After a decade of democracy, Tunisians crave economic freedom

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Italy welcomed five times as many migrants from Tunisia in 2020 as the previous year as they look to Europe for financial stability

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 hardship that has worsened over the past 10 years.

Tunisia is the only nation to become a democracy after the Arab Spring, a series of protests that began in 2010 across the Arab world to topple autocratic rulers. Many of these protests were sparked by people in economic difficulty.

Ten years later, ever-increasing inflation and rampant unemployment are prompting more and more people to risk their lives to find a better financial fortune in Europe. According to the latest 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 despair, mainly because the revolution has failed to deliver on its promises to restore dignity to people’s lives and address the huge economic challenges like unemployment and poverty. rising cost of living,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program who specializes in Tunisian politics and economics, told The Media Line. “Many people feel like their lives would be better off somewhere else, whether in Europe or North America – and are taking extraordinary steps to leave their homes.”

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights reported that around 13,000 Tunisians entered Italy illegally in 2020, compared to around 2,650 the previous year. Some 5,200 Tunisians entered Italy illegally in 2018.

The migrants are heading to Italy and other places in Europe on a perilous journey by sea, with frequent reports of drownings.

According to Frontex, the agency responsible for monitoring the borders of the European Union, the number of migrants arriving in Europe by sea has jumped, even as the number of refugees arriving by land has fallen by 13% due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“In total, the number of irregular arrivals in the Central Mediterranean has almost tripled to more than 35,600, making it the most active migration route to Europe,” Frontex said in a statement, also noting “the strong increase in departures from Tunisia”.

I think most of the people fleeing Tunisia are not fleeing the political or human rights conditions, but rather the dire economic situation in hopes of finding a job and earning a living elsewhere in Europe

Although Tunisia’s democracy is making increasing progress in individual freedoms, citizens are leaving due to financial desperation, observers say.

“I think most of the people fleeing Tunisia are not fleeing political conditions or human rights, but rather the dire economic situation in hopes of finding jobs and earning a living elsewhere in Europe,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, director of communications for the Middle East and North Africa. at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.

Yerkes also agrees that the state of Tunisian democracy is strong.

“Tunisian democracy is quite solid. There has been enormous success in the political arena of transition over the past decade. The country’s leaders have put in place functioning political institutions, a progressive and comprehensive constitution, and opened the space for freedom of expression that has given rise to a vibrant civil society and a thriving media,” he said. she declared.

Benchemsi praised the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, an agency set up to investigate human rights abuses between 1995 and 2013. The end date for their investigation was two years after the country’s dictator was overthrown, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

However, Tunisian democracy, like all democracies in the world, is not perfect.

According to Benchemsi, the most problematic areas in representative government relate to freedom of expression.

“We have specifically documented that the authorities still rely on certain pre-revolution penal code provisions to punish freedom of expression, including criticism of public officials,” he said. “We have documented the arrests of social media activists based on these provisions which obviously need to be reformed and these actors need to be released.”

Additionally, Benchemsi also raised concerns about the way the Tunisian government is waging its war on terror.

” There are others [problems] laws governing counter-terrorism and detention; we think some of them are taking away the rights,” he said.

Tunisian democracy is quite robust. There has been tremendous success in the transitional political arena over the past decade

Regarding women’s rights, Benchemsi said the situation in Tunisia is “certainly better than elsewhere in the region”, but inheritance laws impinge on their freedom.

“Women inherit half of the share that men inherit, a common feature in countries based on Islamic scriptures,” he said. “It is of course discrimination, and we obviously oppose it. This law still needs to be reformed.

Benchemsi said that while former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died last year, had set up a body to reform this law, among others, current President Kais Saied has indicated his opposition to amending the law on estates.

As 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 ten years ago, is a threat to the stability of the country for sure. But for now, I’m quite optimistic that Tunisia will remain a democracy in the long term,” she said.

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