Tunisia 2014: Redeem the Past, Rethink the Future

Tunisia’s Islamist government, contrary to expectations, did not fall apart in 2013.

tunisia-revolution2013 may not have been a happy year for Tunisia: carnage followed by frustration dominated the scene, after two opposition leaders were assassinated, and with an explosion of terrorism targeting security and army troops. Contrary to expectations, the Islamist government and its allies did not fall apart in 2013.

Although the protests that erupted after Brahmi’s assassination were tenacious, they were not massive enough to summon a scenario like the one which took place in Egypt. Protests did result in sparse reforms and, most importantly, a national dialogue. While the process knows occasional interludes due to conflicts of interests, it is still going on.

The end of the year marked the nomination of a new Tunisian premier, Mehdi Jomaa, and a cabinet reshuffle is expected by January 14, 2014 – in time to commemorate the third anniversary of the revolution. To international observers, Tunisia may look like it is faring well, at least compared to Libya, Egypt and Syria.

The shockwaves and upheavals that characterize transitional stages were not severe, and the transition to democracy, though staggering, seems concrete. The scene below the surface is simmering however. Though unemployment dropped compared to 2013, it remains important. The region that surrounds Mount Chaambi, where several terrorist groups are taking refuge, is part of a belt of poverty that extends from north to south, and whose forgotten problems are only addressed with what many believe to be cosmetic solutions.

If terrorism reflects a global trend, it equally reveals the strong lure of fanaticism vis-à-vis the marginalized. The western regions host some the most indigent towns in Tunisia, though some like Gafsa have a well-established mining industry. Others like Jendouba and Beja are rich in water reserves and fertile soil.

Rethinking the future means finding ways to redeem past injustices toward a large segment of the population

The government seems to tackle the problem by an interest in entrepreneurship, and although the main trend is to encourage large scale investment, small and medium enterprises are regarded as an impending way out now that the public sector – the biggest supplier of jobs – can no longer absorb the large numbers of young people with degrees hitting against unemployment each year. This may not be as simple as it seems.

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Former Tunisian President Ben Ali intended to take steps in this direction, with not much success. Without reforming key sectors, mainly administrative and financial sectors, and without involving efforts at a grassroots level, reforms will be more theory than practice. Today, the scene is different. The transition may mark the heyday of civil society, and chances are that angry Tunisian youth will be able to harness grassroots support to address its most persistent challenges.

That said, the stakes are still high. Tunisian civil society is a novice, while corruption is well and alive. Human rights violations persist in Tunisia, and journalists, the major partners in establishing a transparent transition, are the primary target. Building the trust between government and society is another main challenge at a time when the young population maintains that the fruits of the revolution have been reaped by political leaders.

Expectations that the situation will improve after the constitution has been written are often dismissed as wishful thinking. A grassroots change does not always bear the best of results, even in Western democracies. For Tunisians, no shortcuts seem to offer themselves. Looking into the abyss of the past while keeping the equilibrium necessary to uphold a vision of the future may be inevitable.

Imen Yacoubi is a Professor of English and an academic researcher teaching English literature at the University of Jendouba. She earned a BA in English language and literature and her “Agrégation” diploma from the Faculty of Letters, Humanities and Arts of La Manouba and the Ecole Normale Superieure de Tunis. From 2005 to 2009, she taught at the University of Gabes, and has taught at the University of Jendouba since 2009. She is a member of the Young Arab Analyst Network International and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Moorings, a cultural Maghrebi magazine in English. She is an alumnus of the Civic Engagement and Leadership Fellowship, a program accommodated by Syracuse University, NY. Imen is author and contributor for HumanRightsTV.com and MideastYouth.comRead other articles by Imen.