In addition to having inaugurated the revolutionary wave of 2010-2011, Tunisia constitutes the only successful case of institutional transition in the Arab-Spring context. Today, however, the country finds itself in a social and economic emergency to which the new political class seems unable to respond
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:48
In addition to initiating the season of revolutionary unrest in 2010–2011, Tunisia is the only case of successful transition resulting from the Arab Spring. This fact is due to a series of characteristics that other states in the region do not possess. Nevertheless, despite having made undeniable progress, today the country finds itself in a phase of economic and social emergency to which the political classes, old and new, seem incapable of responding.
In 2011 Tunisia began a new type of revolution, without any ideology, leader or za‘īm. Instead, its leading actor was a collective hero who communicated on the social networks, regained possession of the symbols of nationalism (such as the flag and the national anthem), went out onto the streets, transformed the citizens’ anger into determination and managed to topple a regime that had been in power for 23 years. It seemed to be the start of a new era for Tunisia and the Arab world.
The phenomenon, which prompted a wave of revolts in the region, came very much as a surprise, having occurred in a small country that had been under an authoritarian government since its independence in 1956. Unlike Morocco or Egypt, which in spite of everything had made some reforms to partially open their political systems, by minimally integrating the Islamists or granting the press a certain freedom of tone, Tunisia’s rulers had always shrunk from relaxing the system in any way. Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali shared this authoritarian practice of power: indeed, they associated democracy with disorder and above all with the Islamists seizing power, which they both fought with all their might.
The Tunisian demonstrators of 2011 had had enough of this type of government and ousted Ben Ali. The image of the united people freeing itself from its “dictator” will remain impressed in the memory and, whatever great difficulties there may have been in the post-revolutionary period, Tunisia continues to embody the hope of what has been called the “Arab Spring.”
Is there a Tunisian “Particularism?”
The very fact that an Arab people revolted against authoritarianism is not banal. It belies the theory of an obedient people, putting paid to the idea of the “exceptionality” of the Arab region as, by its very essence, totally resistant to democracy. Furthermore, in this small country with no natural resources, the step from dictatorship to democratic transition was taken without causing too much commotion or outcry, as the revolution took place without excessive violence (300 dead and 700 injured). Furthermore, unlike what happened in other countries in the region, the post-revolutionary transition gave rise to a culture of compromise between political forces proposing radically different projects. At the elections for the constituent assembly in 2011, no party won the absolute majority. Hence, a coalition government was formed between three parties (Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol), having reached an agreement on the division of power in the form of a troika. The same also happened in 2013, when Beji Caid Essebsi, heading Nidaa Tounes, a modernist formation devoted to fighting the Islamist phenomenon, reached out to Rached Ghannouchi, long-time leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, to govern the country on the basis of what was defined as a “historic” compromise. Beyond the personal agreements at the basis of these pacts, whose political efficacy remains to be demonstrated, the necessity for a peaceful coexistence between ideologically opposed forces ended up winning the day and was accepted by the majority of Tunisians. These convergences, which some time before might have seemed unnatural, turned out to be perceived as a means to avoid extreme violence and war. It is one result of the transition period of which little is said.
This acceptance of the other, in his/her difference, was not only due to the talent of those behind the national dialogue (the UGTT trade union) and the ability of those who took it into their hands (Essebsi and Ghannouchi). It was also possible because Tunisia is a country where debate over ideas goes a long way back: it dates to the nineteenth century, when it was commenced by the Nahda (“Arab Renaissance”) reformist movement, born in Egypt but which then developed in other countries. This debate continued in Tunisia with thinkers such as Tahar Haddad, who started to reflect on the place of women in society in the 1930s, and subsequently with actors from the national movement, who placed the people at the centre of the political action.
