The founding myth of Tunisia claims that the country is the continuation of a 3000-year-old civilization. One therefore might ask what are ten years when compared with three millennia? Even if that mythical past is narrowed down to the emergence of Tunisia as a nation state, around 300 years ago, the same question can be asked: what is a decade in the context of three centuries? But when we take away mythology and consider the seven decades of postcolonial Tunisia, then those ten years mean a lot. The country was basically ruled under a one party, one dictator system for most of its postcolonial history, with brief episodes of hybrid regimes.
Therefore, the years 2011-2020 represent the freest and longest democratic period in Tunisia’s contemporary history. The resilience of democracy annulled a number of theories that denied Arabs the right and will to live freely and gave other Arab nations a source of hope. A democratic future is possible, oppressive regimes are not eternal, the alternative is not chaos and Islamist extremism. By most accounts, the highest achievement of the Tunisian revolution was the blossoming of democracy and the emancipation of expression and minds. However, the survival of this experience remains at risk.
Those who demonstrated against dictatorship in 2010 and 2011 had multiple goals. But the chief slogans were about better jobs and more equality. Young Tunisians, educated or relatively educated, could not find the right jobs and the expected salaries. This “relative deprivation” frustrated them. Their parents were no happier: salaries were just enough to live, but they remained indebted and with no prospects for promotion or way out. The movement was also concerned with police brutality and state corruption, hence the calls for dignity. Finally, there were among them smaller groups of democrats and human rights activists, leftists or intellectuals who had campaigned for decades for dismantling the police state.
But once that happened, when president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on January 14th, 2011, new comers and a different debate emerged. Political Islamists, be it the reformist Ennahda or the radical Salafists, started to take-over public spaces, gradually “confiscating the revolution”. Islamism existed in the country from the 1970s on, but it was suppressed by Ben Ali in the early 1990s. The ascent of Islamists after Ben Ali’s departure, and the reaction of leftists and secularists, led to a nation-wide ideological debate that supplanted the socio-economic one.
So, instead of rethinking the country’s economic model, or building strong democratic institutions, the energy of Tunisian politicians was spent on Islam and secularism (laïcité). One side (Ennahda and other Islamists) accused its opponents of being the enemies of Islam. The other side (leftists and other secularists) called its foes terrorists and foreign agents. This ideological polarization became a defining characteristic of Tunisian politics. It weakened the burgeoning democracy and contributed in deteriorating the economic indicators. It also diminished the people’s trust in politicians and democracy.
In this context, violent extremism made its way in the country between 2011 and 2016, with a peak influx between 2013 and 2015. While less virulent and sophisticated than their peers in Europe and the Middle East, Tunisian terrorists spread fear and hit the tourism industry, which accounts for more than 10% of GDP. And while terrorism decreased in intensity, it is still around. Furthermore, violent extremism – and the economic and political upheaval – vindicated the nostalgic admirers of Ben Ali’s regime who linked the country’s visible problems to the fall of its dictatorship.
During dictatorship, the security forces were the preferred instrument of repression, and the judiciary was the tool that allowed large scale repression. Political opponents, or anyone who dared to oppose Ben Ali clan’s predatory economic behaviour, could end up in jail or under tax assessment. Consequently, in the first weeks of 2011, there was a lot of talk about the need to reform these two sectors. A few measures were taken, but the police and judge’s aversion to change and the excuse of violent extremism made the task difficult, if not impossible.
In the new Tunisia, criticizing and mocking the president, the prime minister or the parliament speaker is widely accepted. But posting critical texts on Facebook against the army, the police or the judiciary can lead to jail sentences. A Tunisian can scream in the face of an official, head of state or minister, without risk. But if (s)he does so to a policeman, a military general in uniform, or a judge, it may harm him/her. Tunisia is certainly freer today than it was ten years ago, and freer than any other Middle East and North Africa (MENA) country, but dark areas exist.
Though Tunisia left the ideological polarization phase and “entered the age of politics” in the second half of the 2010’s, its foundations are fragile. Economic indicators have steadily trended down since 2011, unemployment is on the rise, and political parties are weak and divided. Migration is on the rise. But while Western media and politicians focus on illegal migration, what really hurts Tunisia is the legal one, as thousands of doctors and engineers left the country to go to Europe in the past decade, provoking an unprecedented brain drain.
Corruption is another hinderance to Tunisia’s advancement. It was high under Ben Ali, but the perception of corruption among Tunisians continues to rise. It affects the judiciary and the police as well as many other public and private sectors. In a recent poll, 66% of Tunisians said that they do not trust their media, with journalists being often accused of working for various oligarchs or state branches. Political parties are also suspected of benefiting from corruption or encouraging it. Furthermore, tribal and provincial demands became more frequent. Some became success stories, others less so, while others still turned violent. And in 2020, COVID-19 has set-in, upsetting an already troubled situation.
Finally, the international context is not favourable to democracy. Most MENA regimes remain opposed to democracy. France, Tunisia’s closest partner, appears less interested in democracy, and more in countering political Islam (and countering Turkey, Tunisia’s “new” friend), while Italy, the other major partner, is more concerned with migration rather than with the promotion of democracy.
However, the European Union, as a bloc, is supportive of the transition. Germany continues to be a strong advocate of Tunisian democracy. And as European countries are rethinking their globalized economic model following the COVID-19 crisis, Tunisia may represent an ideal production site for many factories. Furthermore, the next four years under president Biden may provide a relief, as democracy promotion will regain importance in US global foreign policymaking.
Last but not least, after ten years, a new generation of Tunisians has emerged: young men and women who grew up under democracy and are little afraid of state repression. They are widely connected to the internet and can form a creative force that could reshape the country in a different manner, once the older generation passes the torch.