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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
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

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

Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

Tunisia is in limbo between two different forms of government, deepening socio-economic difficulties for many citizens and putting the country’s security at risk. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group proposes that the EU and its member states use their influence to persuade Tunisia actively to promote economic growth and speed up government restructuring.

This commentary on strengthening institutions in Tunisia is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

While Tunisia’s democratic transition continues, socio-economic unrest driven by rising costs of living and laggard economic growth, combined with the government’s struggles to strengthen institutions, puts the country at risk of sliding back into authoritarianism or instability. The EU should focus on helping promote economic growth and supporting institutional reform, notably persuading Tunisian authorities to establish and protect the integrity of those bodies mandated by the January 2014 constitution.

Socio-economic unrest contributing to nostalgia for a strong state

As the protests that rocked parts of Tunisia in mid-January showed, socio-economist discontent remains high as the cost of living steadily rises. Those protests were triggered by opposition to tax and tariff hikes intended to balance public finances. The economy has deteriorated since 2016: growth is slow (between 1 and 2 per cent), inflation seems to be rising faster than the official rate of 6.3 per cent and the trade deficit remains high despite a depreciating currency. As Tunisia enters an electoral cycle with municipal elections in May 2018 and parliamentary and presidential elections expected in 2019, economic grievances are moving to centre-stage in national politics.

Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A weak economy increases the danger of riots, which could force Tunisian policymakers to find short-term solutions akin to those of the old regime: repression of protesters and dissidents, marginalisation of civil society forces such as trade unions, and centralisation of power in the hands of a strong executive. The harshness of daily life and the deterioration of public infrastructure (transport, health and education) means ever more Tunisians believe that only a strong, ideologically homogeneous executive authority – a hyper-presidency, in other words, similar to that of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – can save the country. They consider the institutions created in the wake of the 2010-2011 revolution artificial, ill-suited to Tunisian political culture and dysfunctional. A commonly held view is that democracy has not taken root; instead, power is dispersed, corruption rampant and political debate useless. Many Tunisians are focused on coping with their daily lives, evincing no interest in politics. Several polls suggest there could be record abstention rates in the forthcoming municipal elections. Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A constitution awaiting effective implementation

The current order has been made more fragile still by the government’s foot-dragging in implementing vital elements of the 2014 constitution. The Constitutional Court, the only institution constitutionally mandated to declare the temporary or definitive vacancy of the presidency, has not yet been established. Its absence means that were the president, who is 91, to become unable to fulfil his functions or pass away, any transfer of power would be unconstitutional, perhaps opening the door to an authoritarian takeover. President Béji Caïd Essebsi has pledged to establish the body before the end of 2018.

Likewise, independent bodies conceived in the wake of the 2010-2011 uprising as checks on poor public administration (including the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, the Authority for Human Rights, the Authority for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations, the Authority for Good Governance and the Authority for the Fight against Corruption) still do not exist. Nominally independent administrative bodies that are in place lack autonomy from the government and political parties. For example, pressure from Tunisia’s ruling coalition on the Independent High Authority for the Elections has already led to postponement of municipal elections. More generally, government officials and political leaders have blocked the process of decentralisation mandated by the constitution from starting in earnest.

The gap between constitutional principle and political reality is widening. But a renewed debate on the revision of the constitution, a step that President Essebsi and several political figures have suggested, would be a mistake. Amid the country’s political and economic turmoil, such a debate would be akin to reopening hostilities between the parties over core political and social issues.

What the EU can do

The EU has influence in Tunisia, where it is already supporting anti-corruption and decentralisation efforts. It should go further, both in helping the country’s economy and in developing incentives for the government to counter the short- and medium-term danger of authoritarian drift. This should be done as part of its Privileged Partnership with Tunisia, and during its review of political priorities ahead of the EU-Tunisia Association Council, expected to take place in the first half of 2018.

A first priority are measures to diminish risks of potentially destabilising socio-economic unrest. In this context, the EU should encourage the government to urgently address regional inequalities, putting this question at the centre of economic reform efforts. In particular, short-term measures to deliver economic relief should be paired with longer-term efforts to encourage investment and job creation in Tunisia’s southern and interior provinces.

At the same time, the EU should continue to encourage the Tunisian government and parliament to establish the Constitutional Court and speed up the restructuring of the electoral authorities. If those bodies were firmly ensconced, they could fulfil their mandates in the event of a presidential vacancy and in accordance with the constitution. The EU should discourage any attempt to alter the constitution before the 2019 legislative and presidential elections.

While a return to the past is not the most probable scenario, outside actors could make it likelier, especially if the internal situation continues to deteriorate. The United Arab Emirates promotes a polarising anti-Islamist political discourse in the Tunisian media, which could gain resonance if additional jihadist attacks occur. Neighbouring Algeria, which considers Tunisian stability a matter of national security, has supported the ruling coalition between Islamists and secularists in place since 2014. But more recently it has appeared to waver from this course, and could be tempted to back a tougher regime – one with greater presidential power, more intrusive intelligence gathering and harsher repression – to prevent public rioting, terrorist attacks or a political crisis. The EU should play a more active diplomatic role to counterbalance these influences and promote the more inclusive and open polity to which the Tunisian uprising gave birth.