Tunisia is often touted as the Arab Spring’s only success story – and for good reason.
Since 2011, the North African country has held free and fair elections, seen incumbents peacefully step down, and – in a first for the region – pushed forward legislation to grant women equal inheritance rights.
But eight years after street protests forced Tunisia’s long-time authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down, the economic malaise that prompted the popular uprising has anything but subsided, particularly in the historically marginalised southern and central regions.
“What can be described as a dramatic transformation at the political level has not translated into economic and social gains for the majority,” said Larbi Sadiki, a professor of political science at Qatar University.
“The shift from popular uprising to institutional politics has not been smooth and has benefited the few, various cliques, often at the expense of the immediate interests of citizens throughout Tunisia’s various regions.”
The scale of the regional imbalance in economic resources was evident in Ben Ali’s final budget prior to his January 2011 overthrow, which allocated a mere 18 percent of state funds to the country’s inner regions. The rest, 82 percent, went to the coastal towns.
In fact, such has been the traditional disparity between the industrialised coast and the north, and the rural southern and central areas that its easing was enshrined in Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, which envisioned devolving some powers and economic resources to the neglected regions.
But the persisting inequality, coupled with rampant unemployment (estimated at more than 15 percent), and anger at the failure of successive governments, has repeatedly led many Tunisians in recent years to take their grievances to the streets.
Most recently, the apparent self-immolation of an underemployed photojournalist in the central city of Kasserine brought once again the country’s wide economic imbalance and the authorities’ response to it into sharp focus.
“I am going to set myself on fire,” 32-year-old Abderrazak Zorgui can be heard saying in a video shared on Facebook prior to his death last month.
Protesters clash with police after journalist’s death (2:10)
“The government needs to take an interest in what’s happening in Kasserine… Are we not human in Kasserine?”
Like Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor from the impoverished city of Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire and triggered what later came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, Zorgui hailed from a town that seemed to be neglected by the central authorities.
And while Zorgui’s brother has maintained the journalist was only trying to rally support for his cause, and that a gang of youth actually set him on fire against his will, acts of self-immolation have nevertheless witnessed a threefold increase in the period between 2011 and 2016.
No easy fixes
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East programme, said the government has sought to implement policies aimed at reversing the imbalance.
“One of the pillars of the 2014 constitution is the concept of positive discrimination, which prioritises the traditionally disadvantaged regions,” Yerkes said.
“The problem is that the decentralisation process that will actually implement the policy of positive discrimination has been delayed multiple times.”
Tunisian police officers patrol after clashes in the streets of Kasserine [Mohamed Ben Salah/AP]
In May last year, after several postponements caused by a number of logistical and political hurdles, Tunisians finally headed to the polls to vote in the first free municipal elections since Ben Ali’s January 2011 overthrow.
Yerkes said local officials still lack the funds and adequate human resources to “carry out the projects and policies that will help bring the marginalised areas on par with the coast”.
Many question the feasibility of decentralisation, at least in the current challenging economic context, with international lenders pressuring Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to push ahead with unpopular reforms that include letting go of lossmaking state companies and cutting the public sector wage bill, which accounts for roughly half the national budget.
In an effort to boost the comepetitiveness of its exports and in line with recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) authorities have allowed the Tunisian dinar to depreciate.
But that policy hasn’t been without consequence.
As a result, those most vulnerable have been forced to accept exorbitant hikes in the price of basic commodities as the country turns to foreign markets to meet food shortages.
Tunisia’s import bill for the first eight months hit a record $13.9bn – a 20 percent increase compared with the previous year.
Meanwhile, the powerful UGTT labour union threatened to stage a nationwide strike on Thursday if its demands for higher wages for public sector workers are not met, putting Chahed in a difficult position.
The prime minister’s problems, however, don’t stop there.
Rooting out corruption
An agricultural engineer by training, Chahed is at the heart of an ongoing dispute between President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes and the Muslim democratic Ennahdha Party. The melee has already led to the end of the two parties’ partnership, which formed the nucleus of the national unity government.
The 43-year-old prime minister drew the ire of Essebsi, 92, after launching a crackdown on corruption that implicated prominent business people and officials from the Ben Ali era, an important component of the nonagenarian’s support base.
The implications of the “divorce” are not quite clear. Some analysts suggest it will lead to further fragmentation and polarisation of Tunisia’s political scene.
Others, more optimistic about the democratisation process, say the split is long overdue and allows parties to focus less on the politics of consensus and more on coming up with ideas and initiatives of their own.
Still, observers say tackling corruption remains a top priority.
On January 4, Transparency International denounced a request by the Tunisian foreign ministry to unfreeze the assets of Mohammed Marouen Mabrouk, a businessman and son-in-law of Ben Ali.
Youssef Belgacem, senior project manager at I Watch, Transparency International’s chapter in Tunisia, said the request was made “under instruction from Prime Minister Chahed”.
“With Mr Chahed seeking to launch a new political party one year before the elections in Tunisia, this request to unfreeze Mabrouk’s assets – out of nearly 50 sanctioned individuals – strongly suggests some kind of deal has been struck,” said Belgacem.
The government has already passed legislation aimed at rehabilitating members of the pre-revolution establishment.
Chahed is leading a crackdown on corruption with international backing [Hassene Dridi/AP]
One of President Essebsi’s first and few projects in 2015 was an administrative reconciliation law that grants amnesty to former Ben Ali officials.
Although watered down from its initial version, the legislation ignited controversy.
“This law is in essence part of the counter-revolutionary assault that Tunisians, as well as those in several other Arab countries, are struggling against,” said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.
