It is not surprising then that there has been a disproportionately heavy concentration of protests in the interior of the country and that despair has led many to acts of self-immolation in public defiance of the status quo.
When Abderazzak Zorgui, a 32-year-old photojournalist, took his own life in the western city of Kasserine in late December, his frustrations, detailed in a video that he had posted online resonated with millions of Tunisians. Describing his anger at high unemployment rates and his disappointment that, eight years on from the Jasmine Revolution, not much had changed, Zorgui underscored the enduring disparity between the country’s interior and its coast.
Every major protest movement in Tunisia’s modern history has emanated from the south and interior of the country. In 1864—long before Mohammed Bouazizi’s 2011 act of self-immolation in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid set off the protests that inspired the Arab Spring—a tribal leader from Kasserine named Ali Ben Ghedhahem led an insurgency in response to both the doubling of the majba (or personal tax) by the government to pay off its debts and inflated prices in local markets because of increased exports. A century later, the bread riots of 1983 and 1984, in protest over the withdrawal of food subsidies, erupted in the southwest of Tunisia and quickly spread from cities in the south to Tunis.
This regional disparity is rooted in the coastal north and east of the country having been favored during Ottoman rule over Tunisia. With the end of piracy in the early nineteenth century, trade and economic exchange opened up between the coastal region and southern Europe. The geographically privileged status of the coast was further reinforced under the French protectorate, starting in 1881. Since independence in 1956, the disenfranchised interior regions have consistently been at odds with the Tunisian coast, which has disproportionately benefited from tourism and foreign investment.
Under Ben Ali, the situation grew worse. Whatever economic gains were made during his 23 years of autocratic rule were not evenly distributed across classes, regions, or age groups. Those who felt the greatest benefits were the upper-middle and upper classes of Tunis and the coastal region, whose standards of living equaled those in eastern and southern Europe. Business activity on the coast dwarfed that of the interior. It is estimated that, while GDP growth averaged 5 percent between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of that growth was concentrated in the coastal region.
Current economic hardships are often blamed on the revolution, and many Tunisians have expressed nostalgia for the rule of Ben Ali. Such sentiments lack the important historical perspective that much of Tunisia’s current economic problems are the consequence of Ben Ali’s rule and the failure of international donor organizations. In particular, the IMF and the World Bank paid little heed to the lopsidedness of Tunisia’s nominal economic progress or the corruption and nepotism that benefited Ben Ali and his clan during much of his reign.
Under Ben Ali’s economic policies of patronage and coercion, 21 percent of private sector profits accrued to companies owned by his extended family. Ben Ali and his relatives and in-laws amassed assets worth approximately $13 billion—equivalent to more than 25 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product in 2011—during his tenure, according to the World Bank. Public and private monopolies and oligopolies, largely controlled by Ben Ali’s family, dominated most Tunisian industries. Tunisia was nonetheless brandished by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF as a middle-class economic miracle and a model of social liberalism and developing-world prosperity. Biased statistical inferences and data manipulations helped preserve this fictional narrative. Unemployment for university graduates, for example, was manipulated into an official figure of 22.5 percent in 2009 — half the actual number, which stood at 45 percent.
Likewise, Ben Ali bears responsibility for the persistent problem of unemployment for university graduates. One-third of those who are currently unemployed hold a university degree, a direct result of a structural problem that started under his rule.
Obsessed with the image that he presented of himself to his own people, and more importantly to the West and to donor organizations, Ben Ali pursued populist reforms to an education system that under his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, had set Tunisia apart for the quality and selectivity of its citizens’ education.
Bourguiba’s education system mandated a national exam at the end of primary school that determined eligibility for admission to secondary school. Only about 50 percent of those who sat for the test passed it. Most of those who did not pass enrolled in terminal vocational schools, collèges moyens, designed to match graduates’ skills with the needs of employers. Among those who did enrolled in secondary school, around 50 percent pursued a technical track.
Wanting to boost enrollment data, satisfy counterproductive metrics imposed by donor organizations, and appeal to popular demand for greater school access, Ben Ali, through a 1991 reform, annulled the secondary-school entrance exam and made school compulsory until the age of 16. He also closed the collèges moyens and de-emphasized technical education, such that only 12 percent of secondary-school students pursued the technical track in 1998.