Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Democratic Transition in Tunisia 2014-2019

Between 2014 and 2019, Tunisia came full circle. Despite the democratic transition following the 2010 Revolution, which had promised change, the economic situation in Tunisia deteriorated and political instability continued. Reemerging protests indicated that the gains of the Revolution were at risk.

Democratic Transition in Tunisia
Tunisian security forces hinder unemployed protestors from entering the governor’s office during a nationwide protest in Kasserine, Tunisia on January 22, 2016.  Yassine Gaidi / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu via AFP

Author: C.R. Pennell, former Al-Tajir Lecturer in the History of Islam and the Middle East, University of Melbourne, Australia

Edited by: Erik Prins


The revolution of 2010 had been set off by the suicide by fire of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in the impoverished south of the country. In December 2018, another Tunisian killed himself in the same way in Kasserine, another poor southern Tunisian town, protesting about the same economic and social deprivation and the same failure of government to do anything about it. This was an indication that the period between 2014 and 2019 marked the failure of the Tunisian revolution.

Yet the democratic transition following the 2010 revolution began very hopefully. The first legislative and presidential elections under the new constitution took place in October and November 2014, respectively.

The presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi

In the 2014 legislative elections, Beji Caid Essebsi (backed by Nidaa Tounes) and Moncef Marzouki (backed by Ennahda) won 86 and 69 of the 217 seats respectively in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP, the successor of the NCA).

This was a victory for the secular party: Ennahda had lost what was effectively a referendum on its record both as an ideological movement and a government between 2011 and 2014. But Nidaa Tounes did not win an absolute majority and the two big parties had split the national vote between them. The north of Tunisia was mainly pro-Sebsi and Nidaa Tounes, while the south was mainly pro-Ennahda.

In the presidential elections that followed in November 2014, Essebsi, who had been interim prime minister in 2011, won the presidency for the Nidaa Tounes party. He was the first democratically elected president in Tunisian history.

Plurality of votes for the two candidates in the second round of the Tunisian presidential election in each Tunisian governorate. Red voted for Béji Caïd Essebsi (overall winner) and green voted for Moncef Marzouki.

Source: Wikipedia

This posed a problem that had to be solved: how could Essebsi prevent mutual distrust from developing into a violent standoff that would pull the country apart?

Under Ben Ali and Bourguiba, the presidency had sought to be all-powerful while the ideological conflict between the dominant secularist establishment and the Islamist current within politics had been all-consuming. That rivalry was regionally focused as well as religiously. The revolution of 2010 had begun in the south and centre of Tunisia in places like Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, and then it spread to the capital.

It had begun as a movement of the regional poor before it attracted the middle class of the capital. New power centres in the south and the hinterland undermined the old elites of Tunis and coastal cities of the east of the country .

Another factor was the developing ideological politics of the wider Middle East and North Africa. When the leaders of the Islamic State (IS) established what they called a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, their call for fighters attracted no one more readily than Tunisians. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisians went to Iraq and Syria, and then, in 2014, to Libya when IS set up a provincial administration there.

Tunisians formed the highest number of foreign fighters for IS in the world, on a per capita basis. The plan to set up a wilaya (province) of the Islamic State in Tunisia never came to fruition although IS units carried out several high-profile attacks in 2015 and 2016. Among Tunisian jihadists, fighting in IS ranks, for the “Jund al-Khilafa,” or “soldiers of the caliphate”, won great prestige.

Inside Tunisia, Essebsi’s response was to try to somehow incorporate the losing side by making it a partner rather than an opponent in tackling the regional economic and social differences. So, as leader of Nidaa Tounes, he offered Ennahda a place in a coalition national unity government, together with some smaller parties.

As a result, the government’s main policy came to be focused on holding the coalition together. This made it even harder to tackle the three most difficult problems that faced the country: the growth of Islamist extremism, the deteriorating economy and the creation of a transitional justice programme that would re-establish public trust in state institutions.

The constitution of 2014 enshrined the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC, or French Instance Vérité et Dignité, IVD) to bring about transitional justice, but it was quickly watered down after the elections.

For different reasons, neither of the two big parties was willing to deal with the financial corruption of the old regime. Essebsi emphasised the importance of economic reconciliation and sought to exempt members of the former Ben Ali regime from being prosecuted for corruption.

