The Sociologist’s Digressions (SD6)
by Dr Hichem Karoui
Tunisia inspired the globe when it became the cradle of the Arab Spring in January 2011. The overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali raised optimism that the country was on the road to authentic democratic administration. However, Tunisia’s democratic experience has been far from seamless. Over a decade later, the country is at a crossroads, facing many economic, social, and political issues. In an upcoming book, I will analyse Tunisia’s political landscape from the euphoria of the 2011 revolution through President Qais Saied’s recent consolidation of power that will investigate the role of Islamist political movements, particularly the Nahda Party, in Tunisia’s democratic path. But for now, I propose this brief overview.
The Rise of Nahda and Islamist Politics
Tunisia’s post-revolutionary period saw a growth in Islamist politics, primarily represented by the Nahda Party. Despite its moderate Islamist orientation, the party has been accused of sympathising with extremist forces and serving foreign objectives. Nahda’s involvement in the democratic era has been contentious. It has not only been a part of coalition governments that have failed to handle Tunisia’s economic issues but has also been linked to the exodus of young Tunisians to fight alongside extremist groups in Syria (Achcar, 2013; Filiu, 2018).
The Exodus of Tunisian Youth
Disillusionment with the democratic process and economic challenges have led many young Tunisians to extreme paths, probably with the encouragement of an empowered Islamist network. According to estimates, thousands of Tunisians have joined extremist groups in Syria, raising severe concerns about the effectiveness and objectives of the administrations led or influenced by Nahda (Zelin, 2015).
The Power Grab by Qais Saied
The decision by President Qais Saied to dissolve the elected parliament and suspend the constitution in 2021 constituted a watershed moment in Tunisia’s modern history. Despite being portrayed as a requirement to maintain the nation’s sovereignty and integrity, the decision has reverted Tunisia to an autocratic governance paradigm similar to that of Ben Ali and Bourguiba (Alexander & Parker, 2021), without the former’s charisma and international connections and acceptance. Today, I watched on Skynews Arabic a report on the capital’s decrepitude, while waste accumulate everywhere, at two steps from the parliament and the National Museum. Something I never witnessed in a country whose social capital used to be cleanliness and tourism.
Crisis of Governance: Where is Tunisia Headed?
The most recent political developments raise an urgent question: Where is Tunisia headed? There are three possible outcomes:
1. Continued Autocracy: Saied’s authoritarian authority might be strengthened further, potentially returning Tunisia to a time of harsh governance, called a “police state”.
2. Democratic Reversal: Internal and external pressures may force a return to democratic rule, which may see the return to power of the Islamists and the renewal of the terrorism threat which accompanied their rule – a discrepancy if we recall Ghannouchi (their leader) claiming that his Nahda Party is “the rampart against terrorism.”
3. Civil Unrest: Failure to solve the country’s numerous challenges could lead to civil unrest or civil war, similar to what other Arab Spring countries have experienced.
There may be other scenarios that require compromises, engagement and consensus.
Tunisia has reached a tipping point. Its transformation from a revolutionary beacon of hope to a battleground for power struggles and ideological differences serves as a cautionary story about the difficulty of democratic transitions. The country’s future depends on its elite’s ability to manage these issues and find a route that does not jeopardise its democratic ethos or stability.
- Achcar, G. (2013). The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. Saqi Books.
- Alexander, C., & Parker, A. (2021). Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly. Columbia University Press.
- Filiu, J. P. (2018). From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy. Oxford University Press.
- Zelin, A. Y. (2015). “The Tunisian Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.