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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
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

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

As Tunisia continues its transition to democracy, it will need to balance the urge for radical political change against the requirement of stability; integrate Islamism into the new landscape; and, with international help, tackle deep socio-economic problems.

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Executive Summary

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.

Tunis/Brussels, 28 April 2011

A member of the Tunisian security forces stands guard at the site of a suicide attack in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 29 October, 2018. AFP/Fethi Belaid

Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

A 29 October suicide bombing in the heart of Tunis dealt a blow to much-improved security since the last violent jihadist attacks in 2015-16. In this Q&A, our Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael B. Ayari says it has also hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.

What do we know about what happened, and who was behind the attack?

On 29 October, a suicide bomber set off an improvised explosive device in her backpack on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis – the city's best-known thoroughfare, a few hundred metres from the ministry of interior and the French embassy. The explosion killed her and wounded twenty bystanders, including fifteen policemen who appear to have been the intended target. For now, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The 30-year-old woman – an unemployed graduate with an English degree from a small village near Mahdia, on the Mediterranean, who occasionally worked as a shepherdess – left no indication as to her motive. Security sources have suggested she may have had contact with members of the Islamic State (ISIS), possibly relatives.

How significant is this attack?

This is the first major terrorist attack to take place in Tunis since 2015, a year when multiple major attacks in the capital and other locations shook the country, targeting parliament, members of the security forces, and foreign tourists. Then, the concern was about ISIS and other jihadist groups that had made clear their intention to destabilise Tunisia's fledging democratic experiment. There were thousands of Tunisians who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Libya and Syria, as well as al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating on the border with Algeria. Tunisia is much more secure today than it was then. Since the last major ISIS attack in Tunisia in March 2016 – when Tunisian members of the group in Libya tried to seize control of Ben Guerdane, a trading town on the Libyan border – security forces have greatly enhanced their capacity to go after jihadist groups, in part with international backing. The security vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising no longer prevails, ISIS has suffered major defeats in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and while attacks against military and police occur regularly on the mountainous border with Algeria, security has vastly improved in the rest of the country.

The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed

What impact has the attack had in Tunisia so far?

Beyond the dead and wounded, the most important impact may be political. The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the Islamist/anti-Islamist polarisation that had peaked in 2013 is making a comeback. It was striking to see some Tunisian media immediately seek to place blame for the attack on An-Nahda, the Islamist party that has been a key partner in the governing coalition in place since early 2015. Essebsi's first statement on the bombing was also telling: "There is a rotten political climate," he said. "We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential: the security of citizens". That statement was widely seen by his rivals as seeking to score points against his opponents – and indeed a blame game of sorts is taking place.

What is the nature of the dispute between Essebsi and Chahed?

Essebsi has sought for over a year to dismiss Chahed, but has been unable to muster enough support from both his own party, Nida Tounes, and his main coalition partner An-Nahda to do so. An-Nahda, which had initially backed Essebsi, has switched sides and since this summer backs Chahed – or at least does not want him to step down for the moment. The backdrop to this are looming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 (in which both men could run), deep divisions in Nida Tounes between Essebsi's and Chahed's partisans, and the future of the consensus between Islamists and non-Islamists that Essebsi and Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi were key in brokering in 2014. As a result, on 24 September, after months of simmering tensions, Essebsi declared that the consensus with Nahda was over. The return of sharp polarisation swiftly followed, including explosive accusations by the far-left Popular Front party that Nahda has a secret military wing and had a hand in political assassinations carried out by jihadist groups in 2013.

Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

What is the risk from here on?

The political crisis is paralysing Tunisia. The country seems unable to make the tough decisions to tackle a lingering economic crisis. It is late in nominating the members of the electoral commission that will oversee the 2019 elections. It has also not yet nominated the members of the constitutional court, a crucial institution under the 2014 constitution, widely hailed as the most liberal in the Arab world. The rising political polarisation is making it increasingly difficult for parliament to go through with these crucial steps and is discrediting the political class among ordinary Tunisians, particularly as they suffer from rising costs of living. Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

Will this attack worsen the mood?

It very likely will. The end of the consensus announced by Essebsi appears to have removed political safeguards against excessive polarisation. Among ordinary people I spoke to, it was striking to see that many viewed yesterday's attack as expected, almost an outgrowth of the political crisis. Nahda's detractors interpreted it as a warning shot from the Islamist party. Nahda’s supporters viewed it as a false flag operation perpetrated by security forces and the radical secularist camp to justify a new crackdown on Islamists. Finally, members of the security forces and their backers are seizing on the attack as an opportunity to revive a draft "law for the protection of armed forces" that, in its latest draft at least, appears to grant vast powers and impunity to the police and has been roundly condemned by civil society groups. The attack is encouraging the authoritarian drift that has been increasingly in the air for the past year, and indeed may incentivise jihadist groups, which had every reason to be demoralised after the setbacks they suffered in recent years, to carry out further attacks to exploit political divisions.

The casualty toll in this article was updated on 31 October, up from nine wounded as originally reported on 30 October.