Tunisians Emigrate in Record Numbers as Hopes Fade for Its Economy, Democracy

They once believed that the Arab Spring would yield stability, but Tunisians are now fleeing their home country in droves

TUNIS, Tunisia—Record numbers of Tunisians are leaving the country after a decade of economic turmoil and the government’s turn toward authoritarianism, dimming hopes that a younger generation can build a future in the nation that sparked the Arab Spring.

The flood of Tunisian émigrés spans socioeconomic classes, with professionals, the working class and the destitute represented among those fleeing, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushes up the price of food and gas, and the government pulls back from subsidizing basic items such as sugar and rice. Inflation has reached nearly 10% this year, and economists say a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan secured by President Kais Saied isn’t enough to pull the country of 12 million people back from the brink.

“It’s miserable here,” said Mariem Soltami, a government-office secretary who has applied to emigrate to Canada with her two toddlers and husband. He closed his pizza shop last month and the family couldn’t pay rent on their apartment, so they moved in with their parents, she said.

The exodus from Tunisia marks another blow to the legacy of the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings against authoritarian rule across the Middle East. Democracy didn’t last in Egypt, and rebellions in Syria and Yemen led to civil wars that have killed hundreds of thousands.

In Tunisia, Mr. Saied has seized control of parliament, pushed through a new constitution and overhauled the country’s electoral laws, causing some Tunisians to fear the return of the dictatorial rule they endured under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in 2011. Mr. Saied appears to be in a strong position to win a large parliamentary majority in local elections Saturday.

Desperate Tunisians are now attempting illegal routes into Europe in record numbers, according to Geneva-based civil-society group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. More than 17,500 Tunisian nationals were recorded as being intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea or disembarking in Italy this year, as of Monday, the highest annual figure since 2011, when the country was in the throes of a revolution, according to data from the Italian Interior Ministry and European Union border agency Frontex.

Tens of thousands of Tunisian nationals in the past two years have been intercepted by Tunisian authorities while trying to cross the Mediterranean; thousands more have fled before trying to enter the EU via land.

Among those planning to leave legally is Marwen Boulares, 27, an IT consultant whose parents decided to hold off this year on replacing their family car and washing machine because of the soaring cost of imported products. After finding few opportunities to advance in his home country, Mr. Boulares said he is awaiting visa approval to move to Paris, where he has a job offer from a French company.

“I’ve never heard any government official talk about a real, concrete economic strategy,” he said. “I don’t know where [Saied] is taking the country.”

Tunisia’s presidential office didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mr. Saied has repeatedly blamed Tunisia’s problems on corruption and said that he is working to reform the economy, while sharing few details. The president recently blamed an unspecified monopoly for a milk crisis that Tunisians say was caused by soaring feed costs for livestock farmers.

The flight of people like Mr. Boulares represents a major brain drain. Tunisian firms are increasingly struggling to expand and stay competitive. At hospitals, it can take months to get an appointment to see a specialist. Tunisian parents complain increasingly of a deteriorating public-school system amid frequent teacher strikes and departures. Around 6,500 engineers left the country this year.

Ferid Baklouti, 53, who runs a small website-development firm in Tunis, said his company’s income has halved in the past two to three years, as dozens of young employees quit to move abroad.

“We don’t want to invest a lot in them because we know they won’t stay,” he said.

Mr. Saied was elected overwhelmingly in 2019, but many Tunisians say they are skeptical that he is capable of turning around the economy.

Stores have run out of sugar, milk, cooking oil and rice at times this year, a sign, analysts say, the government is struggling to import enough as global prices soar. Authorities have also raised gas prices several times this year.

Tunisian opposition groups and public-sector workers have taken to the streets to protest Mr. Saied’s economic policies on top of his efforts to consolidate power. Last week, thousands of Tunisian bakeries once again temporarily closed shop, to demonstrate against the state failing to pay over a year of overdue subsidies of around $80 million.

Around 45% of Tunisians have considered emigrating, according to a survey by Arab Barometers conducted in the fall of 2021, up from 33% in 2018. Along with Lebanon, Tunisia had the largest jump of people wanting to emigrate in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Read full article at The Wall Street Journal