Tunisia’s streets are on fire. By decreeing a four-day national lockdown on the 10th anniversary of the revolution and banning demonstrations, the government provoked an opposite and much more dangerous reaction. In poor suburbs of Tunis and many cities across the country, hundreds of youths clashed with police during night-time riots. The violent crackdown and the escalation of protests into looting and vandalism marked a bitter commemoration.
A decade ago, Tunisia’s long-serving President (1987–2011) Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on January 14th after weeks of mass protests against one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes. Young street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in response to harassment by police officers had unwittingly sparked a wave of demonstrations that spread from the periphery of the country to its center. These uprisings, better known in a misleading mainstream narrative as the “Jasmine Revolution”, not only led to the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, but triggered a domino effect in the broader Middle East and North Africa region.
The so-called “Arab springs” of 2010-2011, the rapid onset of their “winter” and their 2018-2019 partial revival in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, were undoubtedly one of the most regionally (and internationally) significant critical junctures of the past decade.
Ten years on, we can draw a mixed picture of those events. Overlapping lights and shadows distinguish the case of Tunisia, which is the only country in the post-revolutionary regional chessboard that has so far avoided falling into chaos and civil war (like neighboring Libya, or Yemen and Syria), or returned to dictatorship as Egypt did. By contrast, Tunisia’s transition has been a vibrant, enthusiastic yet contradictory chantier démocratique.
Many successes and achievements stand out in Tunisia’s path, which was anything but simple or linear. The main ones include the 2014 new Constitution, free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, as well as the advancement of other rights, which were part and parcel of a mere democratic façade that has finally become concrete.
Equally remarkable is the Truth and Dignity Commission’s (Instance Vérité et Dignité, IVD) work. The cornerstone of the transitional justice process from 2014 to 2019, it gave a detailed account of almost sixty years of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s repressive and predatory apparatuses. Yet, it is to be seen how and to what extent the judicial machinery set in motion by the IVD will provide for reparation and compensation to victims to redress the state’s abuses and bring to justice those responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations. Given the hostility and counter-mobilization of the political and economic elites close to the former regime, as well as the security cadres, this desirable outcome is not so obvious. In a context where the rule of law is still far from being consolidated, the absence of a fundamental institution such as the Constitutional Court because political parties have failed to reach an agreement on its composition casts a further shadow over the entire system of governance.
While Tunisia celebrates the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of its authoritarian regime, pessimism and discontent are rampant, fueling high levels of social tension. In 2020, the domestic measures implemented to curb the spread of Covid-19, the heavy fallout due to the interruption of remittances from abroad and of trade flows with the EU – Tunisia’s main partner – all exacerbated pre-existing economic, social and political criticalities. Last summer, the umpteenth government crisis and the resignation of Elyes Fakhfakh’s cabinet, just five months after it took office, laid the foundations for the appointment of Hichem Mechichi’s technocratic government in September. Yet, this executive has since seemed to be missing in action.
A general sense of fatigue and frustration, exasperated by continuous political deadlocks and immobility, led to a new wave of strikes and protests throughout the country. Notably, it is not only unemployed or precarious young people in the most disenfranchised suburbs or regions who are demonstrating, but various professional groups – including judges, lawyers and journalists – who express increasingly parochial and often competing interests.
While conflict within the political society and among state institutions has been a constant in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary trajectory, however mitigated or camouflaged by the politics of consensus between different political elites, fractures within society are emerging more and more clearly. In a context of ‘diffuse’ power in which policymakers and the administration navigate by sight with their legitimacy in free fall, corporatism and vested interests have become key factors of social aggregation and multiplication of demands, thus overloading an already fragile and unresponsive political system.
The wave of strikes over recent months not only points to a widespread malaise and paralyses the country, but also lays bare as never before the conflictual nature of different realities. In doing so, it reveals the fragility of that cohesion and unity of purpose described by the revolutionary motto “the people want”.
Class cleavages and regional divides, even before being generational or based on the opposition between Islam and secularism, are long-standing structural problems that post-revolutionary Tunisia has not addressed at all. Moreover, the protests and demonstrations in recent years – spanning from Kasserine to Tataouine and Gafsa, as well as to other forgotten interior and southern regions – underline the missed goals of that social and economic justice that was one of the key demands raised by the 2010-2011 uprisings. The ongoing turmoil mercilessly points to an unresolved knot and a profound fragility of the new post-revolutionary setting. In the last week, the anger of the young people exploded. Hundreds – the majority of whom are minors aged between 14 and 15 years old according to the Minister of Interior – broke the curfew. After mass arrests and riots, Tunisia has deployed military units. President Kais Saied spoke out against stigmatizing demonstrators as mere thieves but called for an end to violence. In the meantime, calls on law enforcement agencies to refrain from using unnecessary and excessive force have multiplied.
In addition to polarization and the rise of populism, the spread of a certain authoritarian nostalgia is a cause for reflection. By proudly claiming a mythical and “de-historicized” past of stability and effectiveness with a fairly strong grip on the population, this “autocrat’s nostalgia” questions the revolutionary gains. Among the old regime’s loyalists, the Parti Destourien Libre (PDL) stands out. An ultra-nationalist and anti-Islamist right-wing party, it has more than increased its support sixfold in only one year. According to Emrhod’s November 2020 polls, the PDL has reached 38% of voting intentions. At the last legislative elections in October 2019, it received 6% of the vote and 17 deputies. Its leader, Abir Moussi, was a former leader of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), the now dissolved, at least formally, regime party. In contrast to other political figures, her popularity is steadily on the rise. At present, she follows President Kais Saied, the new man and outsider of the political establishment, whose crushing electoral victory in 2019 raised high hopes, which are still waiting.
Lastly, it is worth recalling the cases of torture, abuse and violence by the police, which are no longer systematic but still widespread and very often unpunished as denounced by human rights organizations such as the World Organization Against Torture, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Even more alarming is the pressure and threats that the police lobbies – one of the symbols par excellence of the old regime – have exerted against parliamentarians and judges when it came to pass draft laws to expand legal protections for security forces and in the case of trials involving their comrades.
Tunisia faces many challenges. Above all, that of not giving in to the sirens of authoritarian nostalgia and remaining vigilant to build on democratic successes instead of dwelling on the disappointments of democracy.
An Italian version of this article has been published here by ISPI (Italian Institute of International Politics)