Thanks mainly to Coronavirus, countries around the world are falling like dominos. Lebanon is facing a humanitarian disaster, Turkey is on the cusp of an economic collapse, and Sudan is about to be hit with a currency crisis. Tunisia is another nation on the brink of poverty and despair as the global Coronavirus pandemic victimizes its economy. But the North African state had already been under the pressure of political upheaval and stagnation. Like other fragile economies, the virus outbreak catalyzed a financial calamity. The only solution for thousands of Tunisians is an exodus to Europe.
The Economy of Tunisia
The gross domestic product (GDP) annual growth rate has cratered more than 21%, the steepest contraction since it declared independence in 1956. The national unemployment rate is 18%, and in some places in the country, the jobless figure is 30%. Inflation is climbing by 6%. Government debt to GDP is more than 76%, which could be explained by the personal income tax rate being 35%. The deteriorating economic conditions were prevalent even before the global Coronavirus pandemic.
Economic numbers do not bode well for the country, and the situation could deteriorate further. Up until recently, Tunisia had mostly been unaffected by COVID-19. In the last week, it has witnessed a spike, prompting officials to impose curfews on several hotspots.
Overall, Tunisia has failed to restore its economy in the wake of overthrowing the dictatorship in 2011, giving The Economist enough material to report that Tunisians are pining for the good old days of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunis had been ground zero for the Arab Spring uprisings, and it served as a blueprint for the rest of the Middle East nearly a decade ago. Back then, the public was suffering from food price inflation, corruption, and high unemployment. Ten years later, nothing has changed.
A Migrant Crisis
According to the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, the number of migrants fleeing Tunisia has spiked five times this year to about 6,000. The migrants are crossing into Europe, with many sneaking into Italy, which has suffered another migrant crisis from Libya.
Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor who is heading investigations into alleged human trafficking from Tunisia to Sicily, says that two developments are happening. The first is that Tunisian fishermen have entered the smuggling racket. The second is that families are arriving on the shores of Italy, and not just young men seeking a better life. He told The Guardian:
“We are no longer witnessing exclusive arrivals of young people in search of a better future. In the last few months, entire families have begun arriving at our shores, and from an array of social classes, even members of what we may describe as Tunisia’s middle class. The impression is that the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has hit not only the poorest sectors of society but also small- and medium-sized Tunisian businesspeople. They’re arriving with their pets and large suitcases, but not for a holiday. They’ve left their homes forever.”
The Italian government is attempting to curb the migration by giving $13 million to the Tunisian government. The European Union has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Tunisia since the start of the year. The purpose behind this funding is to stimulate its economy, fight the COVID-19 outbreak, and slow down migration levels.
Tunisia has employed several measures to rein in the flow of migrants, such as installing surveillance devices and sending search teams to patrol the waters. However, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed pleaded for more financial assistance, and Secretary of State Selma Neifer campaigned for Tunisians to legally work and travel in Europe. At the same time, they agreed that there would unlikely be an end to irregular migration. But Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has threatened to increase repatriation flights in response to the swelling number of new arrivals from Tunisia.
Be Careful What You Wish For?
It has been said that to torture a man, give him everything he wants. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated to protest the autocratic regimes. His heroic act inspired many more to emulate his action. Hosni Kalaya was another person who set himself on fire to further fuel the anger, but he conceded in 2015 he “regrets it all now” because nothing has changed. Ben Ali got off scot-free and was living as a free man in Saudi Arabia until his death in September 2019.
Do any of the Arab countries that failed to enact change regret the revolution? Perhaps it is a case of dancing with the devil you know rather than the devil you do not as many successors have been just as corrupt and maybe even more dangerous than previous leaders. When people are out of work and have no money, being unable to live might be more devastating for Tunisians than being ruled by a contemptible president or prime minister.
Read more from Andrew Moran.