Works. It’s still jobs. Tunisian revolutionaries are still learning.

Farmer Mohammed Jamee hoped Tunisia’s 2010 revolution would open up opportunities for his five children. Instead, times got tougher. In late 2012, he moved to Tunis to find work, amid growing urban migration from struggling outer provinces. Today he earns $8 a day as a laborer and sends the money home.

“What good are freedoms when your daily life is worse and you can barely eat? he says.

Why we wrote this

Is prosperity enough to quench the thirst for freedom? Maybe for a limited time. The reverse is just as unsatisfactory. The triumph of democracy, however heroic, does not fill empty bellies. Hence the policy.

Tunisia’s 2010 peaceful democratic revolution was led by a cross section of rights activists, lawyers, Islamists and leftists, most of whom had been oppressed and imprisoned by the previous regime. Their only target: the institutions that prevented the return of a dictatorship. But after overthrowing a dictator, ratifying a constitution, and holding elections, they learn perhaps the hardest lesson in politics: it’s economics, stupid.

The negligence of the parties vis-à-vis the economy was summarized by Rachid Ghannouchi, political philosopher and leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, candidate in the legislative elections. “For decades we have fought for liberties and liberty,” he said in September. “Now all of a sudden we have to become economists, which we never even had time to think about.”

Tunis, Tunisia

Less than a decade after leading a revolution that rocked the Middle East and inspired democratic uprisings across the Arab world, Tunisian revolutionaries are changing their tune.

Years of inflation and unemployment led many Tunisians to begin to lose faith in politics, and even in the revolution itself. To convince them, liberals, Islamists and human rights activists preach jobs, investment and economic growth in private, on the airwaves and during the election campaign.

After toppling a dictator, ratifying a constitution, holding elections and toppling the Islamic State, Tunisian freedom fighters are learning perhaps the hardest lesson in politics: it’s economics, stupid.

Why we wrote this

Is prosperity enough to quench the thirst for freedom? Maybe for a limited time. The reverse is just as unsatisfactory. The triumph of democracy, however heroic, does not fill empty bellies. Hence the policy.

Tunisia’s 2010 peaceful democratic revolution was led by a cross section of human rights activists, lawyers, Islamists, liberals, leftists and socialists, most of whom had been oppressed and imprisoned by the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Their singular goal was a constitution and institutions that prevented the return of a dictatorship and guaranteed individual rights such as freedom of speech, housing, and a living wage.

Yet while the democracy they built has withstood political infighting, interference from Gulf Arab powers, and security crises sparked by ISIS and civil war in neighboring Libya, the economy Tunisian was never able to get back on track under their watch.

Since 2016 alone, the Tunisian dinar has depreciated by 40% against the euro (the currency of Tunisia’s main trading partners, France and Italy), inflation has reached 8% per year and the cost of living has increased by more than 30%.

Unemployment – ​​the cause that drove a young Tunisian to self-immolation and sparked the 2010 revolution – persists, with an unemployment rate of 15.4%. Every year, hundreds of young Tunisians risk their lives by leaving for Europe by boat.

With growing discontent and a growing drift towards populism, political parties have brought in Western-trained economists and talk jobs for the two rounds of this year’s presidential campaign as well as the legislative elections this weekend. -end.

The parties’ neglect of the economy was perhaps best summed up by Rachid Ghannouchi, the 78-year-old political philosopher and leader of the Islamist Ennahda party who returned from exile to help lead the democratic revolution.

“For decades, we have been in opposition to a dictatorship, fighting for freedoms and liberties,” said Mr. Ghannouchi, a candidate in the legislative elections, during a meeting with the foreign press in September.

“Now all of a sudden we have to become economists, which we never even had time to think about.”

Pitch to voters

This change is visible in Sidi Hassine, one of the popular districts of Tunis which was the heart of the revolution and where marginalization pushed the inhabitants to revolt against Mr. Ben Ali.

On Wednesday, a few days before Sunday’s legislative elections, the parties crisscrossed the street markets and winding alleys of the district, marching with their new economic discourse.

Most of the time they were on the defensive.

