Tunisia: Birth of The Citizen

Gains made in the wake of the Tunisian uprising and in the decade since cannot be fully qualified but, on the ground, it is clear that Tunisia has transformed itself. 

A supporter of Tunisia’s biggest political party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, chants slogans during a rally in opposition to President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia February 27, 2021. Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters.

There were hardly any tenth anniversary celebrations of the uprising which saw the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the establishment of a reformed state. Foreign journalists visiting Tunisia in December 2020 had difficulties finding suitable photos to take or any specific gathering to cover. 

Yet, the uprising’s most telling marker is found in the freedom of expression that every Tunisian enjoys and has used daily since 2011. This freedom to choose what one says oftentimes materializes in unconventional and powerful ways. 

For example, in 2014, sex workers led a delegation to the parliament demanding their right to work and the female Islamist Deputy Speaker, Meherzia Labidi, showed solidary and support for the sex workers’ employment rights. In 2016, police calling for an increase in their salaries staged a demonstration in front of the presidential palace and no group broke up their protest. In 2017, a popular TV prank impersonated the sitting president of the Republic, and no lawsuit ensued. In 2020, a protest resulted in the shutting down of a major oil production site and authorities opted for negotiation instead of repression. 

Such freedom of expression is unheard of in much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and was virtually unimaginable in Tunisia only a decade ago. 

Challenges at Home, Challenges Abroad

The vibrant political discourse and the atmosphere of freedom is somewhat chaotic and the economy is suffering as a consequence. Ten years after the fall of President Ben Ali, the atmosphere in Tunisia is at times bleak and there is much to worry about. Investors refuse to invest for fear of socio-political instability, and a number of foreign companies have decided to leave the country, often for Morocco, where the authoritarian system provides some stability.

Furthermore, the scarcity in jobs and the increase in commodity prices are challenging for those struggling to make ends meet at the end of the month. Authoritarian tendencies have also worryingly begun to re-establish themselves, both in the practices of state institutions and among politicians and their supporters.

What is more, many of Tunisia’s political parties and NGOs are empty shells that are occasionally bought by rich individuals to fulfil their personal goals and interests. For instance, scandals surrounding the purchase of parliamentarians’ votes have become a constant part of Tunisia’s political scene. Consequently, no one can deny the uncertain future that Tunisia faces. 

Observing from the capital, Tunis, one sees a never-ending political crisis, an economic situation that does not seem to improve, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, a troubled neighborhood, ongoing security threats, social problems and, since the end of 2020, an uncontrolled pandemic. 

Yet, two points should be taken into consideration when assessing the present state of affairs in Tunisia and how Tunisia relates with the world.

The first point is tied to domestic politics. The country’s degree of freedom gives Tunisians and foreigners alike the ability to express their thoughts without coercion. Most foreigners can visit Tunisia freely or on tourist visas and engage in unrestricted discussions with young Tunisians in coffeeshops without being harassed by the secret police. Tunisian citizens are therefore free to posit their opinion about the country’s state of affairs, which is usually negative

Parallel to this, the Tunisian state does not have any functioning propaganda machine to embellish its image. There is no official narrative that controls the picture. Prior to 2011, there used to be the Tunisian External Communication Agency (Agence Tunisienne de Communication Extérieure or ATCE). The ATCE agents used to spy on Tunisian dissidents and disturb their meetings abroad, and would decide which foreign correspondents could enter the country. This agency vanished in 2011. 

The lack of a strong official propaganda machine, coupled with the freedom of expression that now characterizes the country, creates a situation that is almost unequalled in the MENA region. This has placed Tunisia at the forefront of young democracies, but disadvantaged it in front of countries in the region where the official government narrative is able to craft an image of stability and prosperity minimizing structural problems and other deficiencies.

The second point, when looking at Tunisia today, is that the country (as all nations are) is impacted by the international context. The issues Tunisia faces are the same, if not worse, in almost every neighboring country. Moreover, across the MENA region, many of these issues are amplified by civil war, state collapse or repression. 

