BDC Snapshots: Tunisia’s persistent economic woes may endanger its fledgling democracy

A young protester makes a victory sign as he took part in anti-government demonstration held on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the capital Tunis, to protest against the government of the prime minister Hichem Mechichi, and in support of the protest movements that hit Tunisia in several cities overnight over the past few days. Protesters clashed with the security forces who fired tear gas and used pepper spray in attempt to disperse them. They also claimed for the release of youths arrested by the police during the latest protests, and denounced the high cost of living and the increase in poverty. Tunisia, on January 19, 2021.
Un jeune manifestant fait le signe de victoire alors qu'il participe a une manifestation anti-gouvernementale qui se tient sur l'avenue Habib Bourguiba dans la capitale Tunis, pour protester contre le gouvernement du premier ministre Hichem Mechichi, et pour soutenir les mouvements de protestation qui ont touche la Tunisie dans plusieurs villes dans la nuit de ces derniers jours. Les manifestants se sont heurtes aux forces de l'ordre qui ont tire le gaz lacrymogene et intervenu au gaz poivre pour tenter de les disperser. Ils ont egalement reclame la liberation des jeunes arretes par la police lors des dernieres manifestations, et denonce le cout eleve de la vie et l'augmentation de la pauvrete. Tunisie, le 19 janvier 2021.NO USE FRANCE

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Ten years after the revolution which toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, youth groups and security forces are clashing as violent protests against economic hardship sweep across Tunisia.

Despite significant advances in terms of political and civil freedoms, Tunisia’s economic outlook has not improved. Some indicators, such as the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (see figure), show a deterioration in economic performance. The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to economic contraction, decreased state resources, and increased poverty. The government’s ability to respond is hindered by major structural issues, including a huge fiscal deficit which widened to an estimated 11.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2020. Unemployment, a major trigger of contestation, reached 16.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020- higher than it has been in seven years. Going forward, the government must heed IMF calls to liberalize the economy and reduce the fiscal deficit, which will require it to control the wage bill and limit energy subsidies. These steps will likely lead to widespread discontent and further protests. The government must therefore also keep the security response under control. If the security response is too robust and escalates, it may endanger Tunisia’s fragile democratic process.

Graph 5_Tunisia_EnglishSource: Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index (BTI) Dataset, “BTI 2006-2020 Scores,” accessed January 26, 2021,

Note: The Political Participation Index (1-10, with 10 representing the best score) measures the extent to which a country has free and fair elections, effective power to govern, association/assembly rights, and freedom of expression. The Economic Performance Index (1-10, with 10 representing the best score) measures how a country’s economy performs, based on quantitative indicators such as GDP, Purchasing Power Parity, inflation, unemployment, foreign direct investment, current account balance, public debt, etc.