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Tunisia and the U.S. Share Common Ground: Dissatisfied Citizens

10/15/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Millions of citizens feel disappointed in their government. In the U.S., a government shutdown continues to punish its citizens and local DC businesses. Conversely, Tunisians force their government to step down as ruling party efforts frustrate the majority of citizens and their small businesses.

Economic Priority Is a Shared Challenge
Regardless of where Tunisians stood on the spectrum to support Ennahda, both sides of the spectrum still listed economics among top priorities. Religious politics did not divide Tunisians on the top priorities facing their country. For example, 79 percent of those confident in Ennahda believed that Ennahda was 'Not effective' while 74 percent of those who were not confident in Ennahda, believed that Ennahda was also "Not effective'.

We were too quick to call it the Arab Spring and then the Arab nightmare. Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself for economic reasons. We still haven't addressed the root economic causes of the Arab Spring. Jobs are not being created for the Arab youth. - Arif Naqvi, Founder of The Abraaj Group

Mr. Naqvi is right. He honed in on Tunisia at an Emerging Markets (or as he prefers "Growth Markets") seminar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But I'm not going to repeat what countless articles and experts already stated in their quarterly assessment of Tunisia regarding the state of its political, social, cultural, religious, economic, and gender-equity changes since they removed an autocratic ruler from power. Rather, consider an exercise in unlikely comparisons.

Shut Down or Step Down: Dealing with Disapproval Guess which countries fit these events:

  • Power-brokers hit a stalemate: Tunisia and the U.S.A.
In one country: a government SHUTS down resulting almost 83 percent of its citizens disapproving of its elected legislators. In another country: a government STEPS down in response to its citizens disapproval, which represented 72 percent of the total Tunisian population, according to the Zogby Poll from August 2013.

  • A man immolates himself in a public place: Tunisia...and the U.S.A.

On November 2010, Mohamed Bouaziz immolated himself because bureaucratic channels and brutal policing disrupted his livelihood: selling goods from an unregistered cart. Sadly, on Friday, October 4th, an American man immolated himself on the National Mall for reasons that remain unclear.

  • The International Monetary Fund reports how an "Employment Imperative" troubles selected countries: Tunisia...and maybe the U.S.A.

Tunisia, and even non-Arab countries, continue to grapple with the increasing youth unemployment as evidenced by the World Bank's "#YouthDialog" event. Even non-Arab countries NOT undergoing political transition, empathize with this challenge too. Here in the U.S., I hesitate to even try to guesstimate how many millennials will graduate from college in 2014 without a job offer because they're standing in line behind those who graduated in 2013. Policymic reported that millennials' unemployment rate stood close to 16 percent -- higher than the national average. Among the 6.5 million unemployed American millennials, many are increasingly shifting towards opening small businesses because they are tired of waiting to not be hired.

  • Finally, both the president of the World Bank and the IMF Chief called this country out for its political-economy legislation. Tunisia? No, in this specific example: only the U.S.A.

To be fair, the U.S. represents a larger share of GDP in the world relative to Tunisia... and holds an investor role in the IMF. But, it is rather embarrassing that the U.S. debt ceiling debate and simultaneous shutdown draw attention short of rebuke. (The Daily Show stepped into that role reporting how even Syria -- which is undergoing a civil war -- still manages to pay its bills and workers' wages.) Tunisia will helpfully benefit from some portion of the 10 billion dollars in financing dedicated to Arab Countries in Transition, or ACTs. ACTs include Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and Morocco -- and it appears that attempting reform is what qualifies both Jordan and Morocco for the 'Arab Countries in Transition' category -- without the organic experience of revolution seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya.

Moreover, it is ironic that an advanced economy draws scrutiny from a financial institution (IMF) for its internal politics (shutdown) in the same breath as a transitional economy (Tunisia) draws scrutiny from a financial institution for its internal politics. In Tunisia's case, though, the IMF highlighted a positive difference in its October report: "Implementing the economic reform agenda enjoys broad political support". Too bad the same observation cannot be concluded about the United States.

Given these similar scenarios, it may be unfair to scrutinize a country that already understands where it wants to go as a nation, economically.

At the same time, it would be eye-opening to note how small businesses and the unemployed in the U.S. fare during political unrest at home. Tunisia offers great small economy case study. Abdelwahab AlKebsi, who focuses on the Middle East & North Africa region at The Center for International Private Enterprise Al Kebsi shared the "Three Myths of Market Economy" to explain why small to medium-sized businesses are facing uphill battles in Arab transitional countries. Ironically, some of these myths are not myths for small businesses in the U.S. The myths are the following:

  • Myth #1: Presence of private enterprise means market must exist.

  • Myth #2: Business is a monolithic community.

True: certain sectors receive more attention than others. Also, small businesses experience challenges separately from multi-national corporations. Even within the small business community, there is a range of ups and downs regarding opportunity. Perhaps that is why in countries like Tunisia, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) cannot be lumped into one grouping.

  • Myth #3: Government hinders market economic reform.
"It depends" probably is a better response rather than complete agreement. The fact that "Government hinders market economic reform" is a perceived myth pushes for a national conversation. Only Tunisians operating -- or trying to make that formal switch from the formal sector -- can honestly comment on whether this may be a myth or reality.

U.S. and Tunisia Share Common Ground

Even if Ennahda failed to deliver on promises attributed to its 2010 revolution, and more than two-thirds of Tunisians feel that their country is not moving in the right direction, these developments do not mean relabeling what Tunisians initiated as a revolution. Who are we to judge? Allow me to rephrase: who are we to judge. As Mhamed Biygautane's piece noted, a powerbroker's role is to also know when to compromise or step down. In Tunisia's case of its former ruling party, Ennahda, "Ennahda did not deliver, but it can take credit for acknowledging its poor performance and prudently stepping down," writes Mhamed Biyaguatane from the Dubai School of Government. Lately, sitting in the U.S. has pushed this small business to ask the same questions that led to dissatisfaction with the status quo. Tunisia and the U.S. share common ground: dissatisfied citizens as small businesses struggle.