international analysis and commentary

The thorns in the side of Tunisia’s young democratic process


The Tunisian Revolution is regarded as the most successful experience of democratic transition in the Arab Spring countries. The military did not try to hijack, as it was the case in Egypt, nor did it turn it into a civil war, as it did in Syria and Yemen, or to pure chaos like in Libya. This success is attributed to the balance of power between the “islamists” and the “secularists”: they have been somewhat forced to dialogue, then to agree on a common road map. The active role of public opinion, demonstrators and civil society organizations has been crucial in this respect – Tunisian NGOs were indeed awarded the Nobel Prize for this reason in February 2016.

Growing demonstrations against the so-called Government of the Troika (2011-2013) led by “Ennahdha”, the Islamist Movement founded in 1981, made the compromise possible. The Troika – also comprising Ettakatol and El Mottamar, two left wing parties who struggled for their recognition during the previous regime – was forced to cede power and hand it over to a technocratic government acting as a caretaker for a year, paving the way for Parliamentary elections (held in October 2014) and then Presidential elections (in December 2014). On both occasions the “secularists” advanced at the expense of the “islamists”.

On the background of this “compromesso storico” (historical compromise), to use a famous concept coined by Enrico Berlinguer in the Italian context of the 1970s, the Constituent Assembly was able to adopt almost unanimously a democratic Constitution, whose democratic standards are unparalleled in the Arab World. The Constitution establishes the separation of powers, recognizes the safeguarding of individual and collective freedoms and provides for elected and independent institutions monitoring the judiciary (the Higher Justice Council), freedom of the media (the Higher Independent Authority for the Audio-visual Communications) and elections (the Higher Independent Authority for Elections). It also establishes full equality between men and women and freedom of religion – as well as the separation of religious and state authorities.

Despite these very significant gains made in the political and institutional sphere, Tunisia is still facing major challenges.

The youth question

Tunisia’s youth often stays at the margin of any good social and economic opportunity. The reasons can be summed up in a few well known elements. Firstly, the crisis of the school system, incapable of addressing the needs of the job market, continues to produce hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates. This, in turn, generates a series of social issues. One in three young men in rural Tunisia (33.4%) and one in five in urban Tunisia are not in education, employment or training; rates are even higher for young women (50.4%).[1]

The International Labor Office also points out that 75% of Tunisian 15-29 years olds are working in the informal sector, especially various smuggling activities. There is now a significant overlap between smuggling and terrorism networks, which makes the challenge even more urgent.

Terrorism, which has emerged under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), has spread like a cancer as the number of mosques (often built hastily and run in a non-transparent manner) shot up during the reign of the Troika. Moreover, hundreds of associations founded by Salafist groups have become a gateway for funds flowing from the Gulf countries. 

The first step pursued by these Salafist Groups is to create a disconnection between young people and society, i.e. with its culture, values and historical references, replacing these with their own’s. This operation aims at teenagers, but it happens even within random kindergartens run by suspicious associations. The extremist Imams have played, over the years, an instrumental role in the uncontrolled “renegade” mosques, “in the ripening of the fruits”, i.e. human resources which soon were to be recruited by the more operational hardline networks. This process is further facilitated by the marginalization of many youngsters, as the extremist networks often provide them with the financial support they badly need.

Meanwhile, the school system crisis led to the collapse of the value of university degrees, bringing frustration and anger among the educated youth. This only facilitated the recruitment efforts by terrorist groups such as Ansar-Al-Sharia, ISIS-Daesh and the “Uqba Ibn Nafea Battalion” (initially affiliated to Al-Qaeda and now to Daesh).

A deepening socio-economic crisis

The biggest failure of the Tunisian revolution, however, consists in the worsening unemployment crisis and the persistence of a development-deprived country. In Tunisia, 80% of investments and the major cities are concentrated along the coast; the inland governorates suffer from oblivion – which the wave of alarming protests in Kasserine tried to tear down peacefully earlier this year. The so-called “disadvantaged governorates” happen to be located in the vicinity of Tunisia’s two neighboring countries (Algeria and Libya) that are endowed with plentiful natural resources. Nevertheless, the regional disputes as well as the “clinical death” of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) freeze the few projects that have been launched in the border towns; instead, smuggling networks flourish, soiling the local economies and also confounding the security apparatus (in fact, even infiltrating some of them).

Although calm has been restored in the governorates which rose up on the fifth anniversary of the revolution, for the local youth it still looks like the national political Ă©lite has just twisted the meaning of the 2011 revolts, exploiting it to advance partisan interests. The number of the unemployed has reached the 700,000 figure (out of 11 million inhabitants) according to the government and, or up to 1 million according to independent economic experts.

Among the manifestations of this failure is widespread corruption, despite the fact that seven successive governments since the revolution swore to fight it. If the judiciary had been stronger, corruption would not have spread like a cancer in the state’s body. As a result, Tunisia dropped in the transparency rating from the 59th position in 2010 to the 76th in 2015.

After having been mostly confined to the ruling family and the in-laws in the previous regime, corruption has now become a common game and a source of “get rich quick” schemes within the reach of all members of the state administration, from the rank and file to top officials.

The challenge of terrorism

Against this background, it is a fact that the proportion of Tunisian nationals among the members of Daesh is remarkable; many of them have held leadership positions in the organization. Thanks to the chaos reigning in neighboring Libya, they have sometimes been trained in its militias even before moving on to Syria and Iraq.

Daesh struck two painful blows in Tunisia: the attacks on the Bardo Museum last year (March 18) and Sousse (June 26), provoking the death of sixty people, mostly foreigners. Both operations were led by the Uqba Ibn Nafea Battalion which pledged allegiance to Daesh after dropping its commitment to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). These two operations tipped the scales in the country and the “fight against terrorism” has since then become the big mantra for the government. Some analysts point to growing evidence that Daesh intends to establish a new “Governorate” in Tunisia in the near future under the name of “Ifrikya Governorate” (from the medieval name given to the old Roman Province of “Africa”, also comprising parts of Libya and Algeria). This might constitute a challenge for the Uqba Ibn Nafea Batallion, opening a deadly competition between the two organizations.

Tunisia is now at a critical stage in its history. It is not only facing growing threats of terrorism whose political and security repercussions can be harmful both in the near and medium runs, but it will also need to tackle the deep socio-economic roots of its 2011 crisis.