The story by now is well known. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010 sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across Tunisia and the broader region. Less than a month later, the country’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia. That was 10 years ago today. And while Tunisia is often lauded as the “lone success story” of the uprisings that swept across the region, its democratic transition remains in limbo. A decade later, Tunisians have seen hard-won improvements in political freedoms, but a lagging economy and sclerotic politics have stunted the realization of many of the protesters’ demands—and kept them in the streets.
Although Tunisia’s 2019 elections demonstrated citizens’ deep disenchantment with the political establishment and its inability to make meaningful progress, Tunisians continue to push nonviolently for change. The revolution is ongoing and, since Ben Ali’s departure, youth activists and civil society have ensured that the martyrs of the uprising would not die in vain, keeping alive the struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity. Against all odds, they continue this fight amid mounting despair and reinvigorated nostalgia for the ancien régime.
A Revolution Unfinished
Major milestones such as the 2013 National Dialogue, passage of the 2014 constitution, the first democratic transition of power, transitional justice hearings, progressive laws for women, and the repeated blockage of a bill that would grant impunity to security forces are important indicators of just how far Tunisia has come toward realizing the goals of the revolution.
Moreover, the network of secret police that pervaded every facet of public life has been dismantled. While it remains risky to criticize the internal security forces, Tunisians now enjoy broad political freedoms. Civil society has flourished and wields significant power. Media is freer. Citizens are using their power to influence politics and policy and to choose their leaders democratically. These historic achievements should not be taken for granted.
Yet, despite these achievements, tangible gains for citizens are not as readily apparent. In fact, the economy is arguably in worse shape than it was 10 years ago. Transitional justice has been hindered. State violence and abuse of power remains a daily burden in the lives of many. The rule of law and access to justice is illusory for a vast majority. Economic and political corruption remain entrenched, now in a more complex, decentralized form. As many Tunisians continue to find themselves unable to live with dignity, reemerging political forces are capitalizing on the nostalgia for the old regime while others are championing more radical views for the future of Tunisia, supporting new movements from the religious right who have promised to provide dignity to the working class and address the state’s systemic marginalization of the southern and interior regions.
A Transition in Turmoil
So why then have a series of credible, fair elections; the growth of multi-party politics; and the expansion of political freedom failed to deliver improvements for the lives of all Tunisians? The most straightforward reason is that those resistant to change are powerful. Another factor is that Tunisia’s uprising did not yield a complete revolution. While the president was deposed and the one-party state fractionalized, the regime was not entirely dismantled. It was reorganized, reigned in, and expanded to allow for a fairer playing field so that more polities could compete within it and benefit from it. This prevented state collapse but also meant that more fundamental changes to Tunisia’s socio-economic order would be unlikely in the near term.
The corruption and macro-economic policies that drove Tunisians to the streets in December 2010 remain in place. The nepotistic and crippling bureaucracy and legal framework that hampers entrepreneurship, access to credit, and domestic competition remains fully entrenched. Networks of patronage have been expanded by privileged elites and Tunisia’s periphery regions remain systemically marginalized.
Addressing these issues requires bold leadership and a degree of political stability. Perhaps the best chance for such an endeavor was immediately following the passage of the constitution and the 2014 elections, when the incoming government had a broad mandate for sweeping change. However, with few viable political options, voters elected leaders dependent on the old regime’s governance practices and business networks, effectively killing momentum for further democratic consolidation and unraveling of the laws and regulations that enabled the old regime’s economic order.
From 2015 to 2019, the government’s failures disenchanted some voters and pushed others farther toward the extremes. The result of the 2019 legislative elections—which saw the lowest post-2011 voter turnout—was a tangled mosaic of populists, Islamists, leftists, and anti-revolution forces dotted with the remnants of Nidaa Tounes, a big-tent secularist party that won a plurality in the 2014 elections. Well over a year after the 2019 elections, even forming a stable ruling coalition remains a challenge. Instead, the global pandemic and volatile inter-party power struggles have taken priority.
