After a decade of democracy, Tunisians thirst for economic freedom

Italy received five times more migrants from Tunisia in 2020 than the previous year as they look to Europe for financial stability.

Flag of Tunisia. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Tunisia.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With a decade of democracy under their belt, Tunisians enjoy representative democracy, a rarity in the region. Despite gains in political freedoms, many are fleeing the country due to economic woes that have worsened over the last 10 years.
Tunisia is the sole nation to become a democracy after the Arab Spring, a series of demonstrations that began in 2010 across the Arab world to overthrow autocratic rulers. Many of these protests were prompted by those experiencing economic hardship.  
Ten years later, ever-increasing inflation and rampant unemployment are spurring more and people to risk their lives to find better financial fortune in Europe. According to the most recent statistics from the World Bank, Tunisia ended the year with an unemployment rate of 16.2%.
“Tunisians are angry and frustrated and have a general sense of hopelessness, mostly because the revolution has not delivered on its promises of restoring dignity to people’s lives and addressing the massive economic challenges like unemployment and a rising cost of living,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, who specializes in Tunisia’s politics and economy, told The Media Line. “Many people feel like their lives would be better elsewhere, whether in Europe or North America – and are taking extraordinary steps to leave their homes.”
The Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights reported that approximately 13, 000 Tunisians entered Italy illegally in 2020, compared to approximately 2,650 the year before.  Some 5,200 Tunisians entered Italy illegally in 2018.  
Migrants make their way to Italy and other places in Europe in a perilous journey by sea, with reports of drownings common.
According to Frontex, the agency responsible for policing the European Union’s borders, the number of migrants arriving to Europe by sea surged, even as the level of refugees arriving by land went down 13% because of the coronavirus epidemic.   
“In total, the number of irregular arrivals in the Central Mediterranean almost tripled to over 35 600, making it the most active migratory route into Europe,” Frontex said in a statement, also noting “the stark increase in departures from Tunisia.”   
Despite Tunisia’s democracy making more and more strides in personal freedoms, citizens are leaving due to financial desperation, observers say.  
“I believe most people who are fleeing Tunisia are not fleeing political or human rights conditions, but rather the dire economic situation in hopes of finding jobs and making a living elsewhere in Europe,” Ahmed Benchemsi, the communications' director for the Middle East & North Africa at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.  
Yerkes also agrees that the state of Tunisia’s democracy is strong.
“Tunisia’s democracy is quite robust. There has been tremendous success in the political arena of the transition over the past decade. The country’s leaders put in place functioning political institutions, a progressive and comprehensive constitution, and opened up the space for free expression that brought about a vibrant civil society and flourishing media,” she said.
Benchemsi praised the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, an agency established to look into human rights infringements between 1995 and 2013. The end date of their probe was two years after the country’s dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was overthrown.  
Still, Tunisia’s democracy, like democracies all over the world, is not perfect.
According to Benchemsi, the most problematic areas in representative governments involve freedom of speech.
“We have specifically documented the fact that authorities still rely on some provisions in the penal code that predate the revolution to punish free speech, including criticism of public officials,” he said.  “We have documented the arrests of social media activists based on those provisions that need to be reformed obviously and those actors need to be freed.”
In addition, Benchemsi also raised concerns over how the Tunisian government conducts its war on terror.   
“There are other [problems] about the laws governing counterterrorism and detention; we believe some of them are rights-suppressing,” he said.
When it comes to women’s rights, Benchemsi said the situation in Tunisia is “certainly better than elsewhere in the region,” but inheritance laws impinge upon their freedom.
“Women inherit half the share that men inherit, a common feature in countries based on Islamic scriptures,” he said.  “That is, of course, discrimination, and we obviously oppose it. This law is still to be reformed.”
Benchemsi said that while former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died last year, had created a body tasked with reforming this law, among others, current President Kais Saied has indicated his opposition to amending the inheritance law.   
While the declining financial situation puts Tunisia’s democracy at risk, Carnegie Endowment’s Yerkes is confident about the country’s political future.  
“The economic situation, which is worse than it was ten years ago, is a threat to stability of the country for sure. But for now, I am quite optimistic that Tunisia will remain a democracy in the long run,” she said.