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A return to authoritarianism in Tunisia: After the revolution (Part I) Open in fullscreen

Khadija Mohsen-Finan

A return to authoritarianism in Tunisia: After the revolution (Part I)

A Tunisian government employee removes a portrait of former president Ben Ali, January 17 2011[AFP]

Date of publication: 17 January, 2018

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Comment: On the anniversary of a revolution that brought hope to many, Tunisians are back on the streets. Khadija Mohsen-Finan looks back at what became of democratic transition, post-2011.
This is part one of a two-part article. For part two click here


Seven years after the Tunisian revolution, large protests erupted across the country, shedding light on the shortcomings of the transition towards democracy. 

The process has been made harder because there has been no clean break with the institutions and politics since the days of the dictatorship, and because the demands for social and economic improvement made by protesters during the winter of 2010-2011 have not been met. 

But while the same people and methods are still in place, the country's population has undergone a radical change.

Back in 2011, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's ouster triggered a genuine wave of joy and enthusiasm. Those who had taken part in the uprising felt like they had become legitimate actors in a reinvigorated political life.

For decades, the moribund political scene had been limited to the decisions handed down from the Carthage Palace or to minor ministerial reshuffles with no impact on the everyday life of Tunisians.

The political system put in place by Habib Bourguiba and perpetuated by Ben Ali had become an exclusionary machine, working against its citizens.

Protesting against their marginalisation by the executive power, Tunisians rose up in 2010, and again more forcefully, at the beginning of 2011.

At first, protesters demanded better access to jobs, and greater freedom of expression

At first, protesters demanded better access to jobs and economic opportunities, and greater freedom of expression. But they also wanted to win back the streets and public spaces where they could express their anger and thirst for dignity.

Even if the uprising gained momentum and support after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the protesters' demands went well beyond the economic difficulties of Tunisians living in the interior regions. In 2011, they were eager to fight a regime that was oppressing them, and were driven by a desire for a change that would break with the establishment. 

Determined to break with the past 

The pressure mounting on the streets made it clear that a new presidential election, or a revision of the 1959 Constitution would not be enough.

Those who demanded the dissolution of the old regime called for a complete overhaul. The Tunisians calling for "revolutionary legitimacy" secured the dismissal of the first two governments formed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali's former prime minister.

They also called out the Higher Authority for Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution for its lack of legitimacy, as it was an unrepresentative, unelected body.

On 1 March, Islamist party Ennahdha was legalised after its leader Rached Ghannouchi came back from exile. The electoral campaign was dominated by two main themes: A rupture with the past and the place of islamism in the nascent political apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Tunisians rallied in February 2011 to demand the resignation of Prime Minister
Mohamed Ghannouchi's transitional government set up after last month's ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali [AFP]

The country was divided in two: One side favourable to islamist ideas and the other - probably a smaller group of so-called "modernists" - worried that their way of life might change.

Tensions ran high and the conflict between them was aggravated as the line separating them was not very clear. Both campaigned for democracy, human rights and freedom.

The modernists saw Islamists, who the government presented as dangerous - and considered as their enemies only days before - take the place of the opposition as their equals and become strangely similar to them within a widening political arena.

The failure of the troika

This was the context in which the first legislative elections took place. The results confounded the modernists who had difficulty accepting the population's decision: The Islamist party Ennahdha won with 89 seats in the Assembly out of 217.

Others came in well behind: The Congress for the Republic (CPR) led by Moncef-Marzouki got 29 seats and 20 went to Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties) chaired by doctor Mustapha Ben Jafar.

Read more: Protests in Tunisia highlight contested narratives of 2011 revolution

Just like Ennahdha, both modernist parties campaigned on the rupture with the past but also drew on a theme dear to the hearts of Islamists: the Arab-Muslim tradition and identity.

The three groups had to govern together within a troika framework, as the electoral law was designed as an instrument to coax parties into creating coalitions.

Ennahdha took the leadership of the executive but quickly ran into problems, revealing its inexperience and the difficulty of transitioning from an opposition group, whose leaders lived in exile, to a functioning, governing party.

Its inability to prioritise certain issues over others led to a failure to meet social welfare demands. Tunisians grew impatient with the lack of economic improvement and more and more critical of the country's government.

Dysfunction multiplied and the writing of the Constitution stalled due to ideological oppositions. Changes in administration and justice failed to materialise as a transitional judicial system was not set up.

The methods of the old regime which had been heavily criticised came back in plain sight: Members of Ennahdha filled thousands of positions in the central and local higher administrations with members of their inner circle. 

The methods of the old regime which had been heavily criticised came back in plain sight

But it was the security issue which triggered a real crisis of confidence between the citizens and their representatives.

Multiple attacks allegedly from radical Salafists raised tensions and animosity. Ennahdha lost support to a right-wing group of Salafists, who accused the party of failing to use its electoral success to govern alone, and apply Sharia rule.

In 2013, the assassinations of left-wing political figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi went unpunished, traumatising the population and exacerbating tensions between Islamists and modernists.

Solving the crisis by compromise

Tensions reached their climax during the summer of 2013. The elected governing team was no longer meeting demands, and some part of the population called for its dismissal.

But Ennahdha held on to its electoral legitimacy without realising the magnitude of the opposition movement.

Ghannouchi was forced to abandon any reference to Sharia rule in the new Constitution

Some protesters camped out outside of the Assembly and were soon joined by 60 deputies who all demanded the dismissals of the government and the Assembly.

When Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was ousted on 3 July 2013, the protesters gained confidence and some, praising authoritarian modernism, fantasised about a replication of the Egyptian events in Tunisia.

Talks which had been initiated by the Tunisians General Labour Union (TGLU) resumed, with four institutions working towards a solution to the crisis. They opened a national conversation encompassing all of the parties and coalitions seating at the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia (NCA).

In January 2014, they reached an agreement to set up a new government formed of independent personalities led by Mehdi Jomaa.  

This policy of dialogue and cooperation forced Rached Ghannouchi and Essebsi, who founded the Nidaa Tounes party in 2012, to realise that neither of the larger political formations could govern without the other.

They met in Paris and agreed to relax the rigid positions some members and activists of their respective parties might hold.

Against his will, Ghannouchi was forced to abandon any reference to Sharia rule in the new Constitution and to accept that it be written that women are equal to men, and not complementary to them.

He had also to ask Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh to resign. Ennahdha retired from the government for a while and did not put forward any candidate for the presidential elections in 2014. For the legislative elections of 2014, it campaigned on a consensus platform.

To read the second part of this article, click here.


Khadija Mohsen-Finan holds a doctorate in political science (Sciences-Po, Paris) and is a history graduate, teacher and researcher in international relations at the University of Paris I (Pantheon Sorbonne).

This is an edited translation of an article from our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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