Tunisia’s other candidate Tharaya Hamrouni (right) defends his party’s track record and promotes his new economic vision to Kamal Sini (left) and his wife, Fatma, in the Sidi Hassine district of Tunis, in Tunisia, October 2, 2019.

During a rally in a neglected park of sand and rusty swings, Ennahda played revolutionary pop songs through loudspeakers, then opened by citing statistics on their short stint as the only ruling party of 2011 to 2013.

“I know what you’re saying: what have you done for us politicians?” said a speaker to a few dozen supporters and a hundred passers-by.

“Let me tell you that when we were in government, the Tunisian economy was never better after the revolution; unemployment was at an all-time low and economic growth was 3.6%,” he told the crowd. “Do you remember those days? »

Urban migration

Across from the park, a dozen men and women sat on the sidewalk for their nightly rally to chat and escape the heat in their windowless apartments, oblivious to the outreach of voter activists such as Mohammed Jamee.

A farmer who lived off his modest, several-acre plot of land in a village outside Kairouan, 100 miles south of Tunis, Mr Jamee had hoped the revolution would open up opportunities for his five children.

Instead, times got tougher. With inflation and the decline of the dinar, he could no longer afford to rent the farm equipment and tractors he used to sow and harvest his wheat.

In late 2012, he moved to Tunis to find work, leaving his family behind, amid growing urban migration from struggling outer provinces.

He now drags sacks of cement and bricks over his bony shoulders as a day laborer, earning $8 for 12 hours a day, sending the money home.

“Before the revolution, at the time of Ben Ali, lamb cost 7 dinars ($1.50) per kilogram. Now it’s so expensive that we only eat meat on holidays,” he says.

“What good are freedoms when your daily life is worse and you can barely eat?

Structural issues

The frustrations on the streets reveal deep structural problems in Tunisia’s economy, masked for decades by the former dictatorship and sidelined by revolutionaries consumed with shaping their new democracy.

As part of the socialist legacy of modern Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, the government is burdened with dozens of debt-ridden public enterprises bleeding millions of dollars each year, such as a tobacco company, a paper mill and railways.

The government employs more than 650,000 workers and spends 15.5% of its annual budget on employees – one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Due to the dominance of French and Italian companies, Tunisia has long neglected or ignored trade relations with the rest of Africa, Asia and North America. There are not even direct flights to America, Asia or much of Africa.

The Islamist Ennahda proposes a Scandinavian-style model by opening public companies to private investment to “run them like private companies”, with the state retaining a stake, and transforming Tunisia into a logistics hub and gateway entry to Africa.

The Democratic Current, the party of human rights activist and constitution-maker Mohammed Abbou, focuses on stimulating regional investment in marginalized cities and provinces and small local businesses.

Other Tunisia, led by Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist who served as Tunisia’s interim president after the revolution, proposes tackling mismanagement, corruption and “government waste” to to release funds for a social safety net and vocational training for young Tunisians.

But any attempt to reform the economy must go through the powerful Tunisian unions, which provided the basis for the 2010 revolution, and resist any attempt to touch public companies.

In January alone, unions crippled the country by disrupting airports, railways and schools when the government earmarked $400 million for employee pay rises in 2019, half of the union demand of $800 million.

“We need to have a national discussion on what our economy should look like,” said Khalil Amiri, Ennahda’s economic adviser and deputy minister of scientific research. “After the revolution, we were building institutions from scratch. Now everyone is ready for this long-awaited debate.

Kitchen table problems

As Tharaya Hamrouni, candidate of the Other Tunisia, went door to door in the alleys of Sidi Hassine, the inhabitants were almost accusatory by listing other kitchen table problems: fight against drugs, climate change and violence in Tunisian schools.

“Our schools are no longer safe!” shouted Kamal Sini, recounting a recent stabbing at a nearby high school that killed a student. “You send your children to school and you pray to God that they come home safe and sound.”

His wife, Fatma, pushed away a leaflet in the candidate’s hand. “We stood up for a better and dignified life, and the only people who have a better life are all of you.”

“It’s a political transition, and yes, we first focused on freedoms,” said Ms. Hamrouni calmly.

“But now the real work begins, and if we don’t work together, our revolution is lost.”

Thelma J. Longworth