A young unemployed Tunisian man, Adel Khedri, immolated himself on Tuesday. Before setting himself on fire, Khedri, who died in the hospital, reportedly said, “This is a young man who sells cigarettes because of unemployment.” If you are experiencing an unsettling sense of déjà vu, it is because this scene is eerily reminiscent of the event that sparked the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, which eventually led to the ouster of autocrat Zine Al-Abadine Ben Ali, started as a result of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi ignited himself after a policewoman fined him and confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart, while slapping him, spitting in his face, and insulting his dead father in the process.
More than two years later, Tunisia is gripped in a tense political deadlock between Islamists and secularists, even as unemployment soars and commodity prices remain high. Although Tunisia is now more democratic, the new government, which is preoccupied with fighting amongst itself for control of the country’s political future, has failed to address the basic concerns of economically marginalized Tunisians.
A few hours after Khedri died, the Islamist Ennahada party, the dominant party in Tunisia’s assembly, has formed a new government under former Interior Minister Ali Larayedh. Former Ennahada Prime Minister Hamad Jebali resigned after his party refused to back his wise proposal to form a non-partisan, technocratic government as a stabilizing response to the wide scale protests and outrage sparked by the assassination of secularist politician Chokri Belaid.
Belaid was presumably killed at the hands of hard line, reactionary Islamists. For many Tunisians, his assassination was the final straw in the face of violence and militarism from ultraconservative Salafists. Although Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and the Ennahada party are moderate Islamists, and Larayedh himself faced political prosecution and torture under the Ben Ali regime, many Tunisians accurately believe that Larayedh, in his capacity as interior minister, did not do enough to stem the violence and harassment against secularists, ultimately creating an environment that made the assassination of an opposition politician possible. Furthermore, Larayedh’s new coalition is conspicuously absent of any opposition secularists, although it does include a few non-partisan technocrats.
Amidst all the squabbling and violence as to whether Tunisia should be dominated by Islamist or secularist principles, the government seems to have lost sight of its basic function, which is to ensure the well being and rights of the people it represents. GDP has decreased while unemployment, debt, and inflation continue to increase. Naturally, social unrest and further economic marginalization have resulted in protests. Although the government has proven to be tacit in the face of overt acts of violence from Islamists, the Ennahada Party has consistently cracked down on economic protests using violent tactics similar to those of the former Ben Ali regime, despite criticism from the UN and the EU. The blanket bans on protests and violent police repression clearly undermine the basic democratic and human rights that Tunisians have to self expression.
The Jasmine Revolution, brought on by the sacrifice of Mohammed Bouazizi and others like him, gave Tunisia the tools to begin to weed out government corruption and inefficacy that is necessary to better the lives of its citizens. However, the majority of Tunisia’s newly elected representatives have chosen to preoccupy themselves with divisive, unproductive. social issues rather than fixing the economic issues important to average Tunisians. Although Tunisians now have the tools to fix these problems, nothing has changed since the Jasmine Revolution in regards to the poverty and socioeconomic marginalization rampant throughout Tunisia because the majority of the country’s elected officials have lost sight of their duty and service to their country. Bouazizi, Adel Khedri, and the rest of the Tunisian people deserve better.