Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way

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Tunisia is where it all began. It also is, by virtually every measure, where the promise of a successful democratic transition is greatest. The reasons are many, but the most significant lies in the country’s history of political activism and social mobilisation involving a wide array of forces that decades of regime repression never fully stifled. This tradition served the nation well during the uprising, as workers, the unemployed, lawyers and members of the middle class coalesced in a broad movement. It will have to serve the nation well today as it confronts critical challenges: balancing the urge for radical political change against the need for stability; finding a way to integrate Islamism into the new landscape; and tackling the deep socio-economic problems that sparked the political revolution but which the political revolution in itself cannot address.

In hindsight, Tunisia possessed all required ingredients for an uprising. Talk of an economic miracle notwithstanding, vast expanses of the country had been systematically neglected by the regime. The unemployment rate was rising sharply, notably among the young and well-educated. The distress triggered by such social, generational and geographic disparities was epitomised by the self-immolation, on 17 December 2010, of a young, unemployed, university graduate from a small town. His suicide quickly came to embody far wider grievances. In the wake of his death, young demonstrators took to the streets in the south and centre of the country, demanding jobs, social opportunities and better educational and health services.

The uprising spread both geographically and politically. Trade unions played an important part. Initially hesitant, the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) assumed a leadership role. Pressed by its more militant local branches and fearful of losing its constituency’s support, it mobilised ever greater numbers in more and more cities, including Tunis. Satellite television channels and social networking – from Facebook to Twitter – helped spread the movement to young members of the middle class and elite. At the same time, violence against protesters contributed to a blending of social and political demands. The regime projected the image of indiscriminate police repression and so demonstrators saw it as such. Nothing did more to turn the population in favour of the uprising than the way President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali chose to deal with it.

Meanwhile, the regime’s bases of support shrivelled in dramatic fashion. In his hour of greatest need, Ben Ali was basically alone. Over time, what had been virtually a one-party state come to resemble the First Family’s private preserve. Economic resources once shared among the elite increasingly were monopolised by the president and his wife, Leyla Trabelsi, while the private sector paid a hefty price. The ruling party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), no longer served as a source of patronage; tellingly, it was unable to organise a single pro-regime demonstration despite repeated calls by the president’s entourage. The president likewise kept the army both under-resourced and at arms’ length; what loyalty it displayed was to the state, not the regime. Even other security services were distrusted by Ben Ali, with the exception of the presidential guard, whose privileged treatment only fostered greater resentment.

The uprising was fuelled by these contrasting dynamics, which stimulated increased support for the revolution amid increased defections from the regime. All in all, the country experienced mounting popular resentment, the mobilisation of young citizens using modern means of communication, growing involvement of political parties and trade unions and a weakened power structure that had alienated traditional regime backers. At every stage, the authorities’ response – from the use of lethal violence to Ben Ali’s delayed and disconnected reaction – helped transform a largely spontaneous and localised popular movement into a determined national revolution. Ben Ali hastily fled on 14 January, but the game was far from over. The country faced three fundamental challenges; it has made headway on one, taken initial steps on the second and has yet to address the third.

The first task was to devise transitional institutions to address competing concerns: fear of a return to the past versus fear of chaos. The path was rocky. The new government’s first incarnation seemed to many a carbon copy of the old, including RCD remnants from the last cabinet. The opposition responded by establishing a council that claimed to embody revolutionary legitimacy. After an institutional tug-of-war and several false starts, however, a broadly acceptable balance appears to have been found. Controversial ministers resigned, and the commission overseeing transition was expanded to include a political and social cross-section. Elections for a constituent assembly – a key demand – are scheduled for July. Tunisia’s experience carries important lessons. Ben Ali’s immediate successors did themselves much harm by failing to consult broadly or communicate clearly. By displaying flexibility and willingness to shift course in response to public demands, those who followed them avoided a major political crisis.

