Tuesday, January 19, 2021

We're Going to Have a Revolution, and Then. . . .

Sad story by Vivian Yee in the Times today about political unrest in Tunisia, the only place the Arab Spring led to a new democratic government. Tunisian democracy has endured for a decade, and the nation has the Arab world's freest press. But many Tunisians feel that the right to complain about their bad condition is the only thing they got:

Tunisia’s dictatorship is long gone. Its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country in January 2011 after a brutal 23-year rule. Ten years later, Tunisians have built a democracy, however dysfunctional, complete with elections and — that rarest of Arab commodities — the right to free speech.

So it is that the protests, strikes and sit-ins seem to almost never stop. Graffiti gleefully denounces the police. Bloggers and citizen journalists howl about official mismanagement, heap scorn on political opponents and lob corruption allegations against government officials high and low, their Facebook posts then shared and amplified by thousands of fellow Tunisians.

But none of it has righted an economy heading for shipwreck. Nearly a third of young people are jobless, public services are foundering and corruption has increasingly infiltrated daily life. Opportunities for most people have become so scant, especially in Tunisia’s impoverished interior, that least 13,000 Tunisian migrants gambled their lives crossing to Italy by boat just in the last year. . . .

“Why did we revolt?” said Ines Jebali, 23, a sociology student. “Everything changed for the worse.”

Yet another people learns that the Revolution is just step one on a long, long road toward a decent and prosperous society. Habits of corruption die hard, and no government can magic a modern economy into being. 

One of the issues in Tunisia is government instability; they have had a dozen since they elected their first free Parliament. No party can establish stable control because the country is so closely divided between the mainly rural people who want the nation to be founded on Islam and those, mainly urban, who want a more western, liberal society. (Sounds familiar, no?) Plus, both parties are full of corrupt rent-seekers because, honestly, the whole country is full of corrupt rent-seekers.

Another issue is the belief that the only thing keeping ordinary people from earning decent livings is corruption. Tunisia certainly has a problem with corruption. But that is not the fundamental problem many Tunisians seem to believe it is. Even if corruption could be eliminated Tunisia would still be a struggling middle-income country with nothing special to sell the world. 

Yee's article ends on an optimistic note, focusing on political agitation among Tunisia's young city dwellers. I wish them well. But I am not optimistic that they or anyone else can cure the pain Tunisians experience from being torn between Islam and the west, and from being a not-rich country just across the Mediterranean from much richer lands.

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