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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Middle East & North Africa > North Africa > Tunisia > Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way

Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way

Middle East/North Africa Report N°106 28 Apr 2011


Tunisia is where it all began. It is also the country where the democratic transition arguably has the greatest chance of success. There are many reasons for this, but the most significant lies in the country’s history of political activism and social mobilisation, which decades of regime repression never fully stifled. This politically activist tradition served the nation well during the uprising, as workers, the unemployed, lawyers and members of the middle class coalesced into a broad movement. It will have to serve the nation well today as it confronts major challenges – namely, balancing the desire for radical political change against the imperative of stability; finding a way to integrate Islamism into the new political landscape; and tackling immense socio-economic problems that are at the origin of the political revolution but which the political revolution on its own is incapable of addressing.

In hindsight, Tunisia possessed all of the required ingredients for an uprising. Notwithstanding the so-called economic miracle, vast expanses of the country had been systematically neglected by the regime. The unemployment rate was climbing, especially among the young and university-educated. The distress triggered by these socio-economic, generational and geographic disparities was epitomised by the self-immolation, on 17 December 2010, of a young, unemployed, vegetable seller, from a small town, who was supporting his sister’s university studies. His suicide quickly came to embody far wider grievances; notably, it was widely reported and believed by most demonstrators that Bouazizi was a university graduate. In the wake of his death, young demonstrators took to the streets in the south and centre of the country, demanding jobs, economic opportunities and better educational and health services.

The uprising spread both geographically and politically. Trade unions played a crucial role. Initially hesitant, the principal trade union, the Union générale des travailleurs tunisiens (UGTT), soon after assumed the leadership role. Pressed by its more militant local branches and fearful of losing the support of its base, the UGTT mobilised ever greater numbers of activists in a growing number of cities, including Tunis. Satellite television channels and social networking sites – from Facebook to Twitter – helped spread the movement to young members of the middle class and elite. At the same time, violence perpetrated against protesters helped forge a link between socio-economic and political demands. The image that the regime projected of itself was of an indiscriminate police repression, so it was only logical that the demonstrators perceived it that way. Nothing did more to turn the population in favour of the uprising than the way Ben Ali chose to deal with it.

As for the regime, its bases of support shrivelled in dramatic fashion. In his hour of greatest need, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali found himself basically alone without support. Over time, what had been a one-party state had become the private preserve of the president and the first family. Economic resources that had been previously shared among the elite were increasingly monopolised by Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and the private sector paid a hefty price. The ruling party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), no longer served as a source of patronage; it was unable to organise a single pro-regime demonstration despite repeated calls by the president’s entourage. Likewise, the army suffered under Ben Ali, who did not trust it in the least; in the end, the military was loyal to the state, not the regime. Even the security services were distrusted by Ben Ali, with the exception of the presidential guard, whose privileged treatment only fostered greater resentment.

The uprising was fuelled by these contrasting dynamics, which stimulated increased support for the revolution amid increased defections from the regime. All in all, the country experienced mounting popular resentment, the mobilisation of young citizens using social networking sites, growing involvement of political parties and trade unions, and a weakened power structure, which had alienated its traditional sources of support. At every stage, the authorities’ response – from the use of lethal violence to Ben Ali’s delayed and disconnected reactions – helped transform a largely spontaneous and localised popular movement into a determined national revolution.

When Ben Ali hastily fled on 14 January, the game was far from over. The country faced three fundamental challenges; of these, it has made headway in managing one, taken initial steps to tackle the other and has yet to address the third.

The first task was to devise transitional institutions that could address competing concerns: fear of a return to the past versus fear of a plunge into chaos. There were many hurdles to overcome. The post-Ben Ali government’s first incarnation seemed to many to be a carbon copy of the old, with remnants of the RCD including holdovers from the last cabinet. The opposition responded by establishing a council claiming to embody genuine revolutionary legitimacy. After a period of institutional tug-of-war and several false starts, however, an acceptable institutional balance appears to have been found. Controversial ministers left the government and the council overseeing the transition was expanded to include a representative mix of political forces and civil society. Elections for a constituent assembly – a key demand of the protesters – have been scheduled for 23 October 2011.

Tunisia’s experience carries important lessons. Ben Ali’s successors did themselves substantial harm by failing to consult broadly or communicate clearly. By displaying flexibility and a willingness to shift course in response to public demands, they subsequently were able to avoid a major political crisis.

