People gather outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government, in Tunis, July 28, 2013.
Anis Mili / Reuters

On January 16, Ridha Yahyaoui discovered that his name had been removed from a list of possible hires in Tunisia’s Ministry of Education. Unemployed, and at the end of a job search that always came up empty, Yahyaoui climbed to the top of an electrical pole and electrocuted himself. The 28-year-old fell to the ground just 50 miles from where the Arab Spring began five years ago on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, when a browbeaten vegetable vendor set himself on fire. The impact of Yahyaoui’s electrocution has sent similar shock waves throughout Tunisia. And once again, people have taken to the streets.

Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s lone success story, finds itself seeking to entrench its hard-won democracy at a time when most Tunisians believe that democracy has failed to live up to its lofty promises of a better life. Unemployment now stands at 15.3 percent, up from 12 percent in 2010. A third of young people are unemployed. In Kasserine, where Yahyaoui electrocuted himself, 17 percent of men and 38 percent of women are unemployed. For Tunisians who have jobs, underemployment is a chronic problem.

The macroeconomic picture is equally dim. Although inflation retreated to around four percent last year, it is still higher than before the revolution. Growth remains disappointing, stuck at around one percent, and tourism, once the mainstay of the country’s economy, plummeted by around 20 percent after the terrorist attack at a beach resort in Sousse.

A bullet hole pockmarks the window of a car parked in the street near the Imperial Marhaba resort in Sousse, Tunisia, June 30, 2015.
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

In October 2013, I had a lunch meeting in La Marsa, the glitzy suburb north of Tunis. This was the capital’s posh European-style corner, a nod to French Riviera luxury where women in Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and brightly colored couture skirts shopped alongside women in modest hijabs. Cruise ships docked a few miles to the south, allowing the passengers to stroll through La Marsa after visiting the ancient ruins of Carthage nearby. Years earlier, this was also where beneficiaries of former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali spent their money.

While I waited for my guest to arrive, I chatted with the waiter about Tunisia’s dictatorial past and its uncertain democratic future. Three years had passed since the country began its great democratic experiment—ousting Ben Ali, beginning the Arab Spring, adopting a new constitution, and holding its first democratic elections.

Aziz, a young 26-year-old with a dark, closely trimmed beard, was not impressed. He told me, “I miss him,” referring to Ben Ali. “I preferred it before. So we hear he had an extravagant chateau here and 20 sports cars over there. So what? That’s secondary. For us, the primary thing is whether the country works. It did before. It doesn’t now.”

At the height of the Arab Spring, opinions like Aziz’s were rare. But today, even after Tunisia won its first Nobel Prize in October—awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of labor, industry, and human rights organizations, for their work on democratizing the country—Aziz’s view is becoming more common. This is particularly true in poor areas of the rural interior that bear no resemblance—culturally, economically, or politically—to La Marsa. When the International Republican Institute polled Tunisians a year after the Arab Spring, 70 percent indicated that they would prefer an unstable and flawed democracy rather than a stable and prosperous authoritarian government. Today, only 36 percent feel the same way; the national mood has flipped, and people see democracy increasingly as a luxury good that may not be worth its economic price.

That disgruntled side of Tunisia also extends to pockets of Tunis where university graduates struggle to find jobs, where families scramble to cope with spiraling inflation during their weekly grocery trips, or where port workers stay home now that cruise ships have become a rare sighting rather than a fixture of the Tunis shoreline.

This is the grim reality of a broken economy. The problem, of course, is not democracy. Instead, Tunisia has been saddled with crisis after crisis: a string of terrorist attacks that killed tourists visiting the country’s museums and beaches, then petty infighting among the country’s political parties that threatens to paralyze the legislature.

All three difficulties—with politics, economics, and security—are mutually reinforcing. Political volatility deters investment. Terrorism destroys tourism. And as the economy worsens, political bickering worsens, too. On top of that, when the politicians argue rather than solve problems, economic disillusionment grows. Terrorists have an easier time finding recruits (the country has already sent more than 3,000 fighters to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS), and their operations get a little easier while the government’s attention is diverted to fixing itself. This cycle reinforces stagnation.

Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi at the constituent assembly in Tunis, December 31, 2014.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

Tunisia’s political leadership is neither blind to Yahyaoui’s death nor deaf to the chants of protesters who demand more opportunity and a better future. The government, which is in disarray after a series of mass resignations from Nidaa Tounes, a major party in the ruling coalition, nonetheless recently announced that 5,000 new public sector jobs would be made available to applicants from disadvantaged regions. This initiative complements the hundreds of other small-scale projects the government has launched to rectify the unevenness of public investment under Ben Ali, who spent significantly more on coastal regions than on the rural interior. These are promising first steps that will provide modest short-term economic relief, but they will not change the overall economic picture.

The West has already provided considerable assistance, with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, weapons sales, intelligence sharing, and technical support. But more needs to be done. The European Union should consider fast-tracking its negotiations for a free trade partnership with Tunisia. Three-quarters of Tunisia’s exports go to the EU, and an agreement facilitating further trade and investment would benefit both sides. Such an agreement, alongside greater bilateral aid and loan guarantees from the United States, would help drive home “the message that having oil under the ground isn’t the only way for Arabs to get rich,” as Legatum Institute Senior Fellow Christian Caryl recently argued in Foreign Policy.

For assistance to be effective, though, the West needs a stable and pragmatic partner focused on reform. Although for years, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and the secular Nidaa Tounes set aside major differences in order to govern, that coalition is now under threat. Many within Nidaa Tounes, which is led by current President Beji Caid Essebsi, have resigned, accusing Essebsi of gravitating toward an exclusive leadership style and of grooming his son to take the reins. Essebsi would be wise to thoroughly dispel both criticisms with renewed outreach and inclusiveness. His detractors would be wise to try to find common ground. Tunisia can no longer afford self-inflicted mistakes.

More than 2,000 years ago, Carthage was one of the most prosperous empires in the world, its foundations just a few miles away from the heart of modern-day Tunis. Over the course of several centuries, Carthage fought three wars with Rome, each of which threatened the empire’s existence. It was the third, however, that led to Carthage’s downfall. Elite rivalries at the dawn of that war weakened the regime, and Rome, taking advantage of a divided Carthage, eventually overran the city and burned it to the ground. Its broken pillars are still standing in the shadow of Tunisia’s presidential palace, a reminder of how a great empire first collapsed inward.

Tunisia’s current government faces three existential threats, too: terrorism, economic crisis, and political dysfunction. Like Carthage, the country can weather the first two—as long as the nation remains united. But if the third continues, it’s only a matter of time before the political disarray morphs into destructive dysfunction. If that happens, there will be a new wave of refugees, a new base for extremists, and most important for the long term, no credible model for Arab democracy in the Middle East. The United States and the European Union cannot afford to let that happen.

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  • BRIAN KLAAS is a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, focusing on democracy and political violence.
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