While other “Arab Springers” were descending into chaos and anarchy, Tunisia appears to be paving a bright path, actually offering the “Tunisian Scenario” to the rest of the region. Dialogue and consensus can be a way out rather than chaos, civil war and putsches. It can also be a way forward.
January 2014 marked a new start for Tunisia. It coincided with New Year of course, but also the arrival of a new constitution and government, as well as the beginning of the Third Transitional Period. It was the advent of the Second Republic.
However, while the country is leaving the conflict zone and reaching a relative stability, it might be heading towards crisis if its economy continues to falter. The priority of the actual government may hence shift away from organizing elections to concentrating on economic reforms, which can in turn jeopardize the democratic transition.


Tunisia’s National Dialogue, initiated by local actors in 2012, succeeded in bringing the different parties together and bestowed a sentiment of relief all over Tunisia. It led to the arrival of new faces, with Mehdi Jomaa’s Government, which provided citizens with hope, especially after the security shocks they went through during 2013 and the deepening economic crisis on motion since 2010. The National Dialogue initiative, involving government and civil society, and excluding the use of violence, was lauded on the local and international levels.

The Troika (ruling coalition of Ennahda, CPR and Ettakatol) handed power to a new government of technocrats: leading men and women in their respective fields, whose profiles are a mixture of Islamist, secularist and Ancien Regime -pre Arab Spring- affiliates. Jomaa’s Government (a team of minister-engineers, minister-academics, minister-marketers and other experts) is supposed to have good understanding of the situation, and the tasks awaiting.

Jomaa’s primary mission is to organize elections. In fact, Tunisia’s transition to democracy started with the departure of President Zinelabidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Its second phase began after the October 2011 Election, while the signature of the constitution (01/2014) marked the symbolic commencement of the third phase. The upcoming vote -scheduled for the end of 2014- will close the whole transitional chapter and provide political stability.

The political scene is different from what it was during the 2011 Election.
The extreme left, previously divided, coalesced inside Al Jabha al Shaabia, which will prove to be a major player. Most of the 2011 Election winners (Al Mahabba-Aridha, CPR, Ettakatol, Al Joumhouri-PDP), on the other hand, became minor parties.

Ennahda Movement, obliged to step down in 2013, is more divided than ever. A splinter party was created a few weeks ago and Hamadi Jebali, the Movement’s secretary general and Tunisia’s former Prime Minister (PM), is expected to quit soon.
The Ancien Regime, however, is now strong, represented by two main parties. Nidaa Tounes is mild in its recruitment of Ben Ali’s nostalgics, while the Haraka al Doustouria is openly targeting them. Hundreds of thousands of votes are hence being channelled to one block or the other.

When the Constitution was adopted, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) became a parliament and started working on the electoral law. The main conflict arising then was the question of the Ben Ali regime affiliates (Article 15). Indeed, they were banned from running in 2011; but things differ now. They even threaten to block the transitional process if they are excluded again. Nevertheless a consensus is being worked out, and it seems like the Ancien Regime will have candidates this time.

On a different note, it looks like the “war on terror” is taking a very serious stance. Many attacks were foiled recently, and a number of militants were either killed or arrested. Did Jihadi Islamists become less efficient in 2014? Is the new government more decided than the previous one in fighting them? Is the police more willing to do its job now that Ennahda resigned? It is yet unclear, but terrorism is losing ground.

When it comes to diplomacy, the new government focused on the Arab World. PM Jomaa visited Algeria, Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council (minus Oman), and President Moncef Marzouki participated in the Arab Summit of Kuwait. Tunisia, traditionally oriented towards France, is looking for a different set of allies. Interviews and speeches given by the two heads of state were conciliatory, positive and optimistic. Both Jomaa and Marzouki made it clear: Tunisia is not looking to export its revolution and seeks better relationships with its Arab milieu.