Ennahda, on the other hand, was anxious to focus on human rights violations rather than corruption. This meant that an important aspect of transitional justice was downplayed. A Reconciliation Law offered an amnesty from prosecution for corruption to businessmen and civil servants who had supported the Ben Ali regime.

This rewarded rather than punished those who had done well under Ben Ali. In addition, it undermined the legitimacy of the new republic which had grown out of protests against their crimes.

Worsening political and economic conditions

The growing illegitimacy of the Tunisian central government encouraged the growth of crime and corruption in the peripheral and deprived regions of the country. Businessmen from regions bordering Algeria or Libya grew rich from smuggling.They protected themselves by backing new political parties, locally based in these deprived regions.

In doing so, they exploited these parties to build up regional bases they could use as levers to seek advantage from the central authorities. This exacerbated the tensions between the coast and Tunis on the one hand and the interior and southern regions on the other.

A Tunisian woman sifts through garbage at a landfill in a poor district of Tunisia’s central city of Kasserine on April 25, 2018. HATEM SALHI / AFP

The worsening economic conditions of the 2000s and 2010s infuriated much of the population who felt that they had received no real benefit from the uprising of 2010 and the overthrow of the previous regime. The economy was deteriorating quickly, and the cost of living was going up sharply.

According to the International Crisis Group, political instability was partly to blame for the fact that between 2010 and 2022, 17 per cent of industrial plants with more than ten employees went out of business. Moreover, between 2011 and 2019, the average GDP growth fell to 1.6 per cent, from 4.4 per cent during the previous ten years. Protests grew, beginning with public sector workers.

Under these pressures, the unity of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda in the coalition government began to fracture: Nidaa had no united ideology of its own other than opposition to a common enemy and the disunity of the leadership both reflected that as well as the personal and family tensions between factional leaders. Gradually, members of Nidaa began to break away.

By the turn of the year 2015/2016, more than half of Nidaa’s deputies had resigned from the party, wiping out its plurality in the Assembly of Representatives. In August 2016, the faltering government lost a confidence vote in parliament and Nidaa Tounes nominated a new prime minister to form a government, Youssef Chahed. This was just as another danger was growing.

Islamist terrorism

In 2015, elements of IS carried out several terrorist attacks on Tunisian targets. In March, three gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis and killed 21 people, mainly foreign tourists. In June, a single gunman killed 38 people, mainly tourists, on the beach at Sousse. This was Tunisia’s worst-ever terror attack, and internationally, the question arose how realistic the hope for a successful democratisation was. The attack polarised the Islamist and anti-Islamist camps.

The government’s initial response was to close mosques it had designated extremist. But that was only a small part of any solution. The sources of funds and legitimacy for Tunisian Islamists came from outside Tunisia, both from Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The government realised that repression was not enough: it needed a new overall strategy if it was to deal with terrorism.

Democratic Transition in Tunisia
A group of people hold banners and shout slogans during a protest against a terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum, on March 18, 2015 in front of the Tunisian National Theater in Tunis. Gunmen opened fire at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital, killing 21 people including 2 gunmen and wounding at least 22 people including tourists. The banners read “We are all Bardo” and “No place for traitors in Tunisia”. Yassine Gaidi / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu via AFP

This required addressing the root causes of violence, while restructuring the security forces to make them stronger and more flexible. In addition, improving security collaboration between the Tunisian government and other governments in North-Africa and the Middle East was called for.

In March 2016, the government set up the National Commission for the Fight Against Terrorism (French acronym: CNLCT) to coordinate the response to Islamist violence. However, coordination was not easy: rivalry between different government agencies was one stumbling block; another was an ideological conflict between members over how to respond to security threats and the level of repression that was deemed appropriate.

Yet the threat of Islamist violence became less dangerous in 2017, because of factors far beyond the Tunisian government’s control. Islamic State, the main source of Islamist violence in the region, had begun to fall back from its highpoint in 2015. From 2017 onwards, its effectiveness markedly declined as it lost territory and control of lucrative oil trading in Iraq and Syria. As a result, funding for Tunisian terrorist organisations collapsed too.

Using vigorous repression, the Tunisian government was then able to bring Islamist violence under control. Terrorism inside Tunisia itself noticeably lessened in that year, when many Tunisian jihadists fled abroad and pursued their struggle in Europe (in France and Germany in particular).

