Anger that drove the Arab spring is flaring again

When the people of Balta wanted to protest, they had to leave town. “This place is so small that blocking the road is like sitting in your own hall – no one notices,” said Wathik Balti, a 19-year-old student.

So in December, they headed to the nearest motorway, where dozens of them blocked an important junction for hours and called on the government to do something about the lack of jobs, the chronic corruption and the faltering public services that blight the picturesque village.

But while Balta is out of the way, it turned out to be ahead of its time. A couple of weeks later similar protests sprang up in bigger towns and cities across the country, occasionally turning violent. One person was killed, and hundreds were arrested.

The spark for all of this was a new law which will push up prices of basics including food and fuel. But behind it were the years of frustration over government failings and betrayals, particularly on promises to find jobs for hundreds of thousands of young people.

Seven years after the revolution that toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and unleashed the Arab spring, Tunisians were back on the streets demanding change, and the authorities were responding with a heavy hand.

The one success story left from 2011, the democracy that had been built up as other countries across the region slid into war or back into dictatorship, now seemed to be faltering. And once more it was the jobless, dispossessed young who were at the heart of the turmoil.

There are many reasons to worry about Tunisia’s future, from the huge numbers of unemployed, the struggling economy, rising inflation and sinking currency, to the corruption and the extremist attacks that have damaged its vital tourist industry.

But there were also reasons to be hopeful, and one of the most unexpected was the country’s slowly ageing population, said demographer Richard Cincotta of the Stimson Centre, a global affairs thinktank.

“The link between liberal democracy and [a country’s] age structure – the balance between young and old – is political demography’s most tested relationship,” Cincotta said. Years of studying this link had prompted him to predict in 2008, three years before Ben Ali’s fall, that a North African nation would become a stable democracy in little over a decade, with Tunisia the most likely candidate.

The policies of Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba encouraged women into education and work, helping to push down the number of children in most families. As a result, the Tunisian population is slowly getting older, with an average age of nearly 30.

It is no coincidence that this matches the point at which countries including Portugal, Taiwan and Chile made their shifts into democracy, and makes Cincotta cautiously optimistic that Tunisia’s new constitution will survive even the latest unrest.

“No one can be certain of Tunisia’s future as a democracy. However, political demographers are betting that [a collapse of the democratic system] won’t happen, or that if it does backslide, Tunisia’s government will soon restore its democratic institutions,” Cincotta said.

“As age structure matures, countries tend to encounter fewer years of civil conflict. Demonstrations may occur. Governments may be unpopular. However, civil war is statistically uncommon in countries that experience a median age over 26 years.”