The troubled future of democracy in Tunisia


Tunisia’s position as perhaps the sole success story of the Arab uprisings of 2011 has been cast in ever-greater doubt in light of the political, health, and economic crises facing the country.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the first of several regional leaders to be displaced following the Arab uprisings, with oil-poor Tunisia unable to repress protestors in the way that richer Gulf states could. At the time, the introduction of democracy looked promising. Tunisia had a strong civil society which helped balance secular and Islamist forces, reflected in a new constitution that embodied compromise. It also had a small and relatively apolitical army, helping to explain why it didn’t fall victim to military-led counter-revolution, as was seen in Egypt. Consequently, Tunisia has held a fragile democracy for a decade.

A health ministry spokesperson recently admitted that the Tunisian health system was ‘catastrophic’ and ‘has collapsed’

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged Tunisia, with the acuteness of the current crisis catching the attention of the world in recent weeks. The country currently holds the Arab world’s highest Covid-19 death rate (although not all countries are as transparent with their data). Government incompetence, coupled with a lack of global vaccine supplies, is largely to blame.

A health ministry spokesperson recently admitted that the Tunisian health system was ‘catastrophic’ and ‘has collapsed’. The most emblematic example of this problem occurred just several days ago when temporary vaccination sites were opened to over 18s to mark the Eid al-Adha festival, leading to stampedes. The health minister was subsequently dismissed, one of several personnel changes to the crucial role since the start of the pandemic. At present, just 7% of the population are vaccinated, with several ministers skipping the queue to become included in such a dismal figure, further eroding trust in the government.

Tunisia has become reliant on foreign support, with Arab neighbours engaged in what Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes as a proxy war of vaccine diplomacy. Saudi Arabia has sent one million jabs, followed by the UAE’s 500,000, and Algeria’s 250,000. The US and France are also offering support. 

Youssef Cherif, a political analyst, argues that donations of vaccines and medical supplies should improve the situation in the next few weeks. However, repairing the health situation will be inadequate for a country that has been long characterised by political and economic instability.

Tunisians have been taking to the streets in recent months

Tunisia’s various post-uprising prime ministers have lasted around one year on average. Such political volatility has severe consequences, with Amnesty International reporting that the current standoff between the PM and President is believed to have played a role in delaying the pre-order of vaccines and has inhibited the pandemic response due to the blocking of ministerial appointments.

Furthermore, the country faces a youth unemployment rate of over 35%, and disposable income has been steadily falling since the removal of Ben Ali, with an IMF bailout and the associated austerity measures looking likely. Such negative indicators help to explain why Tunisians have been taking to the streets in recent months, as well as the longer-term trend of Tunisians providing one of the main catchments for radical Islamist groups.

Such a problematic domestic situation serves to threaten Tunisian democracy. Firstly, Cherif notes that the recently expanded role of the army in the pandemic response, as ordered by the President, may set a dangerous precedent for its role in Tunisia’s future. But perhaps more concerning is the rise of populist forces, cultivated by the political and economic instability of the country. The Free Destourian Party (PDL), projected by some polls to win an election if it was held at present, has been fielding candidates who convey conspiracy theories and a nostalgia for the Ben Ali regime. Its President, Abir Moussi, one of the most popular politicians in Tunisia, has talked of banning her rivals from politics.

It appears as if the fragility of Tunisia’s democracy is likely to become ever more apparent.

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, the Tunisian president has sacked the prime minister and suspended parliament, following violent protests across the country. Whilst the move has been described by opposition as a ‘coup’, it has been met with thousands of people gathering in celebration.

Image: Nasser Nouri via Flikr

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