Return to Tunis

Upon my return to Tunis over one year after the democratic revolution of January 2011,

I am spending an April Sunday morning strolling Medina, the souk of Tunis.  The ancient city is slowly waking up.  I join the mostly men at a terrace, enjoying an espresso at the square at the entry of the Medina.  Ordinary people are trespassing, a motley assembly of Tunisians, mainly poor from the quality of their clothing.  Women wear scarf’s and are fully covered, no burqa’s though.  Peace is reigning, Homs far away.

A young man carries a t-shirt with the slogan:  “I am a Muslim, do not panic”.  I am tempted to ask him where to buy the t-shirt, but decide to stay with my espresso.   The square and streets are dusty, rubbish fills the street gutters. The scent of herbs and olives compensates less pleasurable odors.     

After finishing my espresso, I wander through to me unbeknown streets and come across a fresh produce market; fish, vegetables and fruits in abundance.  Great atmosphere, colorful scenery, slippery floors.  While the merchandise is fresh, nearly all merchants pollute by smoking cigarettes.  The irony escapes the busy bargaining Tunisians.  The price of the produce is their primary concern. 

 By breathing the Tunisian street, I am trying to sense if the democratic revolution created a new cadence in the way Tunisians walk, in how they look and interact with each other.  Although eager for any trace of the new freedom, I met nothing out of the extraordinary.  And why should I at a Sunday morning stroll?  Was the espresso not strong enough to wake me up from dreaming?      

But suddenly, at the Avenue Habib Bourgiba, down-town Tunis, I ran into razorblade barbed wire fences rolled out across the sidewalks.  Army vehicles lined up.  Towering over them, is the imposing statue of Ibn Khaldun, the renowned 14th century Tunisian writer, historian, philosopher and scholar who famously defined government to be ‘’an institution which prevents injustice other than such it commits itself”.   Along the avenue, more barbed wire, more army vehicles and solders protecting the Ministry of the Interior.  These were certainly palatable signs of security concerns, of a revolution unfinished.

 World Movement for Democracy (WMD)

 I have come to Tunis for a meeting of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.   About 30 democracy activists from as many countries from around the world discussing the challenges to democracy and on-going transitions to democracy.  Tunis was chosen as venue to learn first –hand about how the transition to democracy unfolds in Tunisia and to be able to engage in discussions with representatives from Tunisian political and civil society and share experiences with them. 

Jasmine Revolution

The Tunisian revolution was triggered by the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2011.  He was the 11th Tunisian who in desperation about his poverty and how he was treated by government officials, set himself publicly on fire.  It resulted in nation-wide non-violent demonstrations (the ‘Jasmine’ revolution) which ended the 23-year long dictatorship of President Ben Ali when he fled Tunisia on January 14th 2011.  

From that time onwards, Tunisians have chosen a roadmap for transforming their autocratic governance system into a democracy which follows – at first sight – the textbook for successful transitions.   The key feature is, that each and every step taken has been designed to strengthen the legitimacy of the process while new democratic institutions are gradually built based on commonly agreed principles.   Tolerance, pluriformity, freedom of religion, expression and assembly are all highly respected and practiced values.

The first free election took place on October 23rd, 2011.  A 217 member Constituent Assembly was elected based on a proportional electoral system and fully gender balanced political party lists.  This would ensure the fair representation of the diversity of views of Tunisians in the constitution-making process.  The Assembly is currently writing the new constitution.  It will determine the future governing system of Tunisia and guarantee the rights and responsibilities of the Tunisian citizens.  When this process is finished and the new constitution adopted, fresh elections shall be held for a new parliament and government in accordance with the newly  agreed constitution. 

The interim government is a coalition government of three parties in the constituent assembly which also doubles as interim parliament.  Ennahda, the Muslim party, is the biggest party in the assembly with 89 seats.  Two smaller secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) with 29 seats, and Ettakol with 20 seats, joined Ennahda to form a majority ‘troika’ government.  The elected Prime-Minister, Hamadi Jebali, was the former Secretary-General of Ennahda, while the elected President, Moncef Marzouki of the CPR, is a former human rights activist.

Legitimizing transition, the South African template

The choice of each of these steps, aimed at enhancing the legitimacy of the process, is a distinctive feature of the Tunisian transition.  The interim government that emerged upon the flight of Ben Ali wanted to organize a rapid presidential election, presumably to usher in one of the former regimes politicians.  Demonstrations that followed, demanded full participation in the crafting of the new democratic institutions. A unified position by the new democratic political groups and parties made this happen.  A consensus-building commission of 155 members, named the Ben Achour Commission after its chairperson, was established on an inclusive basis with representatives of all political parties and civil society except representatives from the old regime.  They designed and successfully found an agreement about the process-oriented roadmap that is now implemented.

The approach reminded me about the inclusive negotiations between 1990 and 1994 about the transition roadmap in South Africa which ended the apartheid era.  And as was the case in South Africa at the time, this process was facilitated by confidence building dialogue prior to the fall of the apartheid regime.  In the case of Tunisia, this dialogue started in France in 2003 and resulted in a negotiated agreement – “Call from Tunis”  between the 3 political parties now constituting the current government and the PDP, an opposition party.  It was an agreement about two fundamental principles:  1)  a future elected government would have to be ‘’founded on the sovereignty of the people as the sole source of legitimacy’’ and 2) the state, while showing “respect for the people’s identity and its Arab-Mulim values’’ would provide ‘’the guarantee of liberty of beliefs to all and the political neutralization of places of worship’’.  It also agreed to respect ‘’the full equality of women and men’’. 

This dialogue was extended to other political parties from 2005 onwards, hence long before the fall of the Ben Ali regime.  It produced a document referred to as ‘’The October 18 Coalition for Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia’’.  This important agreement first of all reinforced the principles of the Call from Tunis, but elaborated the principles to include that a future democratic state would have to be a civic state and that there can be no compulsion in religion. 

