Tunisia: seven years later
Since 2011, Tunisia has been shaped by the instability in Libya, a weak economy, a toughening political environment and a growing strain of authoritarianism. But the vitality of the revolution is not yet completely lost. George Joffé explains
It is now almost seven years since Tunisia led the way in the Arab Awakening by forcing an end to the autocratic Ben Ali regime and introducing a democratic political system in its place. It has not been an easy transition given the security crisis that Tunisia has faced in recent years – partly because of the worsening chaos in neighbouring Libya but also due to some apparently intractable problems, both political and economic, that the country must still confront.
Surprisingly, given the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in mid-March 2015, the subsequent attack on tourists in a beach hotel in Sousse at the end of June in the same year, and a lethal attack on the presidential guard in Tunis the following November, the security situation now seems to be under control. Tunisia’s police and army have been re-equipped and retrained with American and British help to such a degree that the British government removed its travel warning to tourists about the dangers of travel to Tunisia at the end of July.
Terrorist violence now seems confined to the periphery of the state: there are ongoing attacks in the Jebel Chaamba border region around Kassarine, and in March 2016 there was an attack by the Islamic State (IS) on Ben Guerdane in the deep south, close to the Libyan border, for example. Now IS and other extremist groups in Libya are more concerned with survival as the Libyan National Army – in reality an Eastern Libya militia coalition under Khalifa Haftar – moves into Tripolitania. But the threat has not entirely gone away, even if IS has been expelled from Sabratha; an estimated 8,000 young Tunisians are believed to have joined IS, mainly in Libya but also in Syria and Iraq.
The economic conundrum
The most immediate yet chronic crisis, however, is over Tunisia’s ailing economy. Most of the consequent unrest is centred on Tunisia’s impoverished southern region, at Gabes, the centre of the phosphates industry, where protests have caused losses of $2 billion in production since 2011, and in the province of Tataouine, which contains oil and gas fields. Since May 2017, one thousand protesters have been living in a makeshift camp at al-Kamour, close to a pumping station on a major gas pipeline, demanding more jobs.
The government has tried to respond and the Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, offered new infrastructure and 900 new jobs when he visited Tataouine, only to be shouted down with demands for 3,500 new jobs with oil companies and $50 million in local investment. Foreign companies operating in the south are unsettled; although ENI professed unconcern, OMV removed 700 non-essential staff, whilst Perenco halted production and Serinus Energy’s oil fields were closed down.
The economic problems in northern Tunisia are far less intractable; the Sahel and the Tunis regions have always been better developed, but the wealth they generate has never seeped down to the south. The result has been that, since the Revolution, the south has also become the domain of the informal sector, relying on the chaos in neighbouring Libya and the smuggling of consumer goods and vast amounts of refined fuels, which has created a new business elite there. These southern elites have no interest in challenging the traditional economic elites of the north, despite the claims of some commentators. And while the majority of the southern population remains excluded from the wealth this new informal sector generates, they have learned that only protests and demonstrations guarantee government concern and response.
Shortly after the demonstrations broke out in May, Tunisia’s President, Beji Caid Essebsi, announced that he had instructed the army to intervene to protect Tunisia’s natural resources. His move was interpreted as an attempt to face down the protesters and, even worse, as a threat to the army’s traditional neutrality in political matters; rarely has the army been ordered to intervene in the domestic scene – an arena normally left to the police. His initiative, however, highlighted the other great concern that Tunisians now feel: what they see as a toughening political environment.
Politics – back to the future?
Nidaa Tounes’s victory in Tunisia’s legislative elections in late October 2014 and its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi’s accession to the presidency have raised a series of knotty questions over the country’s political future for the party has been widely seen as a vehicle for the old political elites of the Ben Ali era. In addition, the party has added to political instability because, as President, Caid Essebsi had to stand down from his position within the party, but he has tried to get his son to replace him instead.
The parliamentary party has now split, with 16 of its members forming a new party, bringing Tunisia’s total number of political parties to 262! More importantly, it has lost its parliamentary majority with al-Nahda replacing it as the largest party. Al-Nahda, however, has not claimed the premiership, preferring instead to preserve Nidaa Tounes as political point man and coalition partner. Even in the cabinet reshuffle in September the Islamist movement did not try to expand its ministerial presence and tolerated the return to ministerial rank of two former Ben Ali personalities.
The President, however – who also dislikes Tunisia’s mixed parliamentary-executive presidency system seeking an executive presidency instead – has not returned the compliment, describing al-Nahda in a speech in September as ‘a disappointment’ for not shedding its Islamist image entirely to become a national conservative party instead. He has repeatedly challenged it; forcing through the Administrative Reconciliation Law to rehabilitate thousands of former regime administrators and businessmen, delaying municipal elections, yet again, from December to March 2018, removing the ban on Tunisian women marrying non-Muslim men and threatening to change family law as well to allow women equal inheritance rights to men. Although secularists and feminists have hailed the latter two initiatives, not least the Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, in the New York Times, the aim has really been to unsettle al-Nahda.
Civil Society – the true alternative?
Yet, despite the growing authoritarianism in Tunisia’s formal public life, the real vitality of the revolution remains inside civil society. That is an arena that the revival of the ancien régime through Nidaa Tounes cannot touch, even though it may try to do so. Thus, although the Instance Verité et Dignité, Tunisia’s own Truth and Dignity Commission instituted to provide transitional justice to 62,000 victims of the former regime, has been attacked by the President who dislikes its head, Sihem Bensedrine, and sees it as a challenge to his own chosen formulation of the reconciliation law, it had, by the start of March 2017, settled 23,000 of the cases brought before it. It is, therefore, inside the realm of civil society that the real success of the Tunisian revolution lies.
George Joffé is a member of the The Middle East in London’s Editorial Board
This article appears in the Tunisia issue of The Middle East in London.
Joffé, George. ‘Tunisia: seven years later’ The Middle East in London 14, no. 1 (December 2017–January 2018); 5-6.