Last Updated: Mon Jun 11, 2012 18:24 pm (KSA) 15:24 pm (GMT)

Why Tunisia is important

Paul Sullivan

Tunisia is a small country. It has a population of about 10.6 million. It has not been a major part of world history since World War II. That is, until the country’s revolution of 2011 that by many accounts helped spark the revolutions in Libya, Egypt and beyond.

Tunisia recently had a fairly successful election cycle. There was little real violence. The transition from interim leadership to the new leadership was about as smooth as anyone could have hoped. Some were upset that conservative “Islamists” took power. This is hardly a surprise given how the country’s previous leaders ruled the country and how those leaders treated the Nahda Party which is Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, perversely Islamists were strengthened in their credibility and their legitimacy was bolstered through the ancien regime’s opposition to them. There is also the fact that former President Ben Ali essentially robbed the country and repressed its people.

Tunisia’s economy is still in bad shape. Unemployment is officially at about 19 percent. Youth unemployment in some areas is quite startling and saddening.

Tunisia has some very important Roman and Carthaginian historical sites, and some sites go back even before those days. It has beautiful beaches and was a vacation spot for many from the EU prior to the revolution. There is hope that it will be able to revive this pre-revolution demand from European and other tourists.

Tunisia has mostly traded with the EU, which is part of the country’s economic problem. The EU economy too is in bad shape and will likely get worse. EU investment has fallen after the revolution. Tunisia needs trade, tourism, and investments to get its people, and especially its youth to work, before the economic stagnation starts rumblings in the street and conflict begins again. The Tunisian Revolution could fail on the weaknesses of Tunisia’s economy.

Investment should be pouring into the country given its geographic position, its fairly well educated workforce, its reliable infrastructure for both transport and trade, and its bilingual nature. However, while it is easy to say that investors should move into Tunisia, it is harder to actually mobilize them given their sense of risk. It is also easy to ask that governments send aid money, grants, and cheap loans to the country to help it out of its economic morass if one ignores that the EU and U.S. governments are under increasing budgetary stress.

Many EU governments could be looking at bankruptcy or at the least very tight budgets. Italy, Greece, Spain are but the most obvious examples. France, Tunisia’s largest investor and donor prior to the revolution, is hardly in economic roses. It is facing its own economic stagnation, high unemployment, and austerity programs.

In stressful times like these, a country in need of aid needs a constituency with influence. France has a slight constituency with Tunisia, but it is a weak one relative to the other constituencies asking for money from the French government. There is only a tiny and weak constituency for Tunisia in the U.S.

Hardly anyone in Washington is fired-up to “Save Tunisia.”

Critically, though, if Tunisia falls on its own economic swords and the revolution is turned around, it could be that the other Arab Spring states will look at this and wonder where they might go. The economic stresses in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria are worse than the economic stresses on Tunisia. The most tenuous economies will be the ones that are most likely to fall back into violence and conflict the soonest.

It is clear that the success of the Arab Spring revolutions is hardly a done deal. In many of the countries, the revolutions may not even have really started yet, if it looks like the economies will get weaker and the labor markets worse.

This should be of concern to all of us, especially to those in the EU, given the proximity to North Africa and the Levant. If Tunisia fails, many others could follow.

Maybe it is time to think more about what can be done to stop potential revolutionary recidivism from happening.

Tunisia could be the first try at getting this right, but it faces a mostly stagnant world economy and increasing insularity and budgetary retrenchment in the countries that might be able to help the most.

Can the world deal with a reversal of revolutionary fortunes in the region repeatedly?

These could prove to be bad economic times to have revolutions. The irony is palpable.


Dr. Paul Sullivan is a Professor of Economics at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor of Security Studies and Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University and a United Nations Global Experts. Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations

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