Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) and Managing Editor of the web portal commonspace.eu
The latest political crisis in Tunisia is the sign of a deeper malaise. For decades now the political elite of the country has failed to deliver on the nation’s expectations. A country that, due to the diligence of its people, has been considered a model of various sorts over the years since independence, has failed to improve the quality of life for its people. The result is widespread disillusionment and frustration, on which are feeding political parasites of all forms.
Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1956—one of the first African countries to gain statehood. It was done fairly smoothly and without the violent convulsions of neighbouring Algeria. This gave Tunisia a head start, which at first, under the pragmatic leadership of Habib Bourguiba, it appeared to be exploiting. Education and standard of living were among the best in North Africa; the country pursued a fine balancing act between the secularist, mostly military-led regimes that dotted the Arab world at the time, and the more conservative monarchies, keeping aloof from many of the controversies that riddled Arab politics.
As Bourguiba grew older he failed to organise a proper path of succession. His Destour Party (later renamed Destour Socialist Party) continued feeding on the aura of having achieved national independence, until this ran thin due to newer challenges and problems. The party, and the government it led, was riddled with internal factions and incapable of reform. In 1987, one of the factions finally moved to seize power, and Bourguiba was unceremoniously bundled away by his prime minister, a former police and security chief, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country until, in 2011, he became the first Arab leader to be toppled by the Arab spring.
Ben Ali’s presidency was the time of missed opportunities; he ruled over a corrupt and oppressive government that suffocated Tunisia’s potential. The country remains damaged by the experience.
Ben Ali’s popular overthrow was a catalyst for similar episodes in a number of other Arab countries, but in many ways Tunisia was uniquely suited for a transition to democracy. In that regard the last decade has proved this true. But the process was always fragile. The centrifugal forces at play across the Arab world can be seen in Tunisia, too. Many hoped the country had them under control. Recent events have put that into question.
A Story of Two Tunisias
It often seems that Tunisia is two countries, not one. There is the Tunisia of the capital, Tunis, where around a quarter of the country’s eleven million people live. Here, you can find a society not very different from that in Southern Europe, with a large middle class, an organised and unionised working class, a bustling civil society and cultural scene, and a propensity to identify with a secular model of society. But this image can also be misleading. As with other large metropolis, such as Istanbul, there has in recent years been a steady migration of people from the countryside to the capital. They tend to be more religiously conservative and somewhat taken aback by the ways of the city. Tunis can today no longer take a secular majority as an uncontested fact, and outside the capital, the other Tunisia reigns: much more conservative, mainly rural, and struggling to make a living.
This economic and social fault-line, whilst it has always been there, became more acute during the time of Ben Ali. It created a fertile breeding ground for political Islam, although here, too, it came with a Tunisian twist. A radical part found affinity with Al-Qaeda, and later with the Islamic State (ISIS). Hundreds of Tunisians fought with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, these were always a small minority. Most Tunisians seeking an Islamic model for the future of their country looked to the Ennahda movement, the local version of the Muslim Brethren, and its leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi.
Ghannouchi spent most of the twenty-three years of the Ben Ali regime in exile in London. He earned a reputation as a moderate, and renounced violence as a political tool. When Ben Ali was finally overthrown, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia to lead what became the largest and most influential political force in the country. Ghannouchi has been one of the most important figures in the forging of the new Tunisia since 2011. For this reason, many argue he needs to be held responsible for the political and economic mess that the country finds itself in at the moment. Apologists for Ghannouchi say that he has always opted for compromise, and that sometimes this was wrongly misinterpreted as indecision.
The Failure of the 2011 Revolution
Revolutions hardly ever end up delivering the dreams that those who launch them hope for. Tunisia is no exception. After 2011, politically the country experienced a fresh breeze of democracy, and the dignity of the citizen was restored. But political plurality also brought with it controversy, division, and paralysis. This at a time when Tunisia needed strong government to deal with a variety of issues—from terrorism to pandemic, and the economic fall-out from both.
Following 2011, Tunisia has had a democratically elected parliament, and a democratically elected president. Both, therefore, have a legitimacy that cannot be ignored. The checks and balances that this was supposed to deliver has more recently ended up in political stagnation, a log-jam broken in recent days when the president dismissed the prime minister and de facto froze the work of the parliament. The opposition has called this a coup; the president calls it a desperate move to save Tunisia from a desperate situation. That president, Kaies Saied, could even contemplate the latest moves, is a manifestation of the deep disillusionment felt by many Tunisians.
Overall, the 2011 revolution has left Tunisians hugely disappointed. The economic opportunities that many hoped for never materialised, despite the fact that large amounts of money in economic assistance came from outside. The government appeared to bungle the security situation, moving too late to clamp down on violent Islamic groups, and giving them the space to commit atrocities against the lucrative tourist industry. Whole communities dependant on tourism suffered as a result. Before the industry had time to recover, the coronavirus struck. This double whammy has decimated Tunisia’s otherwise successful and lucrative tourist resorts.
Important economic reforms on which crucial external financial aid was dependent got stuck in the political wrangling that have characterised recent years. The Tunisian economy, already reeling from political indecision, was worse hit by the fallout of the COVID pandemic than some of its neighbours. The government in recent months also appeared to have lost its control of the pandemic itself, with Tunisian hospitals overflowing and not able to deal with cases.
The case for a presidential intervention was therefore there, but this does not give the president carte blanche for unimpeded power. His dose of medicine can only work if applied rapidly and sparingly.
What Worked Elsewhere Will Not Work In Tunisia
Some are seeing developments in Tunisia as somehow a repetition of the events in Egypt in 2013, where the Muslim Brotherhood government was sacked after mass protests acquired the support of the army. Yet Tunisia is not Egypt, and Ennahda is not the same as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has been ruled by and large by army officers since 1952. Tunisia is a politically more sophisticated context. The president will have to move cautiously to avoid worsening the problems he is seeking to solve. But Tunisia is no Libya either, and a slide to civil war is inconceivable. In the end, the impasse will have to be resolved through elections—free and fair ones, of which the country already has some experience.
Sensible Tunisians Must Apply the Break on Radicals
Despite the current turmoil, Tunisia has a political safety net that few other Arab countries share. It has an active civil society, a pluralistic media, and institutions, such as trade unions, that have stood the test of time. The country has a high level of education, with almost one-hundred per cent literacy amongst its youth. This human capital is the basis on which the future of Tunisia must be built. Tunisia also has an army that has traditionally kept out of politics.
Most Tunisians appear to welcome the break of the political impasse of the last months and years. President Saidi may therefore be experiencing a brief honeymoon moment. Tunisians are, however, unlikely to welcome any return to authoritarian rule, regardless of the justification.
President Saidi, Ennahda leader Ghannouchi, and the rest of the political elite will be tested over the coming weeks. Within their camps are radicals that will seek to bring the crisis to a confrontation; they must resist them. Compromise is always going to be necessary. The constitutional order should be restored as soon as possible and the Tunisian people allowed a clearer choice to decide the future through the ballot box.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.