Briefing Note: Tunisia's Democratic Transition

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Tunisia's Democratic Transition

03 Feb 2015

Four years after the revolution, as Tunisia completes its transition, this briefing note looks at the successes and challenges of the country's integration of Islamist politics into a democratic system.

Tunisia is frequently held out as the most positive example of democratic change in an 'Arab Spring' country, in particular reference to the way in which it has been able to integrate an Islamist party into a new democratic system. Certainly, by comparison to events in Egypt, in which military rule has returned after several waves of bloodshed, and Libya, which has descended into violent factional conflict, the transition in Tunisia has been remarkably peaceful and functional.

It was announced in early February 2015 that the Islamist party Ennahda would form a coalition government with the leading secular party Nidaa Tunis which holds a plurality of seats in the national parliament, continuing a trend of consensus and compromise which has largely characterised relations between Islamist and secular parties in Tunisia since the revolution.

However, more than four years after the events of the 'Arab spring' were instigated in Tunisia by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the central city of Sidi Bouzid, solutions to many of the social and economic grievances which led to the revolution still elude the country. In addition, the victory of Beji Caid Essebsi in the December 2014 presidential elections and subsequent nomination of Habib Essid as prime minister means that both offices are held by former members of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorial regime.

One manifestation of the continuing alienation felt by some young Tunisians is the disproportionately high numbers that have travelled to Syria to fight alongside jihadi groups, in particular ISIS. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisians are estimated to have travelled to Syria, more than from any other country, and dramatically more in per capita terms. It seems clear that some young people are disillusioned with the revolution and the lack of positive change in its aftermath to the extent of losing all sense of belonging to the country and becoming vulnerable to radicalisation.

Some Tunisians see an association between jihadism and the rise in Salafism.

In the four years since the revolution, political change in Tunisia has also led to rapid social changes that in some cases has led to tension between different social groups. During the Ben Ali period, outward expression of religion was severely controlled, and men with beards or women wearing the hijab were liable to harassment by the police. After the revolution, with greater public freedoms, Tunisia's once underground Salafi movement has taken on a much more visible profile. This rise in Salafi expression has been seen by some secular Tunisians to be associated with violent jihadism and inherently linked with the rise of Islamist politics in the form of Ennahda. However, the link between the different phenomena is far from clear: a study of the origins of Tunisian foreign fighters reveals that the majority, perhaps contrary to expectations, come from more secular family backgrounds. 

Ennahda

The split between Islamist and secular politics in Tunisia reflects to some degree the social divide which has existed since colonial times between the more wealthy, Europeanised, coastal elites who tend to support secular parties, and the more conservative religious inhabitants of the centre and south of the country, who are the natural constituency of Ennahda party.

The reconciliation of Islamism and modernity?

A part of the international Muslim Brotherhood Islamist political movement, Ennahda was outlawed in Tunisia under the Ben Ali regime, although since the 1980s it had advocated a specifically Tunisian Islamism, characterised by participation in a democratic pluralist system, and dialogue with the West. The party's 'intellectual leader', Rached Ghannouchi, has long been an advocate of the reconciliation of Islam and modernity. However, Ennahda has continued to be accused by opponents of showing a moderate face in public, whilst promoting a deeply conservative vision for society and maintaining connections with violent extremists.

Ennahda were at the centre of the transitional government that was elected in 2011 on a manifesto of tackling economic inequality and social problems such as unemployment. But economic stagnation has persisted since the revolution, with unemployment figures remaining high, and voters felt that Ennahda did not live up to their expectations.

In addition, Ennahda was blamed for rising levels of political violence in Tunisia during the period of the transitional government. In particular, the murders of secular opposition leaders Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 shocked Tunisians. Belaïd in particular had been an outspoken critic of the Ennahda government. The killings led to widespread public resentment that Ennahda was not doing enough to condemn and prevent political violence, or may even at some level have been complicit in it. 

Nevertheless, Ennahda were also praised for the promotion of a culture of compromise with opponents while in power during the critical transition phase after the revolution, Ghannouchi declaring in an interview with the Guardian, "A political transition is no time to govern with a relative majority of 51%; it's a time for consensus". 

Nidaa Tunis

Formed in 2012 by a coalition between several secular parties, the rise of Nidaa Tunis to dominance in the Tunisian parliament has been accompanied by fears of a 'return of the old guard', given that many of its members were formerly members of the Ben Ali regime, including Essebsi and Essid.

Essebsi, who at the age of 88 has been a key figure in Tunisian politics since the country's independence in 1956, was known as a liberal and reformer by the standards of the country's former autocratic regime. However, since the revolution, concerns have been raised about the extent of his participation in the oppression, including torture, of the regime. Fears of a return to autocracy do not seem well-founded however. The new constitution, which was approved by a large majority in 2014, now ensures that power is shared among different bodies and individuals, thus preventing the concentration of power in the hands of any one actor or party.

'Regime nostalgia' may be a response to regional instability.

Indeed it could also be argued that the inclusion of non-corrupt members of the former regime is one reason for Tunisia's relatively successful transition to democracy. Their inclusion ensures that the political scene retains experienced politicians, and has prevented the sudden disenfranchisement of a powerful group capable of threatening the stability of the new system. It may also reassure some members of the public drawn to 'regime nostalgia' in the face of chronic regional instability and uncertainty following the 'Arab spring'.

The Next Phase of Transition

Despite the progress of the last four years, there are critical challenges to overcome in the next parliamentary term. These will include building stability, addressing the injustices of the past, maintaining security in the face of regional threats, and addressing Tunisia's economic and social problems such as unemployment. Meanwhile, Tunisia's revolutionary generation is still waiting to see if their demands for justice and equality will be realised in the new democratic system.

 

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