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.
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
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