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Karim Barakat

Post-revolution Tunisia and the promise of modernisation

Tunisia is regarded as one of the Arab Spring's few success stories [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 January, 2016

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Comment: Tunisia is struggling with corruption and unemployment, and the challenge for Ennahdha lies between favouring the values of modernity and working towards political stability, writes Karim Barakat.

Tunisia has acquired the status of the only Arab state to have successfully transitioned towards democracy following the Arab Spring uprisings.

Whereas neighbouring states have slipped into political turmoil or outright violence, Tunisia has conducted elections twice thus far, paving the way for political engagement and fostering a democratic atmosphere.

The Tunisian success was further acknowledged with awarding the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.

Yet the path to democracy inaugurated by the ousting of Ben Ali in 2011 appears to have been diverted by several setbacks that have recently appeared, from crises within state institutions to economic difficulties, along with the low youth turnout in the 2014 election.

Transition problems 

The birth pangs of Tunisia's modernisation are still plaguing both state institutions and the social body. These have threatened to undermine the achievements of the political transformation that occurred five years ago.

Read more: Tunisia imposes curfew in western city after youth protests



At the institutional level, several Nidaa Tunis resignations have allowed the moderate Islamist Ennahdha to regain a parliamentary majority. The resignations followed President Beji Caid Essebsi's decision to transfer political power in the party to his son.

The move sparked a flurry of accusations that Essebsi planned to establish dynastic rule.

Subsequently, Essebsi's 2014 campaign manager, Mohsen Marzouk, while maintaining his antagonism towards the Islamist Ennahdha, vowed to establish a new party along with the resigned MPs.

Ennahdha, meanwhile, continued to support Essebsi, preferring concord over conflict.

But the parliamentary crisis has also been coupled with the reinstatement of emergency law, following several suspected IS attacks on Tunisian troops and tourist sites. Over the past few years, emergency law has been repeatedly brought back with the continuous threat posed by violent fundamentalism.

To further the political instability, the attacks have also prompted the prime minister to invoke major cabinet changes.

Moreover, problems inherited from the old regime have endured in the security apparatus. A number of human rights violations against detainees have been recorded, the latest of which has led to delaying the trial of 24 Tunisians accused of taking part in the assassination of Chokri Belaid in 2013.

But in addition to the surfacing of political disorder and rights violations, the Tunisian state also appears to be restoring its corrupt elements.

Hafedh Essebsi's rise to power constitutes only one such instance. But more significantly, the Truth and Dignity Commission, allotted the task of investigating parties responsible for corruption during the Ben Ali regime, appears to have been stripped of its role following Essebsi's proposal of a general amnesty under the pretext of encouraging foreign investment.

Read more: Tunisians return a fear to the police state



Tunisia's difficult economic situation, which is accompanied by a high rate of unemployment, has pushed major political players to favour stability over social justice.

Rached Ghannouchi has offered support to Essebsi's plan, which has led some to raise protests that the scheme is intended to cover up corruption on both sides; that pertaining to the Troika government headed by Ennahdha, and past acts during the autocratic reign of Ben Ali, in which Essebsi occupied senior positions.

Ennahdha's dilemma

These problems surfacing in Tunisia today render the promise of modernisation and the formation of a democratic state questionable. The Ennahdha Party appears to acquire a significant role here, following Ghannouchi's development of a political view that reconciles Political Islam with the values of modernity.        

In 2014, Ennahdha wisely decided to relinquish its monopoly over rule with the increase of political violence in Tunisia, and the rise in the numbers of Tunisian youth who chose to fight alongside violent fundamentalist groups in Syria.

Today, however, the party finds itself making a delicate choice between maintaining security on the one hand, and working towards social justice on the other.

But if Tunisia managed to survive the political vacuum resulting from the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011, the cases of Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt suggest that political conflict could easily slip into full-fledged chaos.

The Ennahdha party is faced with a dilemma today, either choosing security and stability at the expense of social justice and democracy, or favouring social justice, which runs the risk of sliding into conflict.

Today, the modernised Islamism advocating democracy and freedom of speech that Ghannouchi has espoused for decades appears to have been subjected to the pragmatism of politics.

But the clash with the ideals of the revolution is gradually becoming palpable. Five years after the beginning of the uprising, Tunisians gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue again raising slogans of freedom and demanding employment.

The revolt has come a full circle, with a general sentiment present among the youth that it has not ended. Its future, however, remains hostage to the political groups that have dominated the political sphere.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut. 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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