A second challenge is to integrate Islamists into the revamped political system. Tunisia starts with a not inconsiderable advantage. An-Nahda – its principal Islamist movement – stands out among many of its Arab counterparts by virtue of its pragmatism, efforts to reach out to other political forces and sophisticated intellectual outlook. Some secular parties, too, have sought, over the years, to build bridges with it. An-Nahda took a back seat during the uprising and subsequently has sought to reassure. But mutual mistrust lingers. Women’s groups in particular doubt its sincerity and fear an erosion of gender rights. The Islamists recall the 1990s when the Ben Ali regime systematically suppressed them.

The most difficult task is also the most pressing: to attend to deep socio-economic grievances. For the many ordinary citizens who took to the streets, material despair was a key motivation. They wanted freedom and a voice and have reason to rejoice at democratic progress, but the political victory has done little to change the conditions that triggered their revolt. To the contrary: the revolution inevitably spoiled the tourism season; regional instability pushed oil prices upwards; uncertainty harmed foreign investment; and, more recently, the conflict in Libya provoked a refugee crisis that has hit Tunisia hard. A difficult economic situation has been made worse. In the absence of strong domestic steps and generous international assistance, there is every reason to expect renewed social unrest coupled with an acute sense of regional imbalance, as resentment of the underprivileged south and centre grows.

Tunisia nevertheless for now is cause for celebration, not alarm. The transition is not being led by a strong army any more than by a handful of politicians. Rather, a heterogeneous blend of institutions, political forces, trade unions and associations is finding its way by trial and error, negotiations and compromise. For the region and the world, that is ample reason to pay attention and help.


To the Tunisian government, the Supreme Commission for the Realisation of the Revolution’s Objectives and government-appointed commissions:

  1. Present the work of the government, the Supreme Commission and all other commissions publicly and regularly.

  2. Work with social partners on the issues of jobs, protection for the more disadvantaged and reintegration of unemployed university graduates.

  3. Strengthen the regional development ministry’s mandate, in particular by establishing an emergency plan for underprivileged regions.

  4. Focus on the social reintegration of former political prisoners, notably by providing assistance in finding jobs, technical training and family compensation.

  5. Continue to reform the security services, in particular by:

a) establishing a broad commission – including representatives from civil society, human rights organisations and the interior and justice ministries – responsible for reforming and centralising these services;

b) making the organisational structures of the security forces and police public on the basis of information collected by the interior ministry and human rights organisations; and

c) establishing a program to train security forces with the help of international partners.

To the Tunisian government, the Supreme Commission for the Realisation of the Revolution’s Objectives, political parties, trade unions and associations:

  1. Organise a national conference on women’s rights, bringing together the full range of political and civil society movements, including Islamists, with the aim of drafting a national plan to promote women’s integration and defend their rights in the labour market and political arena.

To Tunisia’s political parties:

  1. Ensure, with an eye to constituent assembly elections, proper inclusion on electoral lists of the young, women, regional representatives and members of civil society and human rights organisations.

To the international financial institutions, including the African Development Bank, and the member states of the United Nations, including in particular the members of the Arab League and the European Union, the U.S. and Switzerland:

  1. Reschedule Tunisia’s external debt and conduct an audit in coordination with the government and its social partners in order to distinguish genuine debt from illicit transactions tied to the former president and his family that broke the laws of both debtor and creditor nations.

  2. Help the government deal with people crossing into Tunisia from Libya by giving them immediate humanitarian assistance, enabling non-Tunisians and non-Libyans to return to their original countries, facilitating the temporary integration of Libyan refugees in Tunisia and providing logistical border-control assistance to the Tunisian army.

  3. Work with the Tunisian government to maintain the freeze on the assets of Ben Ali and his family and to facilitate their recovery by the government within a reasonable timeframe and consistent with relevant national laws.

  4. Organise a conference in partnership with the Tunisian government, civil society representatives as well as associations and trade unions in order to coordinate international economic assistance.

Tunis/Brussels, 28 April 2011