The leader of this movement, Bourguiba, brought a western-style modernity to Tunisia, while remaining fiercely hostile to any idea of democracy. Civil society was thus completely absent and the opposition violently repressed. Only some intermediary bodies, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), would survive and as best they could seek to defend an autonomy which they held dear, because it was part of their history: indeed, the establishment of the first independent trade union—in Tunisia and the Arab world—dates back to 1924. Fought by the colonial authorities who wanted to bring together and control all the worker defence organizations, it went into hibernation until the end of the Second World War, to then re-emerge in 1946 with the creation of the UGTT by Farhat Hached.
However, the colonial authorities maintained that Hached was threatening their interests, insofar as he was establishing a link between individual freedoms, workers’ rights and the independence of the countries in the region. In 1952 he was assassinated by the Main Rouge, a colonialist organization. After Tunisian independence, however, the UGTT became the main counter-power to the regime of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, acting as a space of contestation for the opposition. The first two presidents of independent Tunisia tried to tame the trade union heads, by pushing out or excluding those directors who tried to resist the new course. In the end, Ben Ali managed to put his men in the driving seats, but the local branches remained under the control of directors who were in disagreement with the co-opted leadership.
It was these trade unionists in conflict with their directors who took Mohamed Bouazizi to the hospital on 17 December 2010 after he had set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid. While it was not the UGTT that sparked the popular revolt resulting from this episode, it nevertheless decided to accompany it, becoming a central actor in the revolution. This highly regarded institution, whose direction strongly influenced the country’s political history, thus became an ally of the protestors in January 2011.
Another space of contestation and shelter for the dissidents was the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH). Founded in 1976, it was a rare example of an institution recognized by those in power, even though it set out to oppose it. Bourguiba and Ben Ali sought to weaken it and hinder its mission in various ways, co-opting some of its presidents and regularly threatening to dissolve it. The League survived thanks to some of its members who, in spite of everything, carried on the fight for its autonomy from the executive.
The example of these two institutions shows that the Tunisian revolution of 2011 would not have taken place if there had been no earlier resistance to the dictatorship or the formation of a civil society jealous of its autonomy and alert to the abuses and shifts in power. Indeed, it would be wrong to think that all Tunisians passively adapted to the authoritarian system. Women and men, at times united in associations, leagues or trade unions, were able to express their democratic aspirations, while projects for reform and political change had already been in the air since the 1970s. It was one of the consequences of the mass free education that had been decided in Tunisia since day one of its independence. In the 2000s, this resistance to authoritarianism took on a new form, with digital dissidence and the development of rebel sites which provided information, contestations and invitations to the people to take part in collective online action. Even after 2011, the dissidents’ demands remained unwavering. So, after two leftist leaders were killed within a few months of each other, in summer 2013 many Tunisians gathered in the Bardo Square, in front of Parliament, to ask that the elected government, deemed incompetent and incapable of guaranteeing citizens’ safety, step down. In so doing, the protestors were not questioning democracy, but denouncing its failings.
These factors, rooted in the country’s political history, allow us to understand why Tunisia was the cradle of the Arab Spring. What is more, they were accompanied by some events observed during the revolution itself, linked to the role of the military and the United States’ influence on the course of events.
The role of the army is very difficult to understand, owing to the odd relationship that the military institution had entertained with the executive ever since the country’s independence. In the 1960s, Bourguiba felt a mixture of contempt and fear towards the military. Together with Lebanon, his country was the only civil republic in the region, and his fear of a military coup in Tunisia was real. Mistrustful, Bourguiba kept the army out of all political decisions. Despite this, the military were always obedient and loyal, fully carrying out their role of keeping order and controlling the borders. More than once, upon the politicians’ bidding, the soldiers shot into the crowd to calm down protests that threatened degenerate. Something similar happened during the 2011 revolt, when the army replaced the police, and ended up picking up the weapons of the officers who had fled and occupying the streets to defend sensitive targets. It will nevertheless go down in history that on that famous 14 January, when Ben Ali still had to leave the country, but the air space had already been securitized and Washington had guaranteed shelter for the dictator’s family, the military did not shoot into the crowd. Various hypotheses have been put forward to explain this unprecedented attitude from the Tunisian army: did the soldiers in service agree with the protestors? Was it a military vendetta against Ben Ali? Or had the top army officials simply put two and two together, and decided that the power relations had tipped too far against a head of state abandoned by his police force and violently attacked by his people?