The Arab welcome, though, was not as warm as hoped. Apart from the usual diplomatic words of encouragement, only a few Arab investors showed their interest in Tunisia, and aid packages came from everywhere but the Arab World. The best friends of Tunisia’s Second Republic are, until now, Japan and the United States. Hundreds of millions of Dollars came from the Land of the Rising Sun, while Jomaa was received by Barack Obama in early April. The single country to offer new Tunisia a concrete partnership is the United States, through a “Strategic Dialogue”.[1]

On the economic level, Tunisia is not in the brink yet. [2] It is better off than Egypt, for instance. The European Union welcomed Tunisia as a “privileged partner” in November 2012. GDP growth rate went from negative in 2011 (-1.9%) to positive (more than 3%) in 2013,[3] and GDP augmented per person (PPP, from $9500 -2011 to $9900 -2013,). Tourism regained its pre-Arab Spring levels (more than 6 million tourists and $2b/year). The stocks of direct foreign investments went from $33.4b in 2012 to $34.6b in 2013. And even if the stocks of narrow, broad and domestic money are decreasing annually, along with the market value of publicly traded shares and domestic credit, the evolution pace remains slow; it is still reversible. Reserves in foreign exchange and gold went down from $8.36b in 2012 to $8.11b in 2013, but that was also out of the red zone. And one has to keep in mind the corrupt economic system that Ben Ali put in place, and which will take some time to reform.[4]

The rosy picture drawn above, however, should not hide the work that has yet to be done. Tunisia has a labor force of almost 4 million, with 17.2% unemployment, reaching more than 40% among the youth and even higher percentages in inland areas.[5] Commodity prices increased. The Dinar (TND) is being devaluated (1TND was equivalent to $1.4 in 2010; it is $1.6 today). The country has an inflation rate of 6.1% (compared to 5.6% in 2012). Tunisia’s account balance is also negative, going from -$3.7b in 2012 to -$4.5b in 2013, and while its exports rose from $17b (2012) to $17.4b (2013), imports also climbed from $23.1b (2012) to $24.9b (2013): almost $7.5b in deficit. The country’s debt rose from $24.6b in 2012 to $26.95b in 2013. Tunisia’s credit rating (by Moody’s, S&P…) keeps falling as well.

Economy is clearly the next big issue.


The Arab Spring plunged Tunisia in a series of conflicts, following the “Conflict Curve Model”.[6] Contemporary Tunisia went actually twice through the typical life cycle of conflict. These cycles relate to two different crises. The first was political: the battle between the Ancien Regime and the “leaderless revolutionary movement”. The second was identity related: a clash commonly referred to as “Islamism Vs. Secularism”. It was tamed, and the country is now in its ending slope. Economy may trigger a third conflict.

The political conflict corresponds to the Jasmine Revolution per se. A stable peace was kept for most of the Ben Ali era, until the outbreak of the Arab Spring, on December 17th, 2010. Large segments of the population, from school students to trade unionists, intellectuals, and others, demonstrated daily and attacked the police and RCD (the former regime’s political party) offices, as well as the houses of the notorious “ruling families”. The movement rapidly gained the intensity of an open conflict, which toppled the head of the regime on January 14th, 2011, followed by a crisis which ended when Ben Ali’s last PM Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned, in February 27th, 2011. This episode was marked by dozens of dead, street battles and general strikes. Details of Ben Ali’s departure and Ghannouchi’s resignation were not totally disclosed to the public.

A phase of relative stability followed for most of 2011. Even if the state apparatus was weak and war raging in neighboring Libya, violence rarely occurred, and fair elections were organized in October. Yet a climate of unstable peace started in the weeks following the victory of Ennahda, and 2012 was not a good year, with the opposition parties heating their campaign, and using the discourse of nationalism, secularism and democracy to face Ennahda‘s supposed panislamism and theocratic ideology: it was an identity conflict.

The climax of the crisis was 2013. Djihadi Islamists targeted politicians, the army and security forces, and attempted to harm civilians. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets shouting against the islamist government. The economy reached unprecedented lows. Some even evoked an upcoming civil war.[7] Then a national dialogue was engaged as a crisis management tool. It led to de-escalation and was crowned by the advent of a new government in 2014. A phase of relative stability can describe Tunisia this spring.

The current government is the result of internal and foreign pressures. Hence influential foreign embassies, along with Tunisia’s strong trade and employers unions (UGTT and UTICA, and two smaller civic society groups) coalesced to convince Ennahda‘s leaders of the need to step down, and the opposition of the necessity of compromising. Almost everyone agreed that Islamists should leave power in order to solve the urging issues facing the country, namely security and economy. The deal gave Ennahda some kind of protection (its Minister of Interior kept his portfolio in the new government), and the opposition checks and balances (hence a “neutral” Secretary of State is seconding the Minister of Interior).

Jomaa’s government, tolerated by the de facto troika pulling the country’s strings, i.e. Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes (the opposition leader) and the unions, is enjoying relative social stability. Its mission is to organize elections, making sure the economy and security situations do not get worse. The major question pending is whether or not status quo will be kept.

