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A fragile democracy in Tunisia

A fragile democracy in Tunisia
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One decade after a young street vendor set himself on fire and fueled the Tunisian revolution, which took down its authoritarian leader and inspired the protesters around the Middle East and North Africa, democracy is at a turning point in the country. Tunisians are free to choose their leader, hold elections, and criticize the government, the dreams of the uprising remain unfulfilled as instability and weak services persist.

Tunisia has been on a hopeful course to democracy, but the economy has stagnated, corruption remains a problem, and many government officials are divided on critical decisions that could better the lives of an alienated and apathetic population. Ominously, Tunisia still continues to be afflicted with the same fissures that sparked the revolution.

There are doubts on whether the government can deliver for the public. Despite an ambitious decentralization plan for better services and local decisions, little has been done in the short term on this front, making it difficult to showcase any progress, not just in devolving power but with resource distribution and local decisions, which are at the heart of the national divisions, and citizens are angry about it.

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Public trust in the establishment is at a record low with nearly 90 percent of Tunisians saying the country is headed in the wrong direction. Citizens remain disaffected with the main political parties. When asked about the most important achievements of the government last year, 75 percent of Tunisians said it accomplished nothing, while over 50 percent want new political parties in future elections for the country.

They blame the establishment for failure to resolve corruption, economic exclusion, plus mounting debt in the wake of the coronavirus. Indeed, as unemployment is about to rise to 20 percent, with youth unemployment skyrocketing to more than 30 percent, the economy remains a priority of many citizens who are unable to make ends meet.

Tunisia had its highest budget deficit in 40 years because of a $4 billion increase in spending in response to the pandemic, while gross domestic product is estimated to have contracted by 8 percent. Politics is divided with President Kais Saied, an outsider connected to neither a party nor a majority in parliament, and whose actions are undermined by infighting and rivalries with others like Rached Ghannouchi.

The resignation of former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh after claims of corruption, the nomination of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and the way the new government was formed have all exacerbated tensions. An appeal of populist figures Abir Moussi, who advocates for a return to an authoritarian, points to an existential rift and marks potential change in Tunisia. Political divisions, combined with a cult of individuals, harmed efforts of the young democracy to stay the course.

The government has failed to solve the issues that need attention, namely persistent regional imbalances. Indeed, frustration has been spreading in the south and center, where protesters continue to demand employment and more investment in the area. A suspension of energy and phosphate production has hurt the economy. The interior region has also been hard hit by the coronavirus, which has widened the social divisions across the country. This situation runs the risk of further unrest.

Democracy is still fragile for Tunisia. The prime minister has to navigate tensions between the president and parliament. There remains political chaos as public disaffection with the government increases. Today, only 40 percent of Tunisians said democracy is the best form of government, while 50 percent said other forms of government could be or are better than democracy. Tunisia could head down a path of no return without a solution for the first time in its decade of democracy.

Patricia Karam is regional director of the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute that works to promote democracy.