The growth of political protest

External factors notwithstanding, the government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed faced challenges in solving the economic and political problems inside Tunisia. A growing protest movement demanded jobs, economic development in poorer inland areas, better wages, free education, an end to police brutality and the alleviation of poverty.

In May and June 2017, protesters closed down an oil pumping station and shut off much of Tunisia’s energy distribution. By September, Chahed’s position had become untenable. He quarrelled with other members of the party leadership who suspended his membership and he then aligned himself with Ennahda.

By the end of the year, all the economic indicators looked very grim. According to the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment had reached more than 35 per cent; the tourism industry had not recovered from the terrorist attacks and the currency had fallen 60 per cent since 2011.

Inflation had reached 7.3 per cent in 2018, up from 3.2 per cent in 2011, and the price of meat and other foods had risen by more than 10 per cent over the previous year. In December 2017, the International Monetary Fund told the Tunisian government that it should take measures to reduce the government deficit.

Inflation in Tunisia in the decade after the 2010 revolution. Source: World Bank

In January 2018, the government of President Essebsi and Prime Minister Chahed bowed to the pressure from international creditors to deal with the debt burden. It imposed austerity measures by increasing taxes on some foods (fruit and vegetables), on housing and motor fuel and on necessities like the internet and phone cards. Protests erupted immediately.

Mass demonstrations began in the capital Tunis on 7 January, and quickly spread across the country. Within days, authorities arrested over 900 protestors, while police stations were burned and officials and policemen were attacked. The government deployed the army to protect banks and government buildings in Tunisia’s main cities. A protestor interviewed by the BBC said: “If they do not answer these demands, we will call for the scrapping of parliament.”

The government rushed to contain the rebellion. President Essebsi visited poor parts of Tunis assuring the inhabitants of his sympathy, while the social affairs minister Mohammed Trabelsi promised that the government would increase welfare payments by $70 million. Prime Minister Chahed promised that ‘this will be the last bad year for Tunisians’. The government began a decentralisation project that was supposed to develop the economies of local communities and address financial inequalities between the regions.

However, the increasingly dire economic situation of poor Tunisians and the near total absence of any state services rendered municipal councils impotent to address the growing needs of their communities. Critics claimed that decentralisation was no more than an excuse for the central government to abdicate responsibility to local communities.

By the end of 2018, the so-called ‘last bad year for Tunisians,’ things had not improved. Clashes began in northern and eastern Tunisia in December. In Kasserine, in the centre of the country, Abderrazk Zorgui, a journalist, committed suicide by setting himself on fire to protest against economic conditions.

In a video he made before his death, Zorgui said that “For the sons of Kasserine who have no means of subsistence, today I start a revolution.” It was a clear imitation of the death of Mohammed Bouazizi in nearby Sidi Bouzid in 2010, which had sparked the Tunisian revolution and then the Arab Spring. On 14 January 2019, the National Union of Journalists called for a general strike to mark the eighth anniversary of the revolution.

The death of Beji Caid Essebsi and new elections

In June 2019, Chahed, who was still prime minister, formed a new party of his own to contest elections that were due at the end of November. Due to the death of President Essebsi at the age of 92 in July of that year, elections had to be brought forward to September. The presidential elections were followed closely by legislative elections in October.

Kais Saied, a former law professor who had no political party affiliation was elected president on an anti-corruption platform. He won by a huge majority of those who voted at all – over 70 per cent of the total vote and 90 per cent of the youth vote. But turnout in the 2019 presidential elections was low, at 54 per cent In the legislative elections, it declined from nearly 68 per cent in 2014 to less than 42 per cent in 2019, and those who did take part voted for many smaller lists, which produced a high level of parliamentary fragmentation.

Ennahda lost 25 per cent of the seats, but due to the fragmentation, it remained the largest in parliament. Former members of Ben Ali’s RCD who had regrouped as the Parti Destourian Libre did well, winning 17 seats, apparently building on nostalgia for the supposed stability of the old regime.

The election results indicated that the political consensus was breaking up. Trust in political institutions and parties had slumped: it was clear that the state had failed to realise and distribute political and constitutional changes, which had been the gains of the revolution, to the society as a whole.