There are also question marks concerning the lack of external support for Ben Ali, which indirectly caused his fall. Only Colonel Gaddafi proposed sending troops to help the Tunisian president, while Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Algeria and Barack Obama’s United States gave no particular support to a man whom had previously been their favourite partner and ally. The person who the Americans had once deemed a precious actor in the fight against the Islamists became an obstacle in the relationship between Washington and Tunisia the moment when, in order to neutralize the most radical actors, the United States decided to engage the Islamists who accepted the democratic game. Ben Ali’s categorical refusal to involve part of the Islamist opposition in the political life no longer corresponded to America’s ambitions. According to some witnesses, the United States were already in favour of Ben Ali’s departure in the early 1990s; which would explain the stance assumed towards the 2010-2011 Tunisian revolution by Barack Obama, who stated that “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
It is these elements that made the revolution possible in a country which had no resources, was geographically distant from Israel and did not represent any threat for the great powers.
Ben Ali’s departure after three weeks of unprecedented revolt gave the Tunisians the feeling of the protestors’ victory against the dictatorship. The ease with which the regime fell drove the citizens of various countries in the region to oust their governors in turn. But the domino effect, after the model of the “Springtime of the Peoples” that Europe experienced in 1848, did not happen. The popular protests that broke out in many Arab countries in 2011 did not lead to the fall of regimes or national commitments for democratic transition as happened in Tunisia. While the change wanted by the citizen-protestors was enabled by some country-specific factors, there was no way that the Tunisian experience could be repeated in countries that were definitely governed by similar authoritarian regimes but did not have the same political history or economy and geopolitical background.
A Relative Success
In the Tunisians’ minds, this great moment in the country’s political history should have overturned structures and mentalities, producing a new person and a new order. They thought that the revolution would change everything, responding to the expectations of equality, freedom and dignity that the citizens had expressed during the revolutionary hour. Ten years later, the political developments have not been accompanied by as much progress on the front of employment or in the fight against inequalities.
Politically speaking, the journey has nevertheless been remarkable: free elections; real freedom of expression after years when the Tunisians had been stripped of this; a constitution, approved in 2014, which guarantees fundamental freedoms and recognizes civil liberty. None of these important results could even have been hoped for a decade ago. Nevertheless, today the Tunisians’ appreciation is overridden by concerns for their material difficulties.
Indeed, since 2011 the social and regional inequalities have grown and in the inland regions of the country, the stage for the first protests in 2010, the inhabitants complain of a weak state presence and its incapacity to combat creeping corruption. More claims are being made than in the past, the sit-ins are multiplying while those in power just settle for calling time out from the social demands and putting the people on guard against economic paralysis. In the numerous regions where unemployment is rife, affecting up to 50% of the working-age population, the inhabitants state that the revolution has not led to any change and that the areas where they live continue to be neglected by the authorities. Fuelled by a feeling of injustice, they reproach the state for its lack of engagement and believe that their regions are not benefitting from the natural resources that they produce, whether this is the water from Fernana, in north-west Tunisia, the oil from Kamour, near Tataouine, in the south, the phosphates from Gafsa, or the dates from the palm orchards of Jemna in the south-west. The citizens then express their anger by blocking the production of these raw materials, thus forcing the state to import them and get into further debt. Such a paralysis of entire production sectors is naturally very damaging to an economy that is already struggling due to the revolution, which caused a drastic drop in production activities, notably reducing the state’s resources.
