Five Years After the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s Government is a Mess

A woman shouts slogans during celebrations marking the fifth anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution, in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, January 14. Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

On January 14, Tunisia celebrated the fifth anniversary of the popular deposition of erstwhile President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a sombre mood. Five years on from the uprisings which displaced Ben Ali’s regime the main achievement of the struggle for political reform has been the revision, article by article, of Tunisia’s constitution, which is now the most progressive in the region.

The same cannot be said of the coalition government that emerged from Tunisia’s first post-constitutional elections in 2014. Instead of defining—and finding the means to implement—a clear vision for Tunisia’s future, the North African country’s political classes remain stubbornly focused on their own internal divisions, many of which are rooted in the past.

In the 2014 elections, neither the senior ruling party Nidaa Tounes nor the Islamist party Ennahda won a clear majority of votes, with 85 and 69 seats respectively in the 217-member parliament. The coalition they subsequently formed was seen at the time as a marriage of convenience, given the ideological divisions within the wider membership of each party. For party members, the alliance has never been a happy one, with tensions in Nidaa Tounes coming to a head at its party congress on January 9. Since then, at least 32 Nidaa Tounes members have resigned, leaving the party with 64 parliamentarians compared to Ennahda’s 69.

The resulting loss of Nidaa Tounes’ majority in parliament has not affected Prime Minister Habib Essid’s recent reshuffle of ministerial posts, nor has it provoked demands from Ennahda for more ministerial positions. Instead, the incident has highlighted the growing distance between the senior leadership of both parties and their party political foot soldiers.

Nidaa Tounes’ recent defectors certainly cited as one reason the betrayal of the party’s modernist agenda through compromises made with the socially conservative Ennahda, but they also accused their own party leadership of authoritarian and nepotistic tendencies following the election of Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the son of Tunisia’s octogenarian President Beji Caid Essebsi, as the party’s new secretary-general. Walid Jalled, one of the Nidaa Tounes lawmakers who resigned, told Reuters that “the son of the president and his group took control of party and carried out a coup,” and that members of Nidaa Tounes would not accept “being like a flock of sheep.”

The dissidents plan to set up their own independent group within parliament, but appear not to have dented the cosy relationship between the Essebsi clan and Ennahda’s secretary-general Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi. As an invited surprise guest and speaker at the Nidaa Tounes congress, Ghannouchi described Tunisia as “a bird which flies thanks to the two wings of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes,” leading to speculation that the Islamist party’s long game is to exploit other parties’ divisions and promote them to their supporters as advantageous to Ennahda’s position as the kingmaker in both the current and future governments.

The recent splits in Nidaa Tounes also reflect unfinished business from the Ben Ali era. At its foundation in 2012, the party incorporated erstwhile members of the much-reviled RCD, the single party of the Ben Ali era, alongside other political tendencies united by the sole objective of countering the influence of the Islamists of Ennahda then leading an interim troika government. Now that the progressive elements have left Nidaa Tounes, the centrifugal imperative of keeping the governing coalition in place appears to have acquired more importance than has setting out a policy template to attract younger voters, who deserted the polls in droves in 2014.

For Tunisians who participated in the 2011 uprisings, it is the age and profile of the key leaders in this game of political musical chairs that causes most concern. Instead of a rejuvenated political class to reflect the aspirations of the young activists who took to the streets in 2011, Tunisia’s senior decision-makers all started their careers under previous, non-democratic presidential regimes—even if, in the case of Ghannouchi, this meant spending more than 20 years in exile in the U.K.

The current president, leader of the parliament, and prime minister are respectively 89, 81 and 66 years of age. Yet to emerge are political leaders capable of addressing the challenges of youth unemployment and the marginalization of Tunisia’s interior provinces where the Arab Spring started. Prospects for the young have deteriorated precisely where a coherent investment, regional integration and economic reform strategy is most needed, above all to counter the more immediate attraction of Salafi Islamic groups and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

The urgency of responding to pent up popular demands now goes beyond Tunisia’s borders. Tunisia has in many respects become a key victim of the regional insecurity that has seen the rise of ISIS’ influence in neighboring Libya and the recruitment of more than 6,000 young Tunisians to join the group’s ranks in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Three major terrorist attacks within Tunisia itself in 2015—two of which targeted tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 and a beach resort near Sousse in June 2015—have cost Tunisia dearly. First in direct revenue lost from tourism: Tourist numbers in the country dropped by one-fifth between January and September 2015 compared to the previous year. And also by deterring foreign investors from committing to Tunisia’s investment drives. Only Saudi Arabia has promised Tunisia the lion’s share of a $3 billion investment pot for the region discussed at the end of 2015, but with the Saudi government also now facing budgetary constraints, proposals to invest in electricity plants and infrastructure may not come soon enough for Tunisians’ immediate needs.

All that is left to the activists and successors of the Arab Spring is their freedom of speech and ability to articulate their own solutions to the security crisis that is now attracting most international attention to Tunisia. From most quarters the message is that the government needs to see economic development as the main inoculation against the spread of terrorism and provide the most vulnerable younger generations with the resources to start shaping their own futures. Their collective lament is that no one in government seems to be listening.

Claire Spencer is a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a U.K.-based international affairs think tank.

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