A second imperative is to integrate Islamists into the reconstructed political system. Tunisia starts with a not inconsiderable advantage. An-Nahda – the country’s principal Islamist movement – stands out among its Arab counterparts by virtue of its pragmatism, efforts to reach out to other political forces, and sophisticated intellectual outlook. Some secular parties too have sought, over the years, to build bridges with the movement. An-Nahda took a back seat during the uprising and, since the revolution, has been at pains to reassure. But mutual mistrust persists. Women’s groups in particular doubt the movement’s sincerity and fear an erosion of their rights. In turn, the Islamists still recall the brutal 1990s when the organisation was systematically crushed by the Ben Ali regime.

The third challenge is also the most pressing – attending to deep-seated socio-economic grievances. For the many ordinary citizens who took to the streets, material despair was a decisive motivating factor. They did want freedom and a voice in politics, of course, and have every reason to rejoice at democratic progress. But the political victory they achieved has done little to change the conditions that triggered their revolt in the first place. To the contrary: the revolution inevitably – if unfortunately – devastated tourism; regional instability pushed oil prices upwards; uncertainty harmed foreign investment; and the conflict in Libya provoked a refugee crisis that hit Tunisia hard.

A difficult economic situation was made worse. In the absence of strong domestic steps and generous international assistance, there is every reason to expect renewed social unrest coupled with an acute sense of regional imbalance, and a sense of political disconnect between the north and southern and central regions of the country.

Such concerns notwithstanding, Tunisia remains for now cause for celebration rather than alarm. The transition is not being led by a strong army any more than it is by a handful of politicians. Rather, a heterogeneous blend of institutions, political forces, trade unions and associations is finding its way through trial and error, negotiations and compromise. For the region and the rest of the world, that should provide ample reason to pay attention and to help Tunisians on their way.


To the Tunisian Government, the Higher Authority for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution and Various Transitional Government-appointed Councils and Commissions:

1.  Publicly and regularly present the work of the government, the Higher Authority, and all other councils.

2.  Work with all socio-economic partners on the issue of employment, protection for the most disadvantaged, and the reintegration of unemployed university graduates.

3.  Strengthen the Ministry of Regional Development’s mandate, in particular by establishing an emergency plan for underprivileged regions.

4.  Focus on the social reintegration of former political prisoners, notably by providing assistance in finding jobs, technical training and family compensation.

5.  Continue to reform the security services, in particular by:

a) Establishing a broad commission – including representatives from civil society, human rights organisations and the ministries of the interior and justice – responsible for reforming and centralising these services;

b) Making public the security forces’ and police’s organisational structures on the basis of information collected by the interior ministry and human rights organisations; and

c) Establishing a program to train security forces with the help of international partners.

To the Tunisian Government, the Higher Authority for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Parties, Trade Unions and Associations:

6.  Organise a national conference on women’s rights, bringing together the full range of political and civil society movements, including Islamists, with the aim of drafting a national plan to promote women’s integration and defend their rights in the labour market and in terms of political representation.

To Tunisia’s Political Parties:

7.  With an eye to forthcoming constituent assembly elections, ensure proper inclusion on electoral lists of the young, women, regional representatives and members of civil society and human rights organisations.

To the International Community:

8.  Reschedule Tunisia’s external debt and conduct an audit in coordination with the government and its socio-economic partners in order to distinguish genuine debt from illicit transactions tied to the former president and his family which broke the laws of both debtor and creditor nations.

9.  Help the government deal with people crossing into Tunisia from Libya by granting them immediate humanitarian assistance, enabling non-Tunisians and non-Libyans to return to their original countries, facilitating the temporary integration of Libyan refugees in Tunisia and providing logistical border-control assistance to the Tunisian army.

10.  Work with the Tunisian government to ensure the continued freeze of Ben Ali’s and his family’s assets and to facilitate their recovery by the government within a reasonable timeframe and consistent with relevant national laws.

11.  Organise an economic support conference for Tunisia in partnership with the Tunisian government and representatives of civil society, including associations and trade unions, to coordinate international economic assistance.

Tunis/Brussels, 28 April 2011



Tunisia's Way

27 April 2011: The ongoing turmoil in the Arab world began in Tunisia, where earlier this year President Ben Ali, in power for 23 years, fled the country after only four weeks of popular protest. Rob Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director, explains why the first Arab revolution may have the best chance of success.