Tunisia is in the throes of its worst political turmoil since the revolution ended in January 2011. Ideological polarizations and putative identity crises are not, as some have claimed, its most pressing problems. Rather, the country faces urgent socio-economic maladies that can only be solved by reverting to the true course of the revolution.
The brazen murder of leftist opposition figure Chokri Belaid in early February 2013 sent shockwaves across the country, plunging Tunisia into its current political crisis and ultimately leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who has been replaced by hard-liner Ali Laarayedh.
Known for his unabashed criticism of the Islamist-dominated government, Belaid was shot dead on February 6th. The following day, the mighty Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) staged its first general strike since 1978. A day later, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Tunis for Belaid’s funeral, evoking the solidarity and mobilization of January 2011.
Although more than two years have passed since the country’s heroic uprising, protestors used the same slogans deployed in January 2011, a reminder of the unmet challenges that sit at the center of the Tunisia’s ongoing crisis.
Tunisians on Facebook posted the blood-soaked flag profile pictures that had been used to honor the revolution’s martyrs. Some spoke of the “second revolution” or “the beginning of the end.” Prominent blogger Yassine Ayari even likened the assassination’s impact on Tunisia to the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its effects on Europe on the eve of World War I.
Ayari’s comments are counterintuitive. While Belaid had a long record of strong opposition to Tunisia’s ruling regimes, he was hardly a formidable threat. He enjoyed neither standing nor political clout, and his party held only one seat in the Constituent Assembly.
Although Belaid’s bold public stance on the worsening political violence in the country certainly garnered respect from opposition activists, it could hardly be considered a siren’s call for action. One is, thus, left to wonder how the murder of a mid-level politician set in motion such a chain of dramatic events.
While the Western media has succumbed to the ubiquitous narrative of an Islamist-secularist divide at its boiling point, the real source of the crisis can be found in the country’s overarching popular fatigue and disillusionment with concrete economic issues.
This disenchantment is the central and uniting experience of many Tunisians tired of the political posturing and debates that hold little meaning for their everyday lives.
According to a survey published by the International Republican Institute in early February, 43% of Tunisians believe employment should be a top priority for the current government, with only 3% prioritizing “social reforms.”
The formation of the tripartite Islamist-secular coalition after the October 2011 parliamentary vote boded well for the country’s political transition. But instead of tackling the pressing issues, the parties became embroiled in drawn-out debates about the nation’s identity, the role of Sharia, blasphemy, and women’s rights.
The futile debates over Tunisia’s “Arab-Muslim identity” have only empowered the very fringes of society, which have attempted to capitalize on this opportunity to assume a larger role in public life. Isolated incidents of political violence, the stand-off at Manouba University, and provocative displays by Salafist forces have garnered a disproportionate amount of media attention.
The real fault lines in Tunisia are not ideological or religious. Even the founding father of Tunisia’s secular state, Habib Bourguiba, couched his policies in Islamic terms to gain legitimacy. While discouraging Tunisians from fasting during the month of Ramadan, Bourguiba posited the struggle for economic prosperity as a form of jihad.
In his seminal work on Tunisia’s premier Islamist party, Ennahda, former party member Mohammed Elihachmi Hamdi writes that Bourguiba “felt obliged to respect deeply rooted Islamic feelings inasmuch as it was necessary to have his ideas implemented.” Acceptance of the nation’s Islamic heritage cuts across political spectrums. Even communist leader Hamma Hammami (who comes from the same ideological current as Belaid) considered Islam as “one of the pillars of the regime’s ideology.”
Tunisian youths did not make the revolution to re-define their relationship with Islam or women’s “complementarity” or “equality” to men. But somehow, these issues have taken center stage.
Phantasmagorical accounts of nascent emirates, and sword-wielding morality police, cutting off hands, only deterred investors and damaged the country’s already-foundering economy. The unresolved economic grievances, in turn, fueled further popular anger that found expression in rancorous protests.
On February 28th, international ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Tunisia to junk status, citing “political tensions” that have undermined the “government’s ability to govern effectively, restore social stability, and avert the worsening of already severe economic conditions.” The move came just a few days after Standard & Poor’s lowered Tunisia’s rating following Jebali’s resignation.
The country is experiencing a vicious circle of political uncertainty and economic malaise. Enmeshed in political divergences and the constant need to compromise, Tunisia’s leaders have neglected the economy, which has de-legitimized the government and furthered political paralysis.
The key challenge facing Tunisia’s transitional period is not reconstructing the country’s social fabric but aligning the gains of the revolution with achievements of the past to secure political rights and economic prosperity while retaining social freedoms.
During protests on February 16th, members of Ennahda sought to portray themselves as “defenders of the revolution.” The party’s legitimacy is not based, however, on its revolutionary or religious credentials but rather on a popular mandate to salvage Tunisia’s economy, derived from its parliamentary victory 18 months ago.
To minimize the fallout from Jebali’s resignation, Ennahda needs to set a clear date for the next elections and finalize the draft constitution. To allay popular concerns, the Laarayedh-led government must thoroughly investigate Belaid’s murder. Ennahda must also consent to disbanding the leagues for the protection of the revolution, controversial pro-government militias that were blamed for recent attacks on opposition figures and unionists.
After decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisians are discovering the meaning of political engagement through acrimonious debates and raucous protests. But while citizens continue to experiment with formerly suppressed modes of political and religious expression, the onus is on policy-makers to foster a rational public discourse that will tackle the core issues of the revolution – jobs, corruption, accountability, and equality between Tunisia’s littoral and inland areas.
The events of the past two weeks underscore the fragility of Tunisia’s transition. Power brokers need to set their differences aside and curb their political ambitions to address the real demands of the Tunisian people, which are noticeably similar to those from two years ago.
*Ilyana Ovshieva holds a Master’s degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown. She spent three months in Tunisia last year where she contributed reporting to Tunisialive.net. Her work on Tunisian hip hop appeared in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication.
 Hamdi M. The Politicisation of Islam: Essays on Democratic Governance. Westview Press 1998, p. 16
 Ibid., p. 95
 Ibid., p.15