The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, economic pressures threaten to derail the future of the country, can it overcome them?

Mouna Gabla would have turned 30 on Wednesday 1 November. Instead, she blew herself up in Tunisia’s central Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

According to the latest reports, ten security officials and five civilians have been injured, a far cry from the deadly attacks in 2015 which left 38 people dead and in the process decimated the country’s tourism industry.

As a result of that attack, Tunisia has been under a state of emergency, which was once again renewed on October 8, 2018.

The attack highlights the fragile political and security situation in the country as Tunisia tries to emerge from the political chaos that enveloped much of the rest of the Middle East following the Arab spring.

Tunisia has thus far avoided much of that upheaval, but only just, and it's not yet certain if that will continue.


Gable blew herself up next to a protest about another young man who had allegedly been killed by security forces for engaging in black market economic activity.

The aim of the bomber, in attacking an emotionally-charged protest, seems to have been to cause a systematic shock which could have untold consequences on Tunisian society.

Tunisian woes can be traced back to the country’s economic problems, amongst other things.

Mariem Masmoudi, working for a local NGO the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said: “Government has been utterly unable to turn anything around economically.”

When the Tunisian revolution began in 2011, the story of Mohammed Bouazizi encapsulated the lack of economic dignity in the country.

Bouazizi, a street vendor, felt humiliated that he was unable to provide for his family and abused by a system that put wealth in the hands of the few.

For many Tunisians, however, the post-revolutionary period has not brought the economic benefits they were promised or expected.

"The concentration of wealth and prosperity in Tunis and coastal areas has, unfortunately, remained largely intact, with some people saying the democratic transition has led to a 'democratising' of corruption meaning more people engaged in corruption," says Masmoudi.

When Ben Ali was in power, economic growth averaged around five per cent, and the budget deficit was not more than 2.5 per cent of GDP, with a public debt ratio of 40 per cent.

Since then, Tunisia's economic problems have oscillated wildly.

Firstly the international companies left, then the tourists. To compound these problems Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted to foster a counter-revolution, as per Libya and Egypt.

Then in 2013, with the government facing a possible economic crisis, it decided to turn to the IMF. The $3 billion loan was to provide relief to the ailing economy, but with unemployment still high and low economic growth, there is growing nervousness at the constraints put in place by the loan and the impact they could have.

"There is a rising popular discontent from the ruling elite because of the failing economic policies adopted since the beginning of the 2013 IMF deal. That’s why the number and the scale of strikes and other forms of social protests is increasing," says Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Middle East political analyst.

However with the Tunisian government still heavily subsidising basics such as milk and oil against a backdrop of a worsening economic situation has resulted in these products being sold on the black market, sometimes to neighbouring countries.

“Many black market traders have been smuggling out milk and oil and selling it at much higher prices in Libya and elsewhere. Tunisia has been in a milk shortage for the last several weeks,” says Masmoudi.

The government against this backdrop has struggled to form a coherent and long term economic plan that will alleviate the structural unemployment pervasive in Tunisia. Youth unemployment, in particular, remains stubbornly high at 37%.

"There have been some small infrastructure projects in the interior and southern regions (those most marginalised pre-2011), but they've not been part of a broader government project targeting structural inequality," says Masmoudi.

For the government, the increasing reliance on the black market by ordinary citizens has meant lower tax revenues. 

"The monetary policy adopted by the Central Bank under the supervision of the IMF led to an unprecedented rise in the price of food and other basic needs,” explains Hammami. “The conditions imposed by the IMF with the support of other international governance institutions significantly reduced the margin of action of the ruling parties."

Political tensions

In late September, the octogenarian Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi withdrew from the "national consensus" coalition between the conservative Nahda Party and secularist Nidaa Tounes, preserving a modicum of stability.

The end of that coalition in the lead up to the parliamentary and presidential elections is an attempt to shore up the restless bases of each respective party.

Masmoudi believes that both parties still very much need each other if they are to avert more extensive political disaster and save the relative success Tunisia has had in a post-Arab Spring world.

"It's all mere talk, an attempt to return to ideological partisanship to prepare for attack ads and sloganeering in the lead up to elections," says Masmoudi.