Tunisia’s Arab Spring Democracy Faces Economic Drought, Terrorism

August 31, 2016 Updated: September 16, 2016

Tunisia—the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring with a functioning democracy—faces challenges from a flailing economy and terrorism, even as its parliament approved a new government with a confidence vote on Monday, Aug. 29.

Tunisia is important to security in the region, and its efforts at democratization offer hope that other Arab countries could follow suit. However, persistent challenges remain that could easily set back a nation that has made great strides in achieving democratic governance.

Inclusive Government

New Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) shakes hands with former Prime Minister Habib Essid during the handover ceremony in Tunis on Aug. 29. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)
New Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) shakes hands with former Prime Minister Habib Essid during the handover ceremony in Tunis on Aug. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)

Tunisia’s parliament approved a new government on Aug. 29, with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, 40, replacing previous Prime Minister Habib Essid, who was removed after a vote of no confidence in July.

The new government includes secularists, Islamists, and leftists, crossing religious and ideological divides without the violence that has derailed other Arab Spring countries.

The U.S. government and others hope a democratic Tunisia can have a contagious effect on neighboring countries struggling to democratize. That hope rests on Tunisia staying the course and getting past its current challenges.

“Tunisian attitudes toward democracy and Islam prove that the two are not incompatible, and it is in the United States’ strategic interest for this realization to spread throughout the region,” said Brian Garrett-Glaser in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations.

With neighboring Libya in disarray and radical Islamic groups on the rise in North Africa, Tunisia is a crucial ally for the West in helping combat transnational terrorism.

Threat of Terror

Despite Tunisia’s political progress since toppling former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country is still racked by terrorist attacks and disillusioned youth seeking to join radical Islamic groups.

Tunisia has been a hotspot for radical recruitment, with 7,000 Tunisians estimated to have joined the Islamic State. The country has also seen a series of violent attacks over the last year.

Those attacks have left the Tunisian government trying to lure back wary European visitors.

“The government is working very hard, including aggressive campaigns, to promote Tunisia as a stable place,” said Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Stratfor.

Militants are also pouring into Tunisia through the Libyan border, according to Hawthorne, and it’s imperative the government secure those borders and prevent further advances from terrorists seeking to disrupt Tunisian society.

“Terrorism is not an issue they have figured out how to solve,” Hawthorne said.

The U.S. has been working closely with Tunisia on border security, particularly along the porous border with Libya.

Arab Spring Blossom

Tunisia suffered decades of repression, pervasive corruption, and a weak economy under former longtime dictator Ben Ali.

This stirred unrest that led to a revolution and the current wobbly—but functioning—democracy.

“When you look at Tunisia, it is shaky in terms of government stability, but what is happening is under democratic constructs,” Hawthorne said.

Since toppling Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has conducted four free and fair elections and ratified a new constitution in 2014 that many observers declared is the most progressive in the Muslim world.

Tunisia has also been able to balance tensions between political Islamists and secularists—a common source of friction within political systems of Muslim majority nations.

“Tunisia is, I would say, the only country that was shaken by the Arab Spring that has come out with some semblance of functional, democratic politics,” Hawthorne added.

Struggling Economy

A makeshift memorial for those killed in a terrorist attack in Sousse, south of the capital Tunis, in July 2015. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial for those killed in a terrorist attack in Sousse, south of the capital Tunis, in July 2015. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia provides an alternative to the radical Islam espoused by groups such as al-Qaeda and the ISIS terrorist group. The hope is that the discontented there will express their views and anger through the ballot box or civil society groups rather than terrorism.

But the struggling economy and slumping tourism industry could hamper those aims.

As economic prospects dim, the allure of ISIS and other groups grows and creates a vicious cycle, with terrorist attacks over the last year severely straining the once-healthy tourism business.

Tourism is a key source of government revenue, accounting for 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Revenues from the tourism industry were down 35 percent in 2015, contributing to the country’s economic downturn.

Chahed takes power as Tunisia faces a .4 percent GDP growth rate and 15.4 percent unemployment, including 35 percent youth unemployment, as of March.

Speaking to parliament, Chahed warned of the consequences that could afflict Tunisia if the economic concerns are not addressed.

“If nothing changes by 2017, austerity will follow,” he said in a speech before parliament on Aug. 26.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is lending Tunisia $2.9 billion over four years to strengthen its economy and create more jobs.

That investment is to spur a 5 percent growth, ease jittery investors, and remove blocks to job creation, said Amine Mati, IMF mission chief for Tunisia.

“At this time in Tunisia, restoring investors’ confidence—weakened by political uncertainties and security challenges—is key,” she said in an interview with IMF Survey.

Tunisia also signed a $500 million loan guarantee with the United States in June, a testament to the United States’ commitment to the country’s democratic transition, said the U.S. State Department.

It was the economy that set off the original uprising that ousted Ben Ali in January 2011, and became the catalyst for the Arab Spring.

And it is the economy that leaves too many Tunisians looking toward radical groups.