A successful jasmine revolution, but what next for Tunisia?

The toppling of Ben Ali will inspire oppressed people everywhere – but takes Tunisia into new territ

On Friday, the western media finally woke up to the "Jasmine Revolution" unfolding in Tunisia. After weeks of light coverage of events there, I was surprised to hear an in-depth report on Tunisia on BBC Radio 4 early on Friday morning. The New York Times despatched a reporter to the capital on Thursday, and the Guardian has been carrying stories on its home page daily. By the end of the week, people in the UK and US understood the gravity of events in Tunisia that Middle East watchers had been following for the past three weeks.

Despite President Ben Ali's best efforts to dissipate the energy in the protest movement, which began with the suicide of a young man frustrated at the Tunisian state for having confiscated the vegetable stall where he earned his livelihood, Tunisians gradually became more agitated, and the protest moved from distant towns and cities to the capital itself at the start of the week. Promises of huge investments in job-creation programmes and urgent democratic reforms were rejected by the nationwide movement, which brought together young and old, people in urban centres, small towns, working people and the middle classes. Despite the threat of lethal force, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets as the movement's potential became clear.

The focus of the uprising moved swiftly beyond jobs and the price of food to the corrupt and repressive regime that has been running the country since 1987. The Ben Ali dictatorship is seen as one of the most repressive anywhere in the world, having ruthlessly silenced opposition politics and the press since the early days of his presidency. Internet access has been widely available for years, but many foreign websites – for example, YouTube – are banned, permanently. The trade-off for Tunisians was the promise of a job and a good education, but widespread corruption, emanating from Ben Ali's own family, had reached so far and wide that ordinary people could feel its effects and the economic trade-off started to slip.

It became clear when the protest reached Tunis that the ultimate aim of the movement was a revolution, not just economic reform. Tunisians chanted anti-Ben Ali slogans and made their aims clear on the streets of the capital. I've watched Tunisia for years and I was astounded and impressed at the audacity of this uprising, considering the strength of the formal (police, secret service) and informal (neighbours, taxi drivers, etc) networks that worked to repress alternative political views and ensure the continuity of the regime. Tunisia, and particularly Tunis, can be intimidating at times, if you know how to spot the secret police agents posted on every corner of the capital, and it must have taken real courage for Tunisians to show their discontent in this way.

The regime was startled by the speed and voracity of events, and scrambled to hold on to power. Ben Ali announced on Thursday night that he would not run for election again in 2014, and after a general strike on Friday morning reduced his plea to just six more months as leader, promising a summer election for his replacement. It was clear, however, that after the 23-year period of his rule, mixing fear with shrewd economic management, impressive progress on women's rights and a moderate brand of Islam, the president would barely survive the weekend, let alone six months. The question became not if Ben Ali would fall, but what would happen after he fell: would there be a leadership vacuum and what would fill it?

Some western observers feared an extreme Islamist element would take advantage of any vacuum, but a close look at Tunisian society should calm such fears – Tunisia is no Algeria. Ben Ali's actions over decades to squash all opposition and free media comment resulted in the near-disappearance of a political class outside the regime itself, so there are no obvious national politicians ready to take over. The Tunisian constitution states that, in the event of a president losing power unexpectedly, the leader of parliament takes over, for a 45-day period, leading to new elections. The current leader of the Tunisian parliament is too old and frail to run the country; instead Prime Minister Ghannouchi, a senior member of the regime, led a palace coup and is now de facto president, his views on the next steps unclear. Ben Ali has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, apparently having been refused entry to France.

Tunisia is reliant on tourism and foreign investment for prosperity. French, German, British and Russian tourists are being evacuated this weekend by the thousand, and western companies with a significant presence in the Maghreb economic powerhouse will be watching events carefully. If chaos ensues, the economic and social progress will rapidly become undone; Tunisia will lose its prized position as a beacon of economic success in Africa and the Arab world. It is vital that a period of calm now comes about – though early signs point to sporadic looting and violence. The interim government today announced elections in 60 days – Ghannouchi must make his intentions clear to give Tunisians confidence that they haven't swapped one dictator for another.

This scenario might be the best possible outcome of last week's successful uprising. Things might not turn out so benign. The final act of the dictator Ben Ali had its seeds sown many years ago when all opposition and alternative political leadership was squashed, and it's an act that could have long-term, damaging ramifications. The Jasmine Revolution is an inspiration for oppressed people everywhere, but it is taking Tunisia into unknown territory.

Luke Bozier writes on the Middle East and has run projects for the British Council in Tunisia.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.