The 2011-2013 political and identity conflicts were somewhat contained. However, the country is full of contradictions, and other conflicts can blow up any time soon. The one problem that all Tunisian governments had to face, which was at the core of the uprising against Ben Ali, and among the main pretexts used against Ennahda by its opposition, is of economic nature. It is an issue that keeps deepening and can provide basis for Tunisia’s third conflict cycle.

Strikes are slowing the production of Tunisia’s main natural resources and industrial sites, especially the state owned. And while UGTT helped decreasing some of them after the consensual government took office, there are others out of its control. Informal trade, on the other hand, keeps eroding the country’s budget,[8] while state expenditures, in terms of salaries and domestic subsidies, are getting heavier.[9] Moreover, the fact that 80% of Tunisia’s economy is linked to Europe brings the Euro Crisis home. Amid all this, global institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are pressuring Tunisia to cut subsidies and keep opening up the market, otherwise financial aid will be put on hold.

Subsidies are a legacy of postcolonial socialism. In reality, the political discourse which seduced Tunisians to revolt against France from the 1930s onwards had the promises of a better future, and the postcolonial state-policy pledged to provide jobs, education and social welfare. Policies started to change in the last years of Bourguiba and under Ben Ali, when IMF became more involved, but propaganda kept using the same socialist discourse, and many Tunisians were lured, thinking that they were evolving in a socialist state, which was not.
When democracy was introduced in 2011, political parties -from the tiny populist groups to the well established leftist and right wing movements- did not shift away from socialist rhetoric. It led to a society unable to understand why the state was pulling off. “Employment is a Right”, i.e. the state should offer jobs, is a key claim which has its origins in the early demonstrations against Ben Ali and continues to be heard today.

By retreating from power in 2014, Tunisia’s major political parties are avoiding to take the responsibility of applying harsh measures that would hit their popularity hard.

It is up to the actual government to deal with popular discontent. Jomaa and his team started early on to warn citizens about hard times to come, but their words do not seem to be taken seriously, and awareness campaigns regarding the risks of state bankruptcy remain limited. Moreover, when asked if he will run for the next election, Jomaa did not deny:[10] it is hence unclear how resolved he is to endorse such unpopular decisions as cutting subsidies and applying austerity rules.

Tunisia is therefore left in an uncertain situation, where getting international funds to boost the economy is linked to unpopular reforms which can topple the government, while delaying reforms can only deepen a crisis that has already lasted too long and can explode soon.

Three years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia became a regional model, a “beacon of hope”. It also remains a relatively safe country as, with all what it has been through, no major attacks on civilians were recorded. Each time popular disgruntlement reached a climax, government would resign and power would be handed over peacefully. Labour strikes were defused by negotiation rather than use of force. Over three years, there was no shortage in running water or public electricity, wages were paid regularly, administrations continued functioning, etc.

The tiny North African country is today the only Arab democracy in motion, and resembles a start-up. You can bet on it, or let it fall.


[1] The White House, “Fact Sheet: The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia”, April 2014, < http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/04/fact-sheet-presidents-framework-investing-tunisia>
[2] Central Intelligence Agency, “The World Fact book: Tunisia”, 2014, <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ts.html> ; The World Bank, Tunisia, 2014<http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/tunisia>
[3] Interview of Chedly Ayari, BCT Governor, Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal, March 2014, pp.16-20
[4] B. Rijkers, C. Freund, A. Nucifora, “All in the Family: State Capture in Tunisia”, The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper 6810, March 2014
[5] International Labour Organization, Global Employment Trends 2014: Risk of Jobless Recovery?, Geneva, 2014
[6] Swanström (Niklas L.P.) & Weissmann (Mikael S.), “The Life Cycles of a Conflict: Conflict, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management and Beyond: a Conceptual Exploration”, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Concept Paper, Summer 2005
[7] World Tribune, “Tunisia’s Islamist government warns of civil war with modernists”, January 2013 <http://www.worldtribune.com/2013/01/14/tunisias-islamist-government-warns-of-civil-war-with-modernists/>
[8] L. Ayadi, N. Benjamin, S. Bensassi, G. Raballand, “Estimating Informal Trade across Tunisia’s Land Borders”, The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper 6731, December 2013
[9] African Development Bank, Tunisie: Document de Stratégie Pays Intermédiaire 2014-5, March 2014, p.15
[10] The Washington Post, “A Tunisian leader’s hope for democracy”, April 2014, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lally-weymouth-a-tunisian-leaders-hope-for-democracy/2014/04/03/3c028de6-bb07-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html>

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