For Tunisia, the beginning of the year which was meant to celebrate a decade since the Arab Spring events brought a new wave of protests, continued throughout January and the beginning of February. Young people took to the streets in anti-government protests, mainly motivated by high unemployment rates and economic issues, showing the real face of the Tunisian democracy, where the security forces use repressive measures on peaceful protesters.
These protests are important because they serve as a test for Tunisia’s approach to democracy building. The Tunisian approach has prioritized political consensus, reasoning that it would maintain stability while still creating the requisite political and economic change to improve citizens’ socio-economic conditions. However, as these protests make clear, there are serious questions about whether that deference has gone too far, creating too little change and, now, undermining stability.
As an ever-increasing number of newspaper articles, blogs, and reports have noted, the last decade successfully delivered Tunisian democracy, but it is increasingly apparent that democracy has not delivered for many Tunisians. The rallying cry in late 2010 and early 2011 was “work, freedom, and national dignity”—the push for democracy was a means towards those ends, not for democracy as an end in-and-of-itself. Ten years after the revolution, nearly nine in ten Tunisians think the country is headed in the wrong direction and the majority of the country is unconvinced that democracy is the best form of government. Those numbers are worrisome, but somewhat expected; Tunisia’s economy now grows at about half the rate it did before the revolution, inflation has roughly doubled over the same period, and unemployment has gone up.
The ramifications of not delivering on the revolution’s rallying cry have been felt throughout Tunisia’s political system for some time. This is most obvious in the recent prevalence of populist politicians: the rise in profile of a counterrevolutionary politician Abir Moussi in 2020; the 2019 presidential election of Kais Saied; and Saied’s electoral opponent, media mogul Nabil Karoui. But it is also apparent in the uptick of Tunisians leaving for Italy and the large protests in response to tax hikes in 2018.
As a recent Institute for Security Studies report notes, “The goals and promise of the Freedom and Dignity Revolution remain unfulfilled for Tunisians. It is increasingly clear that regular elections will not translate into better opportunities without deep and structural economic reforms. The coronavirus downturn has exacerbated an already precarious situation.”
In Tunisia, overall unemployment stands at 16.5 percent, and 36 percent among youth aged 15 to 24. Uneven development marginalized Tunisia’s interior regions and poor neighborhoods before the pandemic, and COVID-19 only made things worse; the economy, dependent on tourism, contracted 8.2 percent in 2020.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s already moribund economy contracted by an “unprecedented” 8.2% in 2020. The drop has been felt across Tunisia, but nowhere more so than in the poor neighborhoods surrounding Tunis and in the hardscrabble interior regions where, even before the pandemic, unemployment was as much as 30%. In these areas, with the pandemic having closed down opportunities for the type of casual day labor that kept many families afloat, anger over government inaction, aggravated by police violence, has exploded.
Tunisian politicians avoided reforming the security sector in large part because of the myriad of security threats that Tunisia has faced over the past decade: the 2012 attack on the United States Embassy in Tunisia, the civil war in neighboring Libya, multiple large scale terror attacks in 2015, the high number of Tunisian citizens who left to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the continued existence of Islamic extremists in the mountains bordering Algeria.
But the lack of reformative action also indicates the importance Tunisia’s elected officials have given to maintaining stability through consensus at the expense of pursuing the revolution’s mandate. This logic is the defining characteristic of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary politics and its mettle is currently being tested in the streets.
“The whole system must go … We will return to the streets and we will regain our rights and our dignity that a corrupt elite seized after the revolution,” said Maher Abid, an unemployed protester.
The government’s response to this uprising only inflamed tensions. During nighttime protests, police filled residential streets with tear gas and armored vehicles, and the army was then deployed to several regions.
Also, with each story of arbitrary detention, the arrest of minors by police barging into their homes, or harassment of journalists for filming an arrest, it seems obvious that the security forces are operating much as they did under ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Close observers of Tunisia are not surprised that the police have kept up a number of their pre-revolution tactics, including arbitrary restrictions on movement and torture. Moreover, they have deployed tear gas and batons, conducted mass arrests, and jailed hundreds of minors and at least one journalist.
