Theater of Cruelty

Tunisia after the Arab Spring

TUNISIA / Debt, unemployment and slow-moving reforms – the country that made the most of the upheaval in 2010 – 2011, still face major challenges. 


The Taj Sultan has five stars and a private beach, two swimming pools, one outdoors and one inside, a tennis court, a spa, of course, and a Turkish bath and a fitness center; it has a restaurant, a cafe, a pool bar and whiskey and darts, a park, and in the park a playground and an area for water sports, and another area for horse riding. It has rooms with massagers and jacuzzi. Hairdressing salon and beauty salon.

All this for about 30 euros per day.

And all five star hotels are like that in Hammamet. At the Hasdrubal hotel you can also get a golf course for five extra euros. That's how they're all here, and all over Tunisia.

How is it possible?

Unpaid debt

Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring did not fail. After 28 days of protests, 14. January 2011, President Ben Ali departed and fled to Saudi Arabia. Today, Tunisia has a new constitution and a new government, a coalition of secular and Islamist parties, which is being highlighted as a role model for the entire Muslim world. The only problem, we are told by analysts, is the economy, due to the terrorist attacks in 2015. Because of jihadists. If only the tourists came back, we hear, Tunisia would be a great place to live.

"... casting a regime is so much easier than putting in place a new, different system."

However, Shayma works as a receptionist at one of these wonderful hotels, twelve hours a day, every day. For that, she gets 400 dinars a month; it is under 200 euros. Even if the tourists were to return, it would not change anything for her.

Because what would revitalize Tunisia's economy is precisely what harms it.

And it's not about jihadists. Rather, it is about banks – although having jihadists around them is not exactly helpful. But under Ben Ali, tourism magnates received substantial loans from banks, loans that were often not paid off. It turned a few business people with good connections into interestants, with an unfortunate market distortion. Today, 25 per cent of unpaid debt is still linked to the tourism industry: a total of 1,3 billion euros. But the state is covering it by constantly recapitalizing its three banks, which account for almost half of Tunisia's total financial resources. And allows five star hotels to take just 30 euros a day.

Instead of funding schools and hospitals, it funds our vacations.

Little has changed

"Today, the slogan is national unity," said Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the founders of Nawaat, the collective blog that was a hotbed of revolution. "But when it comes down to it, it's just a more sophisticated way of saying that stability rather than change comes first." It is true that the coalition government saved Tunisia from the fate of Egypt, or worse, Syria and Yemen, but it also slowed down reforms, which were stuck in an endless transition process. Because it is not about a lack of resources.

Since 2011, Tunisia has received $ 7 billion in international aid, and now the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has allocated an additional $ 2,8 billion. It's about corruption. Under Ben Ali, it was endemic. Values ​​of $ 13 billion were confiscated by his family and 214 companies: They accounted for 3 percent of private sector production and 1 percent of jobs, but received 21 percent of profits. His friends and relatives controlled 25 percent of the economy. And nothing has really changed. In September, a controversial amnesty law was finally passed, and old corruption cases were dropped. That's why the demonstrations here never really ended. It is no coincidence that the current protests did not start on January 14, the date of Ben Ali's fall, but on January 3, the day of the first uprising, the Bread Uprising in 1984. The movement is called Fesh Nestannew? – What are we waiting for? – and the battle cry is «Down with the budget».

That is, you can talk. But your words are powerless.

It is like an echo of the famous battle cry from 2011: "Down with the regime." But now the goal of the demonstrations is privatization and cuts in subsidies, tax increases, and layoffs in public services. And that is why there will be no new revolution, according to many activists. "It's not just because after seven years we are more experienced and more aware of how tough the challenge is, and how risky," says Sami Ben Gharbia. "It's also because overthrowing a regime is so much easier than putting in place a new, different system."

Sidi Bouzid – where it all started

But outside the capital Tunis, the words of the cautious activists sound empty. For outside Tunis, no one has anything to lose. Under Ben Ali, two-thirds of investment went to coastal areas: Tunis, Sfax and Sousse, the three largest cities, representing 85 percent of the country's GDP. The rest is just a shabby land of dust and poverty. Sidi Bouzid is located almost 500 kilometers from Tunis, and it is the city where it all started. It was here that the 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, after his cart with fruit and vegetables was confiscated. He had made a living from it since he was ten, fatherless and the eldest of five children.

Today, the main street is named after him. But that is the only change. In the last five years, unemployment has doubled, from 14 to 28 percent – and the real numbers are, as usual, even higher, because wages are barely viable. The real numbers apply to the twenty-and-some-year-olds you suddenly see on a roof, on a cornice, on a power pole, here as everywhere else in Tunisia: They want to commit suicide, suicide like Mohamed Bouazizi, because after all everything, as they say to them down the street trying to stop them, "after all, we are already dead."

Sidi Bouzid is the kind of place where you can not even find Chinese counterfeit goods, just used things: At first glance, you confuse the market with a landfill – it's the kind of place where mothers sell their kids' teddy bears as soon as they grow up. "We did not have freedom of speech, it is true, and not even freedom of thought, and now we have it. But it makes no difference ", says Hamza Saadaoui. That is, you can talk. But your words are powerless.

foreign Fighters

Only a few of the activists from 2011 are now sitting in parliament. The revolution was a youth revolution, but today Tunisia's president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is 92 years old. And among those in power is the celebrated trade union that received the Nobel Peace Prize along with three other organizations for contributing to stability in Tunisia. Today, they play a rather controversial role. In Gafsa, for example, they were successful in forcing the phosphate industry into mass employment, without any evaluation of production and productivity. In the southern part of the country, only 8 percent of the jobs are in the private sector. There is no work, it's true. But it is also true that highly educated young people spend their days in front of employment offices waiting to get a job in the public sector.

what should give new life to Tunisia's economy is precisely what is damaging it.

Earlier, Tunisians went to Italy. They traveled from Zarzis, near Djerba. It was the departure point closest to Italy. As you walk along the beaches, you can still see shoes. Shoes, and leftovers from boats. But now Italy is also experiencing a deep economic crisis, and at best you can find a job in the tomato fields. Or as drug dealers. So in recent years, 27 Tunisians have chosen another destination: the many jihadist fronts in the world. About 000 of them have actually become foreign fighters, and 6000 have returned. Or more precisely: 900 are in prison. Many others have just sneaked home to suburbs like Ettadhamen, which Essebsi visited a few weeks ago to open a youth center and to try to stave off protests. For Ettadhamen, it has been the first visit ever by a high-ranking official. Although it is actually less than 900 minutes from the center of Tunis and you get there by tram, but it is a different world. A world of small concrete houses, and nothing else. The most luxurious brand is Carrefour [a French grocery chain, overs. note]. From here, even Syria sees itself as an opportunity.

A boy looks at me while I take notes. "Ettadhamen is not like this," he says. "A few days ago, the streets were cleaned, the street lights fixed. All rubbish was removed. And then Essebsi appeared, and opened this center with a pile of chairs and books. But you can't eat books, "he says. "And here we are hungry."

Some distance away, a TV crew is filming a group of teenagers who are high on drugs. "Because if you are completely sober and ready," says one of them, "you will set fire to yourself and everyone else around you."

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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