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Tunisia: Where reform only happens after electrocution, self-immolation

Success can be a difficult thing to define in world politics, especially when it comes to building a democratic state.

Depending on a person’s outlook on the Arab Spring, it could be viewed as either a failure or a success. To be fair, it is still too early to really label it one or the other as revolutions similar to these are rarely short or easy. Take the American Revolution or the French Revolution as a case in point.

However, there is one inarguable case of success resulting from the Arab Spring and that is Tunisia, and it is in danger of losing that title if more is not done to support it.

In December 2011, a man named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of unemployment and police harassment. This sparked the uprising that toppled Tunisian leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and also kicked-off the Arab Spring revolts.

Tunisia’s young democracy has delivered a new constitution, a political compromise between rival parties, and free elections. All are things that Libya, Egypt, Syria and others have yet to figure out. Unfortunately Tunisia has yet to solve its unemployment problem (a key reason for the initial uprisings), in which it has gone up from 12 percent in 2010 to 15.3 percent in 2015.

Fast forward 5 years and thousands of protesters took to the streets in Kasserine, a small city in northwest Tunisia near the border with Algeria, after an unemployed man climbed a telephone pole and electrocuted himself when he was refused a job. If that sounds eerily similar to events in 2011, it is because it is.

The protests emphasize how vulnerable Tunisia is to social unrest, being only five years removed from the revolt that ousted Ben Ali. It’s been reported that some of the protests turned violent as several government buildings were attacked by protesters who threw Molotov cocktails.

This in turn has caused the government to declare a nationwide curfew from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. The demonstrations are not only demanding job creation, but also honest leaders as a sense of corruption in the government looms on citizens minds.

The Tunisian government recently held a much anticipated cabinet reshuffle, but to the dissatisfaction of its citizens, it largely just consolidated the power for the ruling party, giving more positions of power to its backers. This is a problem for two reasons.

While Tunisia is widely viewed as an Arab Spring success story, its authorities have failed to resolve the issues of social exclusion and inequality. In addition, with recent protests and the perceived threat of a terrorist attack, the government has given its security forces more discretion to act.

After an explosion in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia on Nov. 24, security forces began attacking journalists that arrived at the scene. This was done on the aegis of counterterrorism, but it’s also allowing the government to tread dangerously close to the line of a police state.

In many ways, this looks a lot like the events that transpired in Egypt. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won elections and quickly tried to consolidate its power. Civil society and the military began to be concerned about what this would lead to, so the military overthrew the regime and Egypt is now essentially back to being an authoritarian state.

If the U.S. and the West as a whole don’t wish to see this same outcome in Tunisia, it should do more to aid the state in building its democracy.

The beauty of helping Tunisia is that the costs are nowhere near as high as say in Egypt or Libya. Since the 2011 revolution, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has trained more than 3,000 youth in information technology skills, generating more than 600 jobs.

It has also launched a public-private partnership with companies such as Hewlett Packard which are expected to create 2,000 temporary jobs. Other countries such as France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, pledged $1.1 billion over five years to help Tunisia with its transition to democracy.

While aid like what France is providing is great, where the $1.1 billion will exactly be going is vaguely described as ‘helping disadvantaged regions and youth.’ Rather, what Tunisia needs are actual programs such as what USAID has done that will not only advance the prospects of ‘disadvantaged regions and youth’ but also emphasize the advantages of a free civil society that’s not reliant on public sector jobs.

Of course the US and the West can’t solve all of Tunisia’s issues, nor will it be able to resolve the issue alone. Tunisia needs to take tangible steps in supporting what its citizens are demanding, which it has done by promising 5,000 new public sector jobs for citizens in disadvantaged regions.

However, Tunisia can not only decide to act once someone has electrocuted themselves or been set on fire.

Follow Jake Pfeifer on Twitter at @jake8922.

Jake Pfeifer

Jake Pfeifer is a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, which encompasses the Hastings Star Gazette, Farmington-Rosemount Independent Town Pages, South Washington County Bulletin and Woodbury Bulletin. He previously worked as a sports reporter and outdoors editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and as a multimedia artist/editor for Detroit Lakes Newspapers.

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