Sihem Ben Sedrine, the president of the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD by its French acronym), a body set up in 2014 and charged with investigating crimes committed under president Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-1989) deplored a lack of cooperation on the part of Tunisia’s new kingmakers.
In March, the IVD, whose work includes recommending policies to strengthen state institutions and prevent corruption, saw its request to extend its mandate by another six months rejected by parliament.
Ben Sedrine contended that seeking approval from Tunisia’s popular assembly was not mandatory but merely a ceremonial procedure, prompting a debate over whether the legislature had any authority over the commission.
The issue could’ve been resolved swiftly with the intervention of the constitutional court, the establishment of which was supposed to take place no later than a year after the October 2014 parliamentary elections.
But more than four years since the date of its creation, none of the 12 judges has been appointed.
“Most were quick to label Tunisia’s transition as ‘smooth’, ‘a beacon of hope’, or even a ‘model’ for others in the region to follow,” Aboueldahab said.
“Such overly optimistic accounts have overlooked the gravity of continued socioeconomic injustice in Tunisia.”
The Arab Awakening – Death of Fear (48:04)
Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress. The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of…
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress.
The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, who disappeared on a trip to China in 2018 and 18 months later pleaded guilty to corruption. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely appeared to accept his resignation letter and Secretary-General Jurgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to investigate.
Things could have turned out the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, after a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately began to push back. Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
The WTA has also continued to raise questions even after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying that she was “not missing” or “unsafe” and that reports of her allegations were “not true”. She reemerged in public a few days later and spoke to the International Olympic Committee over a now heavily-criticised video call.
“[It] remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said afterwards, stressing that the organisation remained concerned about her wellbeing.
The alleged email from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon that was aired on state broadcaster CGTN last month [CGTN/Twitter via Reuters]After the WTA’s repeated expressions of concern about Peng Shuai’s wellbeing, the IOC said it had held a video call with the player and released a still photo from the call [IOC via EPA]Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.
“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Association has more credibility right now than Interpol in pushing back on China’s gross human rights abuses, abduction of members of its organisation, and poking holes in what is just thinly-veiled coercive statements and propaganda,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.
China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the high-ranking party member at the centre of Peng’s allegations, has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Caster.
He described Peng’s situation as part of the same “playbook” used by the Chinese government when concerns are raised about the wellbeing of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.
“These farcical public presentations from Peng Shuai are clearly scripted as part of a propaganda effort and we say that because we’ve seen this movie before,” Caster told Al Jazeera.
In announcing the suspension of tournaments, the WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Game, set, and match to the @WTA in the grand slam for sports and human rights in #China! Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China… via @WTA https://t.co/LlZ7yW86BQ @hrw @MinkysHighjinks @hrw
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) December 1, 2021
I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. https://t.co/PHiU0S7Prw
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 1, 2021
Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over positions taken by their players and officials.
China briefly stopped airing NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and erased Premier League football player Mesut Ozil from the Chinese internet after he spoke out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
More recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been pulled from broadcast in China as Enes Kanter, their centre, continues to make criticisms about President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet while also voicing support for Taiwan.
Moment of reckoning
The WTA, however, had political momentum and timing on its side allowing the organisation to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.
Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a moment of reckoning in the sports world over #MeToo allegations and mental health following the public struggles of athletes like Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their core business. It’s what the organisation is founded upon and to not be seen as supporting someone who apparently has gone missing would undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.
“My feeling is that the WTA probably made a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by not saying anything, then it stood to lose by essentially standing up to China.”
Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not taken off there as quickly as the WTA initially anticipated.
Its deal with China has also struggled as a result of the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA finals event in 2019. The 2020 final was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.
The NBA came under pressure in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters in 2019 [File: Xihao Jiang/Reuters]That may give the WTA the kind of latitude unavailable to groups like the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organisation has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year and not attended by the usual number of spectators.
Following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Peng, according to the Associated Press.
Emma Terho, the IOC Athletes Commission Chair, said on Twitter that the organisation prefers a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may have also felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.
Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games protest against human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, notes Chadwick.
“I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States put on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days, he said. “And that is extremely unusual.”
On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at having to suspend events in China, but he said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.
He once again urged Beijing to prove Peng was free, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the allegations of assault.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
Mexico and US to launch plan to stem Central American migration
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will…
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and target the three so-called Northern Triangle countries.
Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has fuelled record numbers of people being apprehended at the US-Mexico border, as asylum seekers have tried to enter the United States after fleeing poverty, violence and political instability.
The surge in arrivals has piled political pressure on the administration of US President Joe Biden, whose Republican rivals have accused him of causing “chaos” at the border.
Mexico’s National Guard has been dispatched along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and along main roads to stem the flow of migrants [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained some 1.7 million people along the border.
The US has been increasingly reliant on Mexico to stem the flow of migrants, as it returns to Mexico the majority of people who arrive at the border under a Trump-era border restriction enacted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The US is also in talks with the Mexican government to restart a programme that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US immigration court hearings.
Both Biden and Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have vowed to tackle what they call the “root causes” of migration.
They have pointed to poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, gang violence, political instability and corruption as some of the leading causes of migration, especially of young people.
The new US-Mexico collaboration will begin in Honduras, with an effort to teach job skills to more than 500,000 at-risk youth, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
The department did not provide details about the programme or how much funding would be allocated for the scheme.
The project will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation and the United States Agency for International Development [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]As a presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador had touted social programmes aimed at creating better lives for people in Central American countries, which he said would discourage people from leaving.
But those plans were shelved after former US President Donald Trump took office and made hardline, anti-immigration measures the main focus of his government.
In recent years, Mexico has blocked several caravans of people seeking to reach the US. It also has dispatched its National Guard to the country’s southern and northern borders to try to keep people away.
Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks,…
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”