Tunisia: a country in flux

The hopes of peaceful transition to democracy in Tunisia have been dented by the murder of a leading secularist figure. The event poses urgent questions of the country's new political elite, says Valentina Bartolucci.

Valentina Bartolucci
1 March 2013

Tunisia for many years had an international reputation as north Africa's most "European" country. Its comparatively large and well educated middle class, liberal social norms and gender equality were often cited as evidence of this. The fact that Tunisia also - like other states in the region - had a repressive government, a corrupt political elite and growing economic stagnation was often overlooked. In addition, international scholarship on Tunisia in recent decades tended (with a few notable exceptions) to examine the country either as a single case-study or in comparative terms.

The consequence of such a selective view was seen in December 2010 and January 2011, when most observers were taken by surprise by Tunisia's move to centre-stage as waves of protest against the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali swept through the country and then - in a remarkable domino-effect - to the Arab world and beyond.

As scholars and other observers hurried to catch up, many explained the eruption by saying that Tunisians had simply had enough - of a corrupt and arrogant government, of growing unemployment, economic paralysis and the marginalisation of youth. In the process, "no party, no union, no politician gave the impetus for this popular uprising nor were they in any way involved". European observers saw Tunisia as a “test case” for democratic transition in the region, and welcomed the revolt as disproving the common assumptions that " Arabs cannot be democrats” and that the typical Arab dictator can be removed only by another dictator.

These are indeed important aspects of what happened, though other specific elements of Tunisia's historical and political make-up also played their part in shaping the course of events. These include a tradition of constitutionalism dating from 1861; a political will to move towards a new order in gradual, constitutional steps; a small army that would refuse to shoot its people; and a moderate Islamist movement, An-Nahda.

Now, two years after the uprising, it is clearer than it was to many at the time that both kinds of factor - broadly, the economic and the political - have to be taken into account to understand where the revolution is going; and that both have to be addressed by the authorities if Tunisia is to maintain momentum towards becoming a working democracy that offers higher standards of living to its people.

The dark days

The months following the change of regime eventually saw Tunisians competing for elections in October 2011 to a 217-member constituent assembly. This, the first such body since independence in 1956, was charged with shaping a new government and drafting a new constitution. An-Nahda became the largest party with 37% of the vote and ninety-one seats, and formed a governing coalition with two other traditional opposition parties. This constitutional course furthered expectations that the country was on course towards a full democracy.

Even at this relatively early stage, though, several aspects of the transition argued for caution: for example, the low turnout in the elections (around 52%), the emergence of a Salafist constellation, and the exclusion of the younger generation that was at the forefront of the revolts from the political process. In April 2012, thousands of protesters who filled a central artery of Tunis in defiance of a ban on demonstrations were met by police using teargas and wielding batons.

Then, on 6 February 2013, the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid by an unknown (at the time of writing) person threw post-revolution Tunisia into political turmoil. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, some of them blaming An-Nahda for complicity in the killing. The prime minister Hemadi Jebali - who condemned the murder as an “act of terrorism against the whole of Tunisia” - tried to replace the entire cabinet with non-partisan technocrats until elections were held, but resigned when this was vetoed by the ruling party and criticised by the main opposition parties.

On 8 February, tens of thousands of people marched through the capital to Chokri Belaid's funeral, turning the event into a mass demonstration against the Islamist-led government. One of their chants targeted An-Nahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi: “The people want a new revolution, Ghannouchi, take your dogs and leave.” Belaid's brother stated the family's belief that An-Nahda was responsible for Chokri's death. The latter had criticised a group called the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution which he accused of being a violent militia operating on the party's behalf. An-Nahda has denied any involvement.

In the following days, Hemadi Jebali tried to lead Tunisia out of its gravest political crisis since the uprising. But after the failure of his plan to appoint a non-political cabinet, Jebali resigned on 19 February (though he insisted this this act “does not mean the failure of Tunisia or the failure of the revolution”).The new political instability led Standard & Poor's to downgrade Tunisia's credit rating - a real blow to an already struggling economy. In a farewell adress on 20 February, Jebali appealed to “brotherly and friendly countries” to support his country's transition and warned foreign states against “intervening in our internal affairs” (which some analysts saw as directed at Algeria and France).

On 22 February, an internal An-Nahda vote nominated the interior minister Ali Larayedh as the new prime minister. This move will not end the crisis, and Laarayedh - a former political detainee under the old regime - is already under pressure to appoint non-party figures to key government posts. On 25 February, four men reportedly linked to a Salafi group were arrested on suspicion of aiding the murder. The identity of the assassin is now known, said Larayedh, who also ruled out any foreign link to the event. The political situation remains very tense.

The events of early 2013 have put into perspective the early hopes of a smooth transition towards a functioning democracy in Tunisia. The current volatile situation underlines the fact that both economic factors such as unemployment, inequality, and poverty, and political ones such as secularist-Islamist tensions and party factionalism can contribute to a slide into further discontent and instability.

Tunisians still want their country to be the most successful and hopeful of the Arab countries in undergoing a transformation, not as the biggest source of disillusion. For this to happen, the political elite must dispel any suspicion that violent radical groups are tolerated. In turn that requires involving all the many different faces and voices of Tunisia in the process of change. 

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