This is the first in the series of papers on different countries in West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region on a decade of the Arab Spring.
Once the hero of the Arab Spring, Mohammed Bouazizi today lies buried as a forgotten corpse in an unmarked grave among the thousands dead in the Garaat Bennour cemetery not far away from his native town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. The act of self-immolation by this poor vendor a decade ago had triggered an unprecedented wave of protests across the Arab world and brought new hopes and aspirations for millions. But the street enthusiasm soon gave way to an incessant phase of turmoil, bloodbath, and chaos. The departure of long serving President of Tunisia, Ben Ali led to Tunisians experiencing unparalleled optimism in the early years as compared to the experiences in other countries where the uprising was soon followed by political instability and civil strife. The Tunisian case stood apart because its army refused to take sides; the Islamist Ennahda Party pursued accommodative and reconciliatory politics. But this early sense of triumph has failed to substantively change the overall situation in the country. Streets and squares were seen either deserted or filled with anger on the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian “revolution”.
Political trajectory of last one Decade:
Tunisia perhaps represents a relatively successful story in term of political stability and security among Arab nations which witnessed major strife during Arab Spring. After the ouster of President Ben Ali in January 2011, a constitutional body, the Unity National Government (UNG) was formed and the Speaker in the ousted regime, Foued Mebaza, was named the President. The old guard was not acceptable to the revolutionaries and a new UNG was formed under Islamist icon of Tunisia and the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannauchi. The biggest challenge to the post-Ben Ali Tunisia was to break with the past and give a new constitution to itself. After large-scale mobilisation and political campaigns by different political groups and a series of all-party meetings, Tunisia decided to go first for drafting a new constitution and elections for the constituent assembly were held in October 2011.
The Islamist Ennahda party secured 89 seats in the 217-member assembly and formed a coalition government with the secularists. The leader of the Islamist Ennahda party Ghannauchi repeatedly said that his party was serious about establishing democracy. The constitutional process in Tunisia was more tedious than in Egypt and the place of religion in the national constitution, as expected, was major bone of contention between the Islamists and the secularists. Nonetheless Tunisia was able to have its first constitution in January 2014 in the post-Ben Ali era after different parties chose the path of consensual politics.
However soon after popular frustration began to grow due to the deepening economic crisis and the Islamist Ennahda party began to face criticism for their indifference to rising Salafism which was known for its Islamic radicalism. Between the election for the constituent assembly in October 2011 and the first parliamentary election of October 2014, Tunisia saw the formation and resignation of nine cabinets under different leadership ranging from Islamists to secularists to technocrats. A phase of political instability seemed to have set in; yet it was unlike other countries like Libya or Yemen where civil strife and chaos did not allow the political process to move ahead.
In the first parliamentary election of October 2014, the Islamist party lost much of its political base and secured only 69 seats while 89 seats were won expectedly by the newly formed party Nida-e-Tounis (Call of Tunis). This party is known to be a party of the old guard and was formed by a veteran politician and former Prime Minister of Tunisia under Ben Ali, Beji Caid Essebsi. Beji Caid Essebsi won the Presidential election in December 2014 .But his untimely death in July 2019 led to an early Presidential election in October 2019 in which Qais Saeid, a professor of law whi is seen essentially as an apolitical person won. In his election, President Qais Saeed was supported by the Islamist Ennahda party as well. Meanwhile, the Islamists were able to gain some of the lost ground in the second parliamentary election held along with the Presidential election in October 2019.
Growing Disenchantment on the Streets:
On the eve of tenth anniversary of the Tunisia revolution, the streets in some cities were deserted while, in others, they were filled with people’s protests. People came out on the streets despite the four-day lockdown due to the rising cases of COVID-19 which was described by some as a ploy for securing political quietude. Over the past decade, Tunisia seemed to have made some democratic headway having escaped civil war like situations of Yemen or Libya. However, at the same time, both the Islamists and the secularists seemed to have failed to fulfill popular aspirations. Tunisia has witnessed 6500 protests in 2020 alone. These protests have been motivated by a set of economic, political and environmental crises, which are seen to be making everyday life difficult. Police brutality is reportedly back on the streets. Many think they are again deprived of the freedom that was the biggest takeaway of the revolution.
