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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests
On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests

Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Tunisia’s presidential election highlights the multiple divides that trouble the country and region. Unless the winner governs as a truly national leader, representing all Tunisians and not just his base, current tensions could escalate into violence.

I. Overview

The standoff between incumbent President Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for 21 December 2014, has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had bridged with their sense of consensus and compromise. The electoral map emerging from the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election shows a country divided between a north that is largely pro-Essebsi and his party Nida Tounes, and a south that is in majority pro-Marzouki and favourable to the Islamist party An-Nahda. In order to prevent mutual fears from escalating into violent confrontations, the winner of this first free and competitive presidential poll will have to begin by acknowledging the fears of the loser’s electorate. The new president, government and parliament should commit to jointly address the question of regional imbalances and counter risks of institutional deadlock and 0f repression of dissent.

Fed by the occasionally incendiary rhetoric of the two candidates and their entourage, a number of national traumas repressed by years of dictatorship have resurfaced. The myth around the office of the head of state, forged by over a half-century of an all-powerful presidency, has returned in force and is exacerbating an ideological confrontation nurtured by old wounds: the brutal eradication of the Islamist movement under deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; violent conflicts dating from the independence era (between supporters of the first president, Habib Bourguiba, and those of his sworn enemy, Salah Ben Youssef); antagonisms between social classes; rivalries between established elites (from Tunis and the east coast) and emerging ones (from the south and the hinterland).

Moreover, the respective allies of Marzouki and Essebsi see their confrontation as another battle in a regional cold war, notably over the Islamist question. Tunisia is thus an echo chamber of the ideological conflicts that are shaking the region, from the Syrian trauma and the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant to the violent polarisation in Libya and Egypt. The concerns of all parties – over the return of dictatorship and repression on one side, or reinforcement of the north/south divide and the spread of chaos on the other – are being amplified by the national sensitivity to the fate of other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

As a prelude to a charter of political accountability guaranteeing, among other issues, the preservation of democratic gains and a joint effort for greater balance between regions, the defeated candidate should, for example, address an open letter expressing his fears (and those of the electorate) to the winner, who would commit to respond publicly. Defining the fears of both sides could contribute to calming tensions, in particular if the scores of the two candidates are close.

Such a step could be followed by the commitment of the government, the presidency and the People’s Representative Assembly (the parliament) to address together the most widespread anxieties in society. Their adoption of a charter of political accountability informed by the presidential candidates’ exchange and addressing the fears of both the losing candidate’s base and other citizens would help Tunisia resolve the contradictions between order and liberty and overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. The international community should encourage such an initiative that would seek to prolong the spirit of consensus that prevailed for much of 2014 without masking the genuine disagreements that divide society. This would particularly help reduce the noxious fallout of regional polarisation. In the context of the meagre harvest of the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition. The country and its allies have every reason to ensure that Tunisia continues on its exceptional course.

Tunis/Brussels, 19 December 2014

On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests

Originally published in The Arabist

Analysis on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia.

This article was reprinted by The Cairo Review.

The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity – frustration with social injustice and corruption – today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

The immediate trigger for the current protests [in Tunisia] was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent – the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country – and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) – often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (“What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration – but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract – and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population – as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.


Project Director, North Africa
Senior Analyst, Tunisia