The workers’ loud demands and the general disorder in the world of work have led many factories to close and investors to abandon the country. But the collapse of the economy is also due to the climate of insecurity that has reigned in the country since 2012. It is mainly armed attacks by various Salafist groups that have shown the inability of those in power to guarantee the citizens’ safety. Ennahda, which, with 89 out of 217 members of Parliament in the constituent assembly, held a large part of the power, has been overtaken on the right by Salafist elements trying to destabilize the state and the transition. Subsequently, the 2015 attacks, claimed by ISIS, dealt the final blow to an obsolete economy, which has not benefitted from any structural reform. Tourism, which employs around 400,000 people, experienced its first slump, before the second drop owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
Economic stagnation is driving more and more young Tunisians to try to reach Europe, which pulled up the drawbridge some time ago. In 2020, the numbers were seven times higher than in 2019. Finding no answers to their expectations, these young people cannot imagine a future in their homeland, where the necessary reforms have never been put into practice, in particular the ones to fight increasingly significant unemployment. Concentrated on their own difficulties, the Tunisians tend to forget the political progress of the transition and now and then feel nostalgia for pre-2011 times. They blame the revolt and the revolution for the deterioration of the social climate, the dearth of work for young people, the lack of security, the growing inequalities, and the degeneration of the public services.
And yet, to take a better look, the revolution has nothing to do with it. On the contrary, it enabled the country to leave behind the state of political hibernation that it had sunk into. Indeed, the power had been concentrated in the hands of a caste that hinged around Ben Ali and his family, while the Tunisians, little informed and lacking in cohesion, had ended up feeling left out of the political games. The revolution revealed the citizens’ interest in a different political approach, by putting on the table essential questions such as inequalities and privileges. Furthermore, its claim centred around dignity in the broad sense, namely, adequate pay and decent housing, the freedom to express oneself, to meet, to get involved, but also to live religious or sexual differences under the protection of the law. The 2014 constitution confirmed this superiority of the law over religion. In reality, what is being called into question is the way in which the transition has been governed over this decade, as well as the choice of a political regime that seems wholly unsuited to the country.
A Badly Governed Transition
The revolutionary trend of 2011 was dramatically lacking in strategy, vision and leadership. These characteristics, quite rightly attributed to the spontaneity of the movement, marked the way in which the transition was governed. At first, the actors who had been so successful in mobilizing the crowds, inventing meaningful slogans, communicating and finally dethroning Ben Ali, had neither enough flair nor invention to organize the political life in a different manner.
The first free vote of October 2011, organized to elect a constituent assembly, brought about a troika comprising three parties from the past. Thanks to the revolution, they passed from the opposition to governing the country, with the obligation to run the current affairs and supervise the drafting of the constitution for a year. This executive, dominated by Ennahda, quickly found itself faced with multiple difficulties which highlighted the three parties’ lack of experience and political vision. The Islamist party, majority stakeholder in the government, immediately showed hegemonic ambitions, attempting to take possession of all the levers of power and take control of the state, administration and media.
Despite forming a political trio, the parties drew up no shared programme. It was Ennahda that governed, while the other two formations played second fiddle, without, however, asking to share the power in any way. The hegemony of Ennahda, the nepotism that it displayed and its lack of consideration for the opposition have nothing to envy from the methods that the same Islamist party had been subjected to under the old regime.
As of 2012, mass recruitments were made of new officials, according to partisan criteria, increasing the state deficit and doubling the public debt. Equally as harmful was the political cost of these approximately 4,000 public employees, seeing as the replacement of administrative personnel with other less expert staff had consequences on the workings of the administration. The old officials did not mount any opposition to these practices, but caused an administrative stalemate that paralysed whole segments of the country’s administrative life, helping to weaken the state. Ennahda governed alone, ignoring the other two parties in the troika and casually brushing off the political opposition. Some opposition MPs were excluded from the presidency of the main parliamentary committees and the trade unionists were intimidated or maltreated. These acts fuelled outright distrust among the Tunisians in their political class, which would then transform into a crisis of confidence on the question of security and the multiplication of attacks attributed to the Salafist groups.