One issue of concern for economists and sociologists alike is the youth bulge. Tunisia, like other North African nations, has a growing youth population but fewer and fewer jobs. Also, climate change and water scarcity signal the beginning of a new era of drought and flooding in northern Africa and eastern Asia. Moreover, democratic regimes such as Tunisia’s are in crisis globally, as they see their legitimacy eroded by populist currents, interconnected netizens, and non-state actors of all kinds, from major corporations to terrorist groups. 

Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated tensions everywhere, destabilizing an already-shaken global order and inflicting a dual depression, both economic and psychological. Many of the challenges presently facing Tunisia are therefore connected to regional and global crises and not unique to its democratic transition.

The Blooming Tunisian Citizen

Over the last decade then, Tunisia has morphed from being an unadaptable dictatorship into a vibrant democracy where everything is debated and any public official can be criticized. The country has seen the advent of democracy and the birth of a Tunisian citizen, as opposed to the pre-2011 Tunisian subject. 

Pre-2010, Ben Ali’s dictatorship was among the most repressive in the world and the police state that he established was so efficient that self-censorship became the norm. 

Tunisia before 2011 was a closed-off country where clusters of protests sprung up but were either crushed or isolated. Proponents of Political Islam, who now form the country’s most organized group, were a marginal political force between the early 1990s and the year 2011. The Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue  Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme, LTDH), co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize and often described as “the Arab world’s oldest independent human rights organization” was nothing but a small group of intellectuals besieged by hundreds of police officers. 

Some observers would point to the existence of civic rights before 2011, notably because of Tunisia’s advanced social regulations (such as the place of women in society), the early spread of literacy and the large number of legal civic society organizations. However, many of Tunisia’s pre-2011 democratic aspects were a mere façade, exemplified by the hundreds of government-organized and controlled non-governmental organizations (GONGOs). 

Although living in the country, most Tunisians did not participate in its public life. They were subjects: that is, they were in a politically vegetative state, citizens only in name. After 2011, the façade was lifted and, as bottom-up actions became prevalent, independent associations and political movements emerged. The citizens who gathered to protest against Ben Ali’s dictatorship, in growing and widespread masses during the first two weeks of 2011, quickly assembled as ad hoc night watchers who protected their neighborhoods between the day of the President’s departure and the reestablishment of order, a few weeks later. These citizens also started meeting to discuss the future of their country, in houses, coffee shops and other public places. That sense of citizenship was innate and new. 

The end of January 2011 is hence remembered in the Tunisian collective psyche as an idyllic period of cohabitation and civic awareness. It marks the foundation stone of the transition to democracy, when Tunisians became citizens of their own state, no longer passive subjects of an alien regime.

What Came Next is the New Tunisia…

In the heady days of 2011, media outlets started debating democracy, dictatorship, secularism, privatization and really anything and everything under the sun. Meanwhile, the president, parliament speaker, and any senior official became daily targets of the media. 

As time went by, more culturally sensitive topics, such as homosexuality or atheism, began to make their way into mainstream media discourse. Nowadays, Tunisians openly discuss politics without worrying about the listening ears of a Big Brother state. This freedom comes with onslaughts of fake news that have spread divisions and damaged reputations, yet this general openness also allows for the emergence of counterarguments and open debates. 

Thanks to their secured freedoms, Tunisians can focus on politics and participate in their country’s civic life, even if this participation is sometimes limited to Facebook engagement. Therefore, while they do feel unrepresented, Tunisians have their voices heard. 

It is now common for governmental ministers to resign after citizens stage online campaigns against them. It is also usual to encounter online testimonies of people who were extorted by police officers or asked to pay a bribe to public officials. This transparency, in turn, often leads to investigations or public shaming against these officials. 

Free elections have become a regular feature of Tunisian politics. There are almost as many political parties as members of parliament, and thousands of local and foreign NGOs operate in the country. Anti-government demonstrations are frequent and affect all sectors, from the phosphate mines to the Ministry of Interior. 

Moreover, a number of organizations and associations have emerged and thrived, gaining credibility in the eyes of the public at large and taking on an influential role of creating checks and balances in the political system. 

One of them is the state’s anti-corruption agency (Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Corruption, INLUCC) which receives anonymous complaints and leads its own investigations. Another is I-Watch, an independent NGO that also looks at corruption cases and hands them to the authorities while naming and shaming perpetrators and putting pressure on public prosecutors to investigate. And many other examples exist.