Economic growth has more than halved since 2010, the unemployment rate for more than a decade has been 15% and among youth it is around 36% with 40% of total jobless being college degree holders. The COVID-19 pandemic has further deepened the economic woes as tourism- one of the top three sources of foreign exchange- has come to a complete halt for the last one year. For weeks, Tunisia is registering more than five deaths every day due to the pandemic. The Tunisian Central Bank and the IMF have forecast 7% dip in GDP for year 2021, the worst since independence. The economic crisis has forced many to emigrate and in 2020, 12,833 Tunisians have illegally entered Italy alone in search of jobs. According to a survey, more than 70% of Tunisians think that their children have a worse future than they had before the revolution.
Nine successive governments including technocratic ones have failed to strike a balance between the traditional political elites and the marginalised masses. Growing corruption levels have further crippled economic progress and today Tunisia stands at 73 out of 175 nations in the global corruption ranking. In 2017, there was a huge protest when the government enacted a law exempting big businessmen from corruption charges committed under the previous regime. An electoral turnout of 40% in the last parliamentary and presidential election in 2019 is reflective of growing cynicism over the political system  Yet there are others who take some pride at the political success of the revolution while accepting the failure at economic and social fronts. The Speaker of the National Assembly and leader of Islamist Ennahda, Ghannouchi in an interview on the occasion of tenth anniversary of the Arab uprising said that Tunisia is on the right path to achieve the goal of the revolution and would very soon achieve the economic and social progress.
Where are the Islamist Forces Today?
As in Egypt, Islamist forces in Tunisia too emerged as the biggest political force amidst the revolution. In the first constituent assembly election in 2011, the Islamist Ennahda party secured 89 seats in the 217-member assembly and formed a coalition government. But their political graph declined and, in the first parliamentary election of October 2014, they failed to form the government on their own and again were part of a coalition. The Islamists have preferred reconciliation over confrontation with the changing realities and have modified their political agenda and moderated their ideology as well. In its 2016 congress, Ennahda party announced abandoning their missionary activities and asked all those who were still adhered to activism to leave the party. Rachid Ghannouchi in the same congress introduced a new term for the Islamist, “Muslim Democrats” but at the same time also said that being termed as “Muslim Democrats” did not mean being less religious. In the last ten years, Islamist forces in Tunisia have made series of ideological compromises under popular pressure and abandoned their core agenda of the Islamisation of political system and have thus avoided entering into confrontation with the old guard and other ideological adversaries.
This is good sign for an ideological party. Modifying or altering one’s ideological posturing with the changing realities on the ground is always helpful and particularly when a nation is in a phase of political transition. The pragmatism and ideological moderation in Tunisian Islamist party could be an example for other Islamist forces in the region who have faltered at an early stage of the political revolution because of their exclusionary politics and ideological inflexibility which led inevitably to major confrontations. Today, half of the Ennahda members in the national Parliament are women. There was an intense debate to give equal rights to both men and women in inheritance property as well. If it becomes the law, Tunisia, after Turkey, would be the only Muslim country where men and women would enjoy equal inheritance rights despite the fact it violates Quranic injunctions. Ennahda today has become more a centrist force and less of Islamist party as in the past. It wants to be seen as a national political party which shares commonalities with the secularists as also other streams. Perhaps they have realised gradually that the old binary of secular and religious in the post-Arab spring era is no longer tenable.
The political achievements of Tunisia in the last one decade cannot be denied, particularly in the wake of persisting anarchy and chaos that is seen across the region. Despite all the ideological and political differences, today Tunisia has a constitution which was drafted after different political factions were able to reach compromises and share common positions among themselves. Though the country saw the formation of many cabinets under various leaders over the last decade but there was no political stalemate or a deadlock for a long time. The country however continues to suffer from high unemployment rate and deep economic crisis which has accentuated by COVID-19. No doubt Tunisia has achieved a certain level of political stability but people on the street are disappointed because of the government’s failure to tackle economic corruption. The challenge for the Tunisian polity is to marry the political achievements, as seen in the last one decade in relative political stability and consensual politics, with growing economic strife.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
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