The situation in Tunisia became highly alarming in 2012, when some Salafists confiscated around 400 mosques to preach violence, took part in building schools and nurseries, and created television channels such as Al-Insan TV. Furthermore, the invitation of radical preachers from the Middle East caused a major change in the religious panorama and discourse. It was, however, above all the armed attacks by these groups that sowed fear among the population (such as the attacks on the US embassy in Tunis, on the Sufi saints’ shrines, on women and on artists). The troika did not react to these drifts, revealing Ennahda’s indulgence towards the Salafists. The government incapacity to protect the population, its lack of answers to economic and social questions, and more in general its inexperience and lack of vision, contributed to the political crisis of summer 2013, when part of civil society asked for the resignation of a government deemed incompetent which, moreover, had only been elected for one year.
In 2014, Essebsi, one of Bourguiba’s former ministers, who had already been invited to lead the government in March 2011 before founding his party Nidaa Tounes in 2012, presented himself as the country’s “saviour.” Making the most of the temporary weakness of Ennahda, which needed to brush their results under the carpet, Essebsi reached out to its leader Rached Ghanouchi. To justify this unnatural alliance between two formations that were more inclined to fight than to cooperate, talk began of compromise and consensus. But in the name of this consensus, presented as a buffer against violence and civil war, what forcefully and unashamedly reappeared was the political past. Indeed, Nidaa Tounes was an extension of the RCD (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique – Democratic Constitutional Assembly), Ben Ali’s party, while Ennahda could now act in the light of day rather than underground. The political scene prior to the revolution, dominated by two great formations, was therefore re-established, sweeping aside all the parties that had emerged in 2011. Political life was taken over by the two political forces, which methodically dismantled the political practices adopted thanks to the revolution.
In addition to rehabilitating the old political life, this coexistence between two such different formations was not supported by any shared project capable of overcoming the Tunisians’ social difficulties, fighting the multiplication of the smuggler networks evading control by the authorities, restoring state rule and avoiding the deterioration of the public services. The outcome of this policy of compromise was disastrous. While no answers were found to the basic issues concerning the Tunisians’ lives, the parameters for interpreting Tunisian political life proved to be completely off-kilter. Modernists and Islamists, who had liberally insulted each other during the 2014 election campaign, found themselves united in governing the country, thus bringing down the boundary between the old regime and the political frame outlined after the revolution. Not just ineffective, political life also became murky and the rescue of the country proposed by Essebsi looked like more and more of an illusion.
In political practice, the ideal expressed at the time of the revolution began to be obeyed less and less. Essebsi, who had come to hold a good chunk of the power, paid little heed to the institutional picture or the political regime chosen in 2014 which gave more prerogative to the prime minister than to the head of state, even though the latter was elected by universal suffrage. Indeed, he did not think that it was up to him to comply to the post-revolutionary political set-up requiring the establishment of the independent bodies and counterpowers necessary for democracy. A man from the past, he strove for the past to return, putting Ben Ali’s men back into power and making the ministers and prime minister mere implementers of his policy decisions. Under his authority, Essebsi created and placed parallel institutions to the government, such as the National Security Council, which he set up in Carthage to deal with all the practices relating to education, health, the economy, etc.; in short: a veritable parallel government consolidating his power to the detriment of the formal government.
For five years, the political game was carried out within very tight bounds, with each actor in the executive seeking to expand his or her own power, to the detriment of the others and regardless of the population’s social requirements.
Sentenced by the Ballot Box
Political manoeuvres and repositioning helped to distance Tunisians from a political life uninterested in their concerns about the worsening economic conditions. The middle classes’ spending power had collapsed and a gradual impoverishment could be seen among whole slices of the population. Bad governance had eroded the relationship of trust between rulers and the ruled: the political parties were no longer able to mobilize or retain their militants or sympathizers, their numbers haemorrhaging from one election to the next. The heads of the political formations were accused of having acted according to their own personal interests and of siding with the oligarchy, considered corrupt and incapable. The results of the 2018 (local) and 2019 (presidential and legislative) elections penalized the political class in favour of actors from outside the government circles, who adopted a highly populist discourse.
