Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East
Demystifying the Arab Spring
Parsing the Differences Between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya
Understanding the Revolutions of 2011
Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies
Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring
The Myth of Authoritarian Stability
The Arab Spring at One
A Year of Living Dangerously
The Promise of the Arab Spring
In Political Development, No Gain Without Pain
The Mirage of the Arab Spring
Deal With the Region You Have, Not the Region You Want
Tunisia's Post-Revolution Blues
Stagnation and Stalemate Where the Arab Spring Began
Tunisia’s Lessons for the Middle East
Why the First Arab Spring Transition Worked Best
The Tunisia Model
Did Tunis Win the Arab Spring?
Democracy by Necessity
Tunisians Go to the Polls
Tumult in Tunisia
Weathering the Economic and Political Storms
The Muslim Brotherhood's Long Game
Egypt's Ruling Party Plots its Path to Power
The Error Behind the Uproar in Egypt
Even Good Coups Are Bad
Lessons for Egypt from the Philippines, Venezuela, and Beyond
First They Came for the Islamists
Egypt’s Tunisian Future
Can a Myth Rule a Nation?
The Truth About Sisi's Candidacy in Egypt
Egypt's Durable Misery
Why Sisi's Regime Is Stable
The Brotherhood Breaks Down
Will the Group Survive the Latest Blow?
Did Sisi Save Egypt?
The Arab Spring at Five
NATO's Victory in Libya
The Right Way to Run an Intervention
Libya's Militia Menace
The Challenge After the Elections
The Surprising Success of the New Libya
Libya on the Brink
How to Stop the Fighting
Obama's Libya Debacle
How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure
Who Lost Libya?
Obama’s Intervention in Retrospect
Setting the Record Straight on Benghazi
What Really Led to Libya's Chaos
Russia's Line in the Sand on Syria
Why Moscow Wants To Halt the Arab Spring
Assad Family Values
How the Son Learned to Quash a Rebellion From His Father
Why Washington Didn't Intervene In Syria Last Time
Comparing 1982 to 2012
Alawites for Assad
Why the Syrian Sect Backs the Regime
Ramadan in Aleppo
A Letter From Rebel-Controlled Syria
The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad
Mistaking Syria for Chechnya
Syria's President Speaks
A Conversation With Bashar al-Assad
The New Great Game
How Regional Powers are Carving Up Syria
The Not-So-Great Game in Syria
And How to End It
Syria's Good Neighbors
How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees
No (Gulf) Country for Syrian Refugees
The Kafala System and the Migration Crisis
ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group
Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat
ISIS' Social Contract
What the Islamic State Offers Civilians
How to Defeat ISIS
The Case for U.S. Ground Forces
The President in Practice
The End of Pax Americana
Why Washington’s Middle East Pullback Makes Sense
Fight or Flight
America’s Choice in the Middle East
Getting Over Egypt
Time to Rethink Relations
The Next Front Against ISIS
The Right Way to Intervene in Libya
Algeria After the Arab Spring
Algiers Came Out Ahead—But the Good Times Could Be Over
How Turkey Lost the Arab Spring
Assad Has It His Way
The Peace Talks and After
The Right Way to Think About the Syria Talks
They Aren't About Syria, They Are About Russia
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 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 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.