The Arab Spring, triggered initially in Tunisia by the death late in 2010 of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, was certainly a miracle. Far beyond anyone's imagination, no one had predicted the sudden fall, one after the other, of some of worst regimes in modern times. The brutality of these regimes is still shown in Syria by the Assad clan's ongoing mass killings, widespread destruction, and savagery.
Certainly, a lot has been accomplished. In Tunisia, particularly, the torture apparatus has been dismantled and death prisons of the past closed. Freedom has been allowed for the first time
in Tunisian history. The myth of the president-God has totally vanished.
The failed economic and social policies of the fallen regimes were key in triggering widespread uprisings. There has been no historic popular revolt that took place in the context of general prosperity and security. The hope pinned on the Arab Spring was not that the countries of the region that had suffered decades of absolute rule would be transformed into advanced economies but that they would start improving their social and economic conditions. If the patient is seriously ill, you want the doctor at least to improve his condition. If the patient deteriorates further, then you are disappointed by the doctor's performance.
Yet, in Tunisia, social and economic conditions have deteriorated severely since the revolution; people have become much poorer; inflation is very high (officially at around 6.4%, with food and drink prices rising even faster); shortages of basic products are widespread; water and power shortages have become acute; crime is steeply up; the road death toll is reckoned the highest in the world; infrastructure is deteriorating rapidly; tourism, Tunisia's main foreign currency earner, has been badly hurt by the prevailing insecurity and crime, and foreign investment has been curtailed. The country is practically dependent on large external loans. Without these, parts of the population could face starvation.
Yet, placed as it is between two countries - Libya and Algeria - rich in oil and natural gas, and only a half-hour flight from Europe, one would expect Tunisia to be a prosperous country instead of suffering economic collapse. The paradox of Tunisia is particularly striking: all leaders in the present government were veteran opponents of the previous regime; many were incarcerated in jails for as long as 20 years; many survived torture; some lived years in exile.
One would expect that these veteran opponents of the old regime, critical of its economic and social record, would outperform it. Yet their economic performance has proven to be even more miserable. Security has deteriorated to the extent that social disorder and anarchy are severely curtailing economic activity. Yet people can tolerate the law of the jungle for only so long, witness recent events along the coast in Egypt.
Both in Egypt and Tunisia, where new leaders have shown themselves reluctant to remove the former regime's economic and social laws, there has been a sheer failure of elected government. If the authorities continue to permit deterioration in security and the economy, further disintegration will follow with even greater losses for the country.
Both countries are victims of revolutionary euphoria and a total misconception of the role of the state. Anywhere, the notion of a provident state is conducive to disintegration.
In Tunisia, a serious handicap developed following the revolution; namely, the national labor organization, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), has become the most powerful political force and has organized all sectors - from the police and army to garbage collectors and the private business sector workforce - into labor unions that are under its direct control.
The result has been widespread strikes in all sectors, be it education, health, transport or municipal services. In all cities of Tunisia, garbage has been piling up, causing disease and unbearable invasions of mosquitos. The phosphate sector, one of the country's main exporters, has been closed down. Small private businesses have had to curtail work hours and observe two-day weekends.
The UGTT is controlled by leftists who, having lost in the polls, use the unions to destabilize the country. They pocket all dues paid by millions of workers. Huge salary increases have been imposed on the government, leading to a widening fiscal deficit and forcing it to borrow overseas to finance its wage bill. The unskilled worker, too expensive and inefficient to hire, is in effect, now the boss and is paid to do nothing.
Paradoxically, while unemployment has surged to 20%, and thousands of workers have drowned in the sea as they fled to find work in Europe, there is huge labor shortage, leading to farms being abandoned and construction companies struggling to complete projects. The Tunisian government has mis-placed its priorities and put its limited funds into social spending that is detrimental to economic growth and is inherently ruinous.
Social spending, instead of going to welfare, should be targeted on education and health. The government does not create any problem by denying unemployment benefits but creates serious problems when it institutes these programs.
The one-in-five workers who are unemployed are a potential source of wealth. Tunisia, having broken the iron fist of dictatorship, must now break the shackles of labor and economic legislation that stands against prosperity and fuller employment. The government should know that there can be no economic development with a powerful labor union. It should dismantle all labor laws, such as those enforcing minimum wages or curbing the right to dismiss workers. It should allow private employers and workers total freedom in negotiating salaries, in hiring, and firing.
The government should not recognize public sector unions and should discard any negotiation with unions. It should limit its wage bill to levels compatible with required capital spending and fiscal equilibrium. The number of ministries has to be cut and the role of the state be confined essentially to defense, security, justice, education, health, and infrastructure.
Expanding the government beyond these areas is detrimental to social justice and economic growth. The government has to devolve garbage collection to private contractors; it has to allow employers to recruit foreign labor. The government should reinforce the power of no interest group such as labor unions, private business, or political parties.
In Tunisia, while people are suffering serious shortages of food and the government is sinking into debt, elected deputies has created constitutional rights for every Tunisian to have a free house, secure and highly paid jobs, and an unlimited right to strike.
Bare survival, whether in Tunisia or Egypt, requires governments that impose order, eliminate waste, balance fiscal budgets, and restore economic growth. Populist governments are self-defeating and foster policies that precipitate economic and social disorder. Countries that export oil or print reserve money may afford waste; Egypt and Tunisia face a more unpleasant arithmetic.
Noureddine Krichene is an economist with a PhD from UCLA.