These elections, which closed a short decade of transition, saw a very low turnout: 33.7% in the 2018 municipal elections, with an immense rise in independent lists, demonstrating the rejection of the political parties. The independent candidates who stood in these local elections lashed out against the corruption and negligence of the two parties in power since 2014. Guided on one hand by the civil society that had nevertheless kept its faith in politics, the independents were very successful both against Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, which lost respectively half and two thirds of the votes they had won in 2014. In July 2019, the death of the head of state, Essebsi, inverted the election calendar, thus moving the presidential elections to before the legislative ones. Hence, all the attention was on looking for a “saviour,” someone sent from heaven who would rescue the country from its many difficulties. From the surveys, the Tunisians discovered that the voters appreciated figures from outside the world of politics. Those who attracted attention were singular figures such as Nabil Karoui, aged 56, owner of the Nessma TV channel founded in 2007 and head of a charity association that defends the poor and the destitute; or Abir Moussi, 44-year-old lawyer, former vice secretary of the RCD, Ben Ali’s party, who does not disguise her loyalty to her mentor, going so far as to state that 14 January 2011 was not a spontaneous revolt but a plot organized abroad with the collaboration of some “traitors to their country”; and finally, the most enigmatic figure, Kais Saied, a 61-year-old academic, who campaigned without support from any party or association.
The victory of Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui in the first round of the presidential election caught the Tunisians by surprise. Two men with very different profiles and backgrounds, but with one thing in common: their stress during the election campaign on the gap between the promise of the 2011 revolution and a political life in constant demise, to the point of generating a clear divide between the ruling classes and the citizens. In their contrast of the people and the elite, Saied and Karoui can be ranked among the populists. And like all populist projects, they have no detailed programme but place the people at the centre of a democracy waiting to be built.
It is Kais Saied who was elected president of the Republic with a wide majority (72.71% of the votes expressed, with a turnout of 55%), thus demonstrating that he had managed to convince many people. Saied was seen as bringing new truth to the political life, and the voters recognized themselves in that people whom he presented as virtuous, neglected and victims of a political system that only benefitted the elite. The new president therefore sees his task as “repairing” and being able to correct the scarce representativeness of Tunisian politics. His project consists of a sort of popular democracy which turns the pyramid of power on its head in order to sideline the corrupt elites embroiled in their little political calculations. But now that he has been elected, after seducing many Tunisians, his discourse has to be translated into policy. Saied seems to have a hard time passing from an election campaign in which he addressed the young and outsiders to the role of head of state who has to speak to the whole Tunisians population and is judged for his actions not his image. His populist discourse cannot be a response to the citizens’ expectations. Besides, the problem not only lies in the weakness of his rhetoric, but also in the organization of the political regime which may look like a parliamentary regime, but in actual fact grants the head of state ample powers on national defence and diplomacy, added to the legitimacy acquired through the ballot box. Holding the balance in this model are the government and the head of government, who should be the true holder of the executive power. This hybrid set-up combines all the drawbacks of a parliamentary system (with the instability of the government and consequent paralysis of the decision-making process) with the flaws of a presidential regime and its personalisation of power. Hence the tendency of the last two presidents of the republic to bolster the power of the head of state to the detriment of the premier and the Parliament.
The bad governance of the various ruling classes who have been in power since 2011, together with an inadequate political regime, explains the rejection of politics expressed by Tunisians ten years after their great revolution. To date, rulers have avoided the bottom-line issues, not managing to respond to the economic and social emergencies and neglecting state reform and public service reorganization.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
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 See Khadija Mohsen-Finan and Pierre Vermeren, Dissidents du Maghreb. Paris: Belin, 2018.
 State of Union Address, 25 January 2011, https://bit.ly/2TuOiPW
To cite this article
Khadija Mohsen-Finan, “The Ups and Downs of the Tunisian Exception”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 14-25.
Khadija Mohsen-Finan, “The Ups and Downs of the Tunisian Exception”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/the-ups-and-downs-of-the-tunisian-exception