Seven years on: Tunisia’s legacies of neglect


One of the most significant structural threats to the post-revolutionary Tunisian state is its approach towards its economic origins

On Sunday, 17 December, it will be seven years since Mohamed Bouazizi, an informal street vendor from Sidi Bouzid, took his own life. In the revolution that followed, he became a symbol of Tunisia’s marginalised, those who had to create their own jobs, without rights, support or security.

The economic origins of the Tunisian revolution lie in predation and exclusion. Both came with their own figurehead – while Bouazizi became the symbol of the excluded, the dictator’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, emerged as the symbol of a corrupt and predatory state elite.

One represented an image of a state that is painfully present, one of a state that is painfully absent.

Willful neglect

One of the most significant structural threats to the post-revolutionary Tunisian state is that its approach towards its economic origins has been deeply lopsided.

More precisely, the interaction between Tunisian elites and international donors has moved the country towards an economic reform programme that claims to address the effects of the overreach of the authoritarian state – cronyism, corruption, inefficiency – but does not sufficiently address the effects of its neglect.

This leaves Tunisia’s government stuck between an economic agenda focused around austerity, and domestic demands for social justice.

But even more so, it has left the Tunisian state structurally and politically incapable of reforming those parts of its economy that are structured by segmentation and willful neglect.

The most striking example of this is the country’s informal economy.

Expanding informal economy

Tunisia’s informal economy has steadily expanded in recent years as formal employment opportunities were unable to keep up with the country’s demographics. It produces more than a third of Tunisia’s GDP and is the primary employer of Tunisia’s youth – in fact, the informal economy employs around 60 percent of working men and 83 percent of working women under the age of 40.

While informal jobs are disproportionately prominent in the southern and interior regions, they span the entire country.

They take a wide variety of forms – people selling on the side of roads or in weekly markets, smuggling goods across the borders with Libya and Algeria, providing tutoring or translation, or being employed by a formal company without being issued a contract.

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