While traditional investors are rightly worried about the situation today, the emergence of free and strong anti-corruption bodies may build a robust platform for future investment and economic growth.

It should be considered quite an achievement then that such a national transformation was able to take place without large-scale violence or major setbacks and that the state did not fragment. 

Total Freedom for Tunisia?

Nevertheless, many young people in Tunisia dream of leaving the country as a result of the economic problems and the oppression they feel they still face. Unemployment is high, standing at approximately 16.5 percent, and prospects are not positive for the young. Restrictions for entrepreneurs and thinkers continue to obstruct dreams. Laws remain repressive and, every now and then, new waves of Tunisians are sent to jail on moral grounds such as drug consumption or homosexuality.

As a result, thousands of Tunisia’s brightest young adults have emigrated in the last decade, informally by sea for the less skilled, or with visas for the wealthier and better educated. Meanwhile, school dropouts are increasing year after year, leading to a possible lost generation. 

Multiple forces are working against improvements in Tunisia. Structurally, many ministries are still led by men and women who benefited from the Ben Ali regime and whose training happened under the former system. These bureaucrats are resistant to change. Young people, on the other hand, are not interested in getting into low-paid, low-regarded government jobs. Consequently, public institutions are now in a decrepit state. All of this means that an older generation along with the least innovative elements of society are controlling the future of the younger and better educated population. 

Those who have won the post-2011 elections have proven themselves either unwilling or unable to improve the situation. Some members of the newly elected parties have been part of major corruption scandals. This has contributed to the rise of populist actors who call for a more authoritarian state to emerge and who keep attacking political parties and disparaging the parliament.

Nonetheless, the last decade witnessed the rise of a generation that has not known what life was like under the Ben Ali dictatorship. This new generation has been socialized into an environment of total freedom. They were in elementary school when Ben Ali was toppled and saw their parents, or role models, fighting against the system. They saw that their elders were not jailed for being dissidents. They learned firsthand that police can be brutal, but that they can also decry their brutality on social media and put the uniformed wrongdoers on trial. The young have seen that they have avenues to gain their rights and dignity, and that campaigning together can achieve results. 

The transformation of the Tunisian citizen has happened in a period of global democratic recession and economic and political upheavals. The democratization of Tunisia was not part of a democracy wave but it succeeded, so far, against several waves of authoritarianism in the region. 

Tunisia’s neighbors are either hybrid or authoritarian regimes, and the global promoters of democracy (mainly the European Union and the United States) have priorities other than the tiny North African country.  Despite all odds, Tunisia has become the leading model of democracy in the MENA region. 

The Paved Path Toward a Long Lasting Democracy

Nothing is permanent of course. Setbacks to this democratic transition exist and could intensify. The Tunisian democracy could continue to develop for decades but this new system could also collapse in a matter of days. Examples of established democracies that have reverted to authoritarianism are numerous: Germany before the rise of Nazism or, closer to our times, Hungary and Poland, which have tilted dangerously into right-wing populism. 

As frustration with democracy and its institutions grow, more and more Tunisians long for the era of authoritarianism. Such a situation could be exploited by the security and military apparatuses. Citizens are so distrustful of the current political class that its removal might be welcomed. Another possible scenario is the election of a populist demagogue who would adopt the model of a Roman dictator and derail the democratic process, in the name of the common good.

But what is certain is that, ten years after the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisians live in an unprecedented democratic environment. This new and shared experience will undoubtedly shape the country’s future. 

The young generation will not accept being subjugated even if the authoritarian tide in the nation strengthens. Discussions around the political system that Tunisia needs should happen between the country’s young men and women in the coming years. The emergence of new economic structures to move the nation forward will rest on the youth’s shoulders. 

This current moment of malaise, crises and hope might be a junction point between a dying old system and one that is yet to blossom. Until time crushes the constraints of older bureaucrats and politicians, and until the expected global economic recovery begins its ascent, Tunisians have a tortuous path to cross. But at least, over the past ten years, it has become a paved path. 

Youssef Cherif is the director of the Columbia Global Centers, Tunis. He is the author of The Modern Arab State: A Decade of Uprisings in the MENA and has published several articles, reports and book chapters on the politics and international relations of North Africa. On Twitter: @faiyla .

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