Asked about police behavior toward demonstrators, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khaled Hayouni said security forces “found themselves faced with incidents in which people did damage to public and private property.”
He referred further questions about police conduct to the Justice Ministry. A Justice Ministry spokesperson declined to comment.
In a televised speech on January 19th, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi—an independent chosen by President Kais Saied in July to form Tunisia’s third government since the 2019 elections— promised to listen to young people, calling their demands “legitimate.” Still, he praised the “professionalism” of security forces and warned they would continue to crack down on looting and vandalism—comments he repeated this week. Last month, Saied told young people not to “let anyone exploit your misery.”
The heavy-handed crackdown has catalyzed a broader movement against vestiges of dictatorship. Lawyers and human-rights activists warn that Tunisia, considered the Arab world’s democratic exemplar, is creeping back toward a police state.
The Arab Charter of Human Rights adopted in 1994 guarantees to every citizen the right of freedom of peaceful assembly. Article 37 of the Tunisian Constitution from 2014 guarantees the right to “assembly and peaceful demonstration.” International law obligations override Tunisian Law No. 69/4 on regulating assemblies that allow police to disperse an assembly and a counterterrorism law from 2015 that permits security forces to disperse assemblies on sweeping grounds.
International standards stipulate that security forces should use the minimum necessary force at all times during protests. International norms on the use of teargas projectiles say they should only be used to disperse unlawful assemblies where necessary and proportionate and that they should be fired at a high angle to avoid serious injury. Projectiles should not be fired directly at individuals or at the head or face.
Since 2011, Tunisian security sector reform has drawn considerable foreign aid from European donors and the United States. But after terror attacks struck Tunisia in 2015, bolstering counterterrorism took priority over human rights.
“The culture of impunity that was dominating the police and the Ministry of Interior under Ben Ali has never been challenged,” said Ruth Hanau Santini, a professor of politics at the University of Naples, L’Orientale, who studies Tunisian security forces. Also, police violence at protests has been a persistent issue in Tunisia. “The authorities have failed to respond with credible and transparent investigations, let alone holding police officers and unit commanders responsible for use of excessive force”, Human Rights Watch said.
This undermines Tunisia’s entire project in democracy building. The institutions that were oppressive instruments of the old regime need to change for Tunisia to achieve “work, freedom, and national dignity.” Like the timid approach to security sector reformation, deep economic reforms and transitional justice mechanisms have been avoided or defanged throughout the past ten years, as politicians sought to avoid political confrontation that could upset consensus across major political parties.
The argument for this approach is that gradual change produces a more stable long-term trend of democratic consolidation. It has been a decade since Tunisian security forces were in the streets limiting Tunisians’ freedom and violating their dignity in the name of an autocrat. If the political system is the independent variable—switched from autocracy to democracy—then the structure and membership of security forces are the control variable and police repression is the dependent variable. Therefore, the presence of a democratic election alone has not made much of a difference.
Tunisia’s politics of consensus has spent most of the past ten years being lauded—a grand political coalition that has delivered dialogue instead of destruction. Broadly speaking, that is true. Tunisia was the only Arab Spring revolution to produce democracy. The country also has avoided a major counterrevolution and there have been repeated peaceful transitions of power over the last decade. However, a growing contingency of experts wonders if the obeisance to consensus has gone too far, creating fissures in the foundation of Tunisia’s democracy. As a recent report from Sharan Grewal and Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institute posit, “the extended pursuit of consensus in Tunisia,” from 2015 – 2019, “has also had a dark side, constraining its democratic transition.”
The past few weeks make this argument seem prescient. It will likely continue to seem that way throughout the remainder of the year. Even if the demonstrations cease in the short term, the underlying political and economic issues will not, nor will the added socioeconomic stress of the COVID-19 pandemic in the medium term. These broader trends are being compounded by the resemblance between the tableaus of early 2021 and January 2011.
Despite being lauded as one of the Arab spring’s successes, instability has continued to rack Tunisia in the past decade, as its successive governments have failed to tackle the gap between rich and poor. This undermined any hope of the kind of political consensus Tunisia needs to weather the pandemic and make the systemic reforms protesters seek.