When the Ben Ali regime was ousted in January 2011, this important agreement about the future principles upon democratic governance in Tunisia was in place among  a wide section of the democratic opposition.  The investment in dialogue between the democratic opposition, long before the dictatorship ended, is in my experience one of the crucial determining factors for the chances of a successful transition to democracy at the time that freedom is restored.

The great divide

In Tunisia, the majority of the population believes that Islam and democracy are fully compatible.  People generally accept a relationship between politics and religion which is not dissimilar of the one practiced in European countries with a tradition of Christian democratic  parties, for example.  Alfred Stepan calls that adhering to the ‘’twin tolerations’’.   That is, on the one hand, “that religious citizens accord democratically elected officials the freedom to legislate and govern without having to confront denials of their authority based on religious claims, and, on the other hand, that the state must permit religious citizens, as a matter of right, to freely express their views and values within civil society, and to freely take part in politics, as long as religious activities and organizations respect other citizens’ constitutional rights and the law.”[1]  This tolerance is an important condition for democracy to develop and to consolidate in Tunisia. 

Yet, a sharp debate about secularism versus Islamism continues to dominate the political discourse among the democratic activists in Tunisia.  For an outside observer of Tunisian politics, it is difficult to comprehend why democracy activists in Tunisia continue to be so divided and suspicious about each others perceived secular or Islamist leanings while there are other threats to the transition process that require attention.  Respecting Islamic values is readily equated with Islamist sympathies.  The many decades of dictatorship in Tunisia have certainly contributed to a political environment in which people distrust each other.  A new political culture to overcome this legacy can only emerge by intensifying open dialogue and engagement within Tunisian society, by investing in the emergence of stronger social capital.  

If one looks at the demography of Tunisia (and for most of the Arab countries) the majority of the population is below the age of 21.  This new generation is generally well educated but without work perspectives.  This generation is still Muslim but wants to live modern, better lives.  The question what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century will become more pertinent to answer.  It is quite likely that in five years time, the political discourse will have shifted from secularism vs Islamism to issues relating to delivery; delivery of jobs, education and health care.  The new generation is less interested in articulating problems and more interested in finding solutions.   The young man wearing the t-shirt with the slogan I used as title for this article, represents the spirit of this new generation.

Challenges to transition

In Tunis I was once again reminded by some of my interlocutors, that overthrowing a dictator may be easier (certainly in hindsight) than establishing democracy.   The institutional architecture for democracy does not exist and neither a democratic culture.     The institutions need to be built and a democratic culture need to grow by the practice of democracy.   It all takes much time for which there are no shortcuts.  Writing a democratic constitution or organizing elections are by themselves not sufficient to establish democracy.   The new constitution that is currently written will provide the blueprint for the future democratic institutional framework of Tunisia as well as the relationship between the state and the Tunisian citizens. 

While this is work in progress, Tunisia inherited heavily, by their association with the former regime, compromised institutions, such as the security and police forces, the judiciary and the media.   The reforms of these institutions are urgently needed.  Yet, the interim government appears uncertain about which strategy to follow while enmeshed by day-to-day political challenges.  Security concerns such as weapons floating around the region following the collapse of the neighboring Ghadaffi regime, and the rise of the fundamentalist Salafist movement, need resolute responses.  But how much can the new government rely on the old security force?   It is a difficult dilemma.   

The other challenge is the need to pursue economic reforms in order to restore economic growth and the creation of jobs.  The transition to democracy will not succeed if the economy remains stagnant.  Political reform and economic reform need to go hand in hand.  For its economy development, Tunisia depends to a large extent on exports to the EU.  The EU promised to provide more economic and trade assistance with more democratic reforms implemented (the so-called new ‘more for more’ policy).  Tunisia offers a good case study for testing the effects of this new EU policy.  Does it work and does the EU deliver greater economic opportunity for Tunisia? 

In the conversations with Tunisians, the issue about secularists vs Islamist kept dominating the discourse.  To my surprise and disappointment, little to no attention was paid to the core issue of economic development and how the international community can effectively assist.    It is necessary to ‘settle’ the debate on the secular vs Islamist issue and focus on the other transitional priorities, such as the reform of the economy, reform of the judiciary and implementation of transitional justice and reconciliation, the reform of the security forces, and of the media.


Each transition to democracy follows its own path depending on local leadership and circumstances, Tunisia is no exception.  I returned optimistic about the determination I found among Tunisian counterparts that the transition has to succeed.  Tunisians are proud that the Arab Spring ignited in their country.  Therefore, they want to make it a success and an example for those struggling to establish democracy in the other Arab countries.

Yet, reading the political temperature in Tunis, I left with the impression that the spirit of transition is threatened to be overtaken by an approach to politics as ‘business as usual’.  Transitions are multi-annual projects, however, which aim at reaching as wide a consensus as possible on all the major national issues:  from the new political dispensation, to new economic, education, health, judiciary and security policies and reformed institutions. 

To make a new approach to democratic governance take root, inclusive dialogues on these major issues are required to obtain high levels of buy-in of the diverse population groups and interests.  That will contribute to increasin social capital which is needed for a culture of open, participatory government and for creating an enabling environment for dynamic economic development.

In my analysis, Tunisia would benefit from a renewed extended transition time-line and strategy that goes beyond the constitution writing and the subsequent new elections.  The dialogue among all democratic political parties which started in the early years of this Millennium in France should be revived in Tunisia today and be preferably expanded, beyond the parties within political society, to include the major organizations in civil society, the private sector and academia.

Leuven, April 30th, 2012



[1]Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan, in Journal of Democracy Volume 23, Number 2, April 2012