Tunisia: The Revolution Five Years On

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

Tunisia is now often hailed as the only success story from the wave of protests that swept the Arab world beginning in late 2010. This indeed has much justification, for out of the countries that experienced major political change, three have descended into war (Libya, Syria and Yemen), and one (Egypt) has simply reverted back to its previous regime. A number of other countries had their protests crushed (such as in Bahrain), or experienced only minor constitutional or political changes. Only in Tunisia does there appear to be a functioning democracy, with genuine compromise and restraint shown between major parties, and peaceful power transitions.

But this rosy view of Tunisia glosses over what has been in reality a difficult and uncertain struggle, and creates the danger of a potentially falsely optimistic view of Tunisia’s future, and even of the ease of democratising from a popular uprising at all. What actually happened between 14th January 2011, when President Ben Ali stepped down, and today? And what can Tunisia’s struggles over these five years tell us about the outlook for its future, or about similar struggles other countries may face in the coming decades?

Tunisians gather on Habib Bourguiba Avenue to celebrate the third anniversary of the revolution – by MagharebIa, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Upon stepping down, Ben Ali handed power over to his Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi. A unity government was announced, which included some opposition leaders, representatives from the Tunisian General Labour Union, and some civil society activists. However, this unity government was heavily weighted towards members of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, and effectively left the old regime in place with only a change of leader. A number of non-RCD members quit on its first day due to this reason, and public protests continued daily against the inclusion of RCD members. Mohamed Ghannouchi made a number of concessions, but after facing protests in excess of 100,000 people demanding his resignation, and a slowly rising death toll from clashes between protesters and the police, he stepped down on the 27th February to make way for a more neutral caretaker government.

Thus, the Tunisian people managed the ousting of their President, Ben Ali, but crucially
were also able to retain enough momentum to sweep aside the regime a whole a month and a half later. Without this vital second step, it is likely that major political change in Tunisia would have been blocked by insiders trying to maintain the old regime with a new veneer. The Tunisian army had some part in allowing this momentum to be sustained, as they took the decision to stay politically neutral and not to fire on protestors. In Tunisia, the army is a remarkably institutionalised and independent professional organisation, instead of being filled with loyal supporters and politicians like in many weak dictatorships, and this likely contributed strongly to its decision neither to fire upon protestors nor to intervene via a coup.

Elections to the constituent assembly were held in October 2011, and the greatest number of seats was won by Ennahda, a conservative right-wing party with an Islamist ideology. Contributing to this victory were the strong appeal of Islamism as a hope-filled counter-hegemonic ideology, the fact that Ennahda (banned under Ben Ali) were ‘untainted’ by cooperation with the previous regime, and superior campaigning structures. Ennahda formed a coalition with two smaller secular parties, and faced a deadline to draw up a constitution within a year and subsequently dissolve.

Unfortunately, the Tunisian economy was faltering post-revolution, and the public’s expectations for renewed economic growth and employment were frustrated. Despite Ennahda acting in a constrained and democratic fashion – not attempting, unlike its Islamist counterparts in Egypt, to manipulate the state and its institutions in a ‘winner takes all’ style of politics – public dissatisfaction grew. Two high-profile assassinations of left-wing politicians by radical Islamists in 2013 led to large-scale public protests against Ennahda in the summer of 2013, with accusations that Ennahda were tacitly allowing radical Islamist groups, and renewed calls for the stalled constitution process to restart or the government to resign. An alarming increase in the frequency of other radical Islamist terrorist attacks over this period contributed to the appearance that Tunisia’s democratic revolution was spiralling into chaos.

Tunisia 2
Rached Ghannouchi (centre), co-founder of Ennahda, at a party conference in July 2011 – by MagharebIa, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ennahda was persuaded to resign in September 2013, a caretaker government took over, and talks on the new constitution restarted. There were still large ideological divides to bridge between all the different parties, with Ennahda favouring religious provisions such as the (mostly symbolic) criminalisation of blasphemy, and the main opposition group, now organised together in the party Nidaa Tounes, avowedly secular. A sense of urgency (due to how close Tunisia had come to collapsing in the summer), strong civil society involvement (most notably the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four major civil society organisations that played a highly active role in mediating the negotiations between parties – a role for which it received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize), and a reasonably moderate and non-polarised electoral base combined to create a consensual and compromise-making culture during the talks. The new constitution was passed in January 2014, and a new caretaker government was created to manage the country until elections could be held in October 2014.

The result of the October 2014 elections was a victory for Nidaa Tounes, which secured the greatest number of seats in the constituent assembly, but were still required to form a coalition to gain a majority. They had achieved their success mainly as a result of mobilising anti-Ennahda sentiment, but opted to symbolically include a minor role for Ennahda in their coalition. This helped Nidaa Tounes appear responsible and consensual, and guarded against a coalition of secular parties inadvertently polarising the Tunisian political landscape between them and the still-powerful Ennahda. This coalition is still in power at the time of writing.

There are still numerous pitfalls and dangers for Tunisia’s new democracy, however. The new constitution contains ambiguities and contradictions that can favour one ideology over another, and new institutions, such as the constitutional court created to arbitrate these disputes, may be vulnerable to political meddling. The continuation of the consensus style of politics is essential to the survival of Tunisia’s democracy until institutions are able to settle and assert some independence, and arguably essential even afterwards. Additionally, Nidaa Tounes, the current largest party, has very weak internal organisations and institutions (unlike Ennahda, which is well-organised and has a transparent and democratic internal structure), and is a diverse coalition of ideologies bound together largely by shared opposition to Ennahda. Its continued stability is somewhat in doubt, and it has already suffered a number of threatened splits. If it collapses and is not replaced, there are questions about the viability of consensus-style democracy with Ennahda left unchallenged.

Threats more external to the political system and parties themselves include the persistent poor performance of the Tunisian economy. Average unemployment is around 15%, but in some peripheral regions reaches as high as 30%, and is more prevalent for youths and graduates. Late January 2016 saw renewed protests and public suicide attempts over unemployment across Tunisia’s cities. Furthermore, the radical Islamist terrorist and militant threat is highly prevalent, fuelled by borders with Libya and Algeria, and by the unusually high number of Tunisians that have left to fight for IS abroad and may return. Aside from damaging vital tourism revenue for the country, such signs of chaos may tempt a government to crack down too hard on civil liberties in order to contain the threat, and thus work against the democratic transition.

Tunisia has thus far navigated the difficult transition from initial revolution to new democracy. The consensus-style politics developed bodes very well for the future stability of the democratic system, but it has been a difficult struggle – and a struggle that is not yet over. Whatever the result five years from now, and another five, and another five into the future, it is clear that even if the circumstances are highly favourable towards a democratic transition – as they were in Tunisia – establishing a stable new democracy cannot be done overnight, and cannot be done without great difficulty.


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