominated by low-skill industries such as manufacturing and tourism, even the employed do not receive workplace training, struggle to be promoted and can be easily replaced. This leaves a large urban population of frustrated and economically insecure young men who might in time also lose patience with democracy, becoming a destabilizing political force and/or new recruits for jihadists.
In order to address these high levels of poverty, both rural and urban, the Tunisia government must work to develop the poor hinterlands of the country. This is a complex issue, and requires a comprehensive approach addressing various aspects of the economy. This can be summarized under three categories: reforming education, providing access to capital and improving rural infrastructure.
The first significant challenge is education. Schooling in Tunisia is currently available to nearly everyone, and illiteracy rates have plunged more than 40% since 1965, according to a separate Brookings report, this one from 2014. Unfortunately, the post-independence governments’ efforts have focused on access rather than quality. Now, there are huge numbers of highly educated youth who are incapable of finding a job, especially one appropriate for their level of education. In large part this is because they have not been equipped with skills that are important and valuable in the modern economy. Having a better educated workforce would attract companies and investment from abroad, while also promoting and innovation economy in Tunisia itself. Particularly for non-coastal cities where tourism and export-oriented manufacturing are unlikely to prosper, building a service-based economy is critical. A wholesale reform of education would also enable farmers to implement more modern and productive agricultural methods as well as understand the true potential of their regions.
The second challenge is access to capital. Better-educated youth will not be able to innovate, either in service-based or agricultural industries, without funding. Relying on private sources of capital, however, will go nowhere; the Tunisian hinterlands will not suddenly start attracting FDI because of an improved educational system. Rather the Tunisian central government must devote significant resources, both financial and political, to ensuring the availability of loans. These should be tailored towards small businesses and family farms, thereby maximizing the number of jobs created and people lifted out of poverty. With increased investment in the rural economy, irrigation will spread and farmers will be able to turn to higher value crops and primary manufacturing activities such as making fruit juice rather than simply exporting the fruit. Even if loans allowed farmers only to purchase more or better livestock, their lives could be significantly improved.
The third major challenge is the state of infrastructure. The road network in Tunisia is often too dispersed and poorly maintained, making access to and from these communities difficult if not impossible. The water network is both inadequate for large-scale irrigation and too primitive to support expansion without risking significant waste and overdrawing aquifers. Increasing facilities for the storage of agricultural products such as milk are also necessary, as are training centers where the educational reforms could be brought to fruition and simple but vital institutions such as agricultural extensions services. At the same time, state lands and public resources must be protected and strengthened to ensure that growth is sustainable in the long term.
It is absolutely vital that Tunisia fully commits to this modernization project and does not under-fund it or neglect the complex ways each issue interacts with others. Each aspect of the agenda outlined here depends on several others. Neglecting one or more policy areas could undermine the entire project, or lead to severe unintended consequences. Political instability or violence could threaten even the most well-designed economic development programs, however. The government should therefore act quickly and decisively to demonstrate to the people of the interior regions that their voices are being heard and their concerns will be addressed, before the problems get any worse. If done properly, a comprehensive development plan for the hinterland could be the keystone to Tunisia’s future prosperity. Perhaps more importantly, however, it will ensure that Tunisia alone among the countries that experienced the Arab Spring can build and sustain a stable, flourishing and fully democratic society.