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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 in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

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

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.