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Even as Tunisians celebrate the second anniversary of the revolution, many young people have become disillusioned by the country’s faltering economy, high unemployment and Islamist crackdowns on civil liberties. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)
Even as Tunisians celebrate the second anniversary of the revolution, many young people have become disillusioned by the country’s faltering economy, high unemployment and Islamist crackdowns on civil liberties. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)

The Tunisian revolution is in trouble Add to ...

Mustapha Kamel Nabli, the governor of Tunisia’s central bank, knew that the country’s post-revolutionary Islamist government would demand his head.

The American-educated former World Bank economist was appointed governor three days after Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14, 2011. Mr. Nabli had returned from Washington to keep the banking and payments system alive as the Tunisian uprising plunged the small North African country into political and economic chaos.

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But on Monday, as Tunisia marked the second anniversary of its faltering experiment with freedom, Mr. Nabli is out of a job and the country is lurching away from its democratic inclinations to an Egypt-like situation, where a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government is flexing its muscles.

The Tunisian revolution is in trouble. The non-Islamist parties worry that the Islamists will curb personal liberties: Two young lovers were sentenced to two months in prison recently for kissing in public. Employers and entrepreneurs fret that the economy, hit hard by the revolution, won’t recover if Islamists take a dim view of free trade and investment and instead stuff Tunisia’s ministries and independent agencies, like the Bank of Tunisia, with cronies.

The democratic elections of October, 2011, produced an Islamist government led by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, of the Ennahda Movement, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, sure enough, the challenges to Mr. Nabli – secular, independent and associated with American institutions – began. Around nine months later, Mr. Nabli, 65, was fired, making him the first statesman-level casualty of the Arab Spring revolutions.

“There were 10 or more reasons to get rid of me,” he said in a phone interview from Tunis. “But they were all fake. They wanted someone under their direct control, and I am not an Islamist.”

Mr. Nabli, who was voted Central Bank Governor of the Year by the African Development Bank shortly before he was fired, is concerned about recent developments. Now an advisor to Tunisia’s secular opposition parties, he hopes to ensure that the freedoms won in the country that launched the Arab Spring will not be eroded by hardline Islamists and the ultra-conservative Salafists who have been blamed for harassing, and sometimes attacking, everything from the U.S. embassy in Tunis to artists, sometimes with fatal results. “We are convinced that individual freedoms will be jeopardized,” he said. “It’s important to have a balanced political system.”

About 7,000 anti-Islamist protesters filled the streets of Tunis Monday. One of the pamphlets distributed Monday by the secular parties read: “What has Tunisia achieved two years after the Revolution?”

The Tunisian revolution began on Dec. 17, 2010, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the victim of police and government harassment, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. His death sparked protests and riots in Tunisia that quickly led to Mr. Ben Ali’s downfall.

The celebrations last month in honour of Mr. Bouazizi ended badly, when protesters hurled rocks and screamed, “Get out! Get out!” at President Moncef Marzouki in the same town where Mr. Bouazizi was declared a martyr for freedom. According to a French media report, one protester shouted, “You came a year ago and promised things would change in six months, but nothing has changed.”

While Tunisians have a democracy for the first time, the economy is suffering and went into deep recession after Mr. Ben Ali left. Unemployment is at 17.6 per cent, and the jobless rate among youths is double that in some parts of the country.

The lack of jobs has made some Tunisians feel that the revolution has failed them; others fear that the intolerance of the puritanical Islamist wing is threatening to reverse a hard-won revolution – about 300 Tunisians died in the two months of turmoil.

The harassment began shortly after the revolution. The Tunisian and foreign press are full of reports of attacks on prostitutes, with brothels being set on fire. In April, 2011, a well-known filmmaker, Nouri Bouzid, was beaten with an iron bar after he supported a secular constitution.

The intimidation has since intensified. On Sept. 14, three days after the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed, Salafists (many of whom were imprisoned during Mr. Ben Ali’s regime) attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunis and looted the nearby American school. Four people in the mob were killed.

Artists, bar owners, tourists who wear skimpy bathing suits and journalists have been harassed or beaten. In recent days, a journalist blogger who has accused Tunisia’s Foreign Minister of misusing public funds has come under investigation herself by the Attorney-General in a scandal that questions the government’s commitment to press freedom.

For his part, Mr. Nabli is hopeful that the moderate secular forces can band together to ensure that liberal democracy does not slip away. “We need to strengthen the hands of the non-Islamists,” he said.

After the Spring

Unemployment: 17.6 per cent in 2012

The unemployment rate in Tunisia is predicted to remain high in the short term – particularly for young educated workers. It has declined, however, after reaching a high of almost 19 per cent in 2011 following the revolution, up from 13 per cent in 2010.

 

GDP: Up 2.4 per cent in 2012

Increases in tourism revenue, exports and foreign direct investment accounted for a slight rise in GDP in 2012, which had fallen to -1.8 per cent in 2011 from 3.1 per cent in 2010. The government is projecting a growth in GDP to 3.7 per cent in 2013 and 4.9 per cent in 2014. GDP was growing at a rate of 5 per cent before 2010.

 

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