A reform-oriented government that was seated at the start of the pandemic was ousted by its political rivals after only six months in office. The latest government, formed in the second half of 2020, is nominally technocratic but also comprised of longtime government functionaries, many of whom were prominent under the Ben Ali regime. Already, two ministers have been sacked, one a close ally of President Kais Said. There is speculation that further government reshuffling is likely and may target ministers President Said supports.
Disagreements and jockeying for power and influence between the president and prime minister are nothing new. Tunisia’s constitution and shifting political culture have given the premiership greater authority. If current Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi is unable to consolidate power in parliament, there is a significant chance his government will not last, which, in certain scenarios, could result in snap elections. Whether elections could produce a more stable government remains an open question.
While power struggles consume government leaders and parliament, Tunisians continue to organize nonviolently to demand basic rights to employment, development and regional investment, justice, education, health, and, in some regions, even running water. Indeed, since November 2020 alone, Tunisians have organized 11 road or transportation blockades, four general strikes, 12 sit-ins, and 19 protests across 11 of the 24 governorates. Last year in Tataouine, a heavily marginalized oil-producing region on the edge of the Sahara, a protest movement brought oil and gas extraction and transportation to a halt for many months until the government promised—for the second time since 2017—to invest in the region and create jobs. In October 2020, activists in Tunis, many of whom were students, demonstrated in mass outside parliament and successfully prevented the passage of a bill that would grant impunity to security forces.
Advancing the Transition
Tunisia’s international partners must double down on supporting accountable security forces; responsive, transparent, and inclusive governance; transitional justice; clear separation of powers; and a culture of dialogue and nonviolence. To that end, it is essential to build on partnerships with Tunisia’s government. But it is also critical to support civil society’s further professionalization, strategic organizing, and effective engagement with government, especially for less prominent groups outside the capital. Further support for Tunisia should encourage full implementation of the 2014 constitution, focusing on four key priorities:
- The Constitutional Court: Most urgently, the parliament must finalize their appointees for the Constitutional Court and ensure its full funding and independence. Its establishment is critical in protecting constitutional freedoms, resolving constitutional crises, preventing backsliding, and regulating the separation of powers.
- Security Sector Reform: The threat of violent extremism has led to international support for Tunisia’s security forces. Reform is under way, but it is slow and complex. The legacy of abuse, secrecy, and impunity remains firmly entrenched and the relationship with the public remains defined by mutual mistrust and fear. Until policing practices are reformed and reoriented, laws and penal codes are revised in line with the constitution, and trust between citizens and security forces is addressed, radicalization will not be prevented or combatted effectively, and Tunisians will continue to feel that their government is working against their basic rights and needs. Luckily, committed reformers within the security apparatus exist. Redoubled efforts and emphasis from the international community to improve security sector governance should be a central pillar of support.
- Decentralization: Encouraging progress toward constitutionally mandated decentralization with the aim of increasing local government’s resources, responsiveness, and capacities could enable more accountable and efficient governance. The process is in limbo with a mix of inexperienced and poorly funded but elected local councils and unelected but more powerful local representatives of the central government with overlapping responsibilities. This has created conflict, weakened governance, and has made some in government inclined to avoid further decentralization.
- Addressing Authoritarian Legacies: Finally, while the economic pain felt by Tunisians will likely not be improved in the near term, acting on the recommendations of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s final report, recognized officially by the government in summer 2019, would enable progress toward transitional justice, rule of law, and fighting corruption. This could help restore the faith of citizens in their government and create some goodwill as deeper reforms are negotiated over the long term.
In what is perhaps the most divisive and volatile political environment since the deadlock that led to the 2013 National Dialogue, achieving these above-mentioned milestones will require dialogue and trust building at the national and local levels. International support for these efforts could yield immediate and long-term returns as Tunisia continues its transition.
After a long history of authoritarianism, it was folly to expect Tunisia to overcome this legacy immediately. Many Tunisians would bristle at the notion that their country is indeed a success story, with so many of the revolution’s demands unmet. But, there has been much progress. Tunisia’s partners should continue to help enable the government and civil society to achieve the freedom, dignity, and justice Tunisians so deeply desire and deserve.