The situation in Tunisia is more worrisome than you think
Opinie Conflict en Fragiele Staten

The situation in Tunisia is more worrisome than you think

02 Oct 2019 - 14:24
Photo: Demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia. © Amine Ghrabi/Flickr
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Tunisia has become the new donor darling of the West. The democratic processes appear to work with free and fair elections. However, the mixture of disappointment with the results of political changes, ‘anti-system’ narratives, experienced fighters, porous borders, instable neighbours and the bankruptcy of a political elite, may give rise to explosive developments.

After the deception of the developments in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen after the Arab Spring, there was a serious need in the West for a success story about the added value of democracy. Consequently, Tunisia has become the new donor darling of the West. In Tunisia the democratic processes appear to work. Elections appear to be free and fair. Active participation appears to be across the board. Islamists appear to be part of the political arena. The West loves it.

Tunisians have strong opinions and they seem to be able to express these in their country. Recently in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential elections – which were brought forwards after the death of President Béji Caïd Essebsi in July 2019 – some candidates even advocated a return to the pre-2011 state of affairs.

The question is, however, whether the reality is as rose coloured as the West would like to believe. The situation in Tunisia is more worrisome than we would like to acknowledge.

Losing trust in the system
Let us look at some facts. The Afro-barometer, which measures the level of trust of citizens in their respective governments across Africa, states that the trust of Tunisians in their government is at its lowest level since the 2011 revolutionary changes.

One of the main complaints is that the economic situation for the average Tunisian has not improved since the Jasmine Revolution. Inflation rates are high, the unemployment level is stable but at an ever high level and people complain about corruption.

We may celebrate the revolution and democratisation, but the question is whether the Tunisians feel the same

According to the American Heritage Foundation an estimated 816 million dollar was lost to corruption in 2017. Despite the political changes and all the freedoms, six out of every ten Tunisians say they risk retaliation if they report incidents of corruption.

Under those circumstances we should not be surprised to hear that more than half of Tunisia’s youth and highly educated have considered emigrating. The young generation is trying to get away. We may celebrate the revolution and democratisation, but the question is whether the Tunisians feel the same.

Observers from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Tunisia during the municipal elections, 2018. © Congress of Local and Regional Authorities/Flickr
Observers from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Tunisia during the municipal elections, 2018. © Congress of Local and Regional Authorities/Flickr

There were some twenty six candidates that ran for the presidency during the first round of the presidential elections on September the 15th. One of them is in prison. Some of them hold political positions in the present government, like the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence.

There were also ‘newcomers’: candidates that distance themselves from the system. They seek to get the ‘anti-system’ votes from those who are disappointed and feel marginalised and forgotten.

Nabil Karoui, the candidate who is in jail, is one of them. He is sometimes nicknamed the Berlusconi of Tunisia and is generally referred to as a media mogul, because he owns a TV broadcasting company called Nessma. It is obvious that Karoui does not shy away from exploiting his access to his own TV station.

Although he is in prison on charges of fraud, his imprisonment is helpful to advance his agenda because it is seen by many as a way to silence him. The system tries to manoeuvre him to an impossible situation, is the reasoning.

The first round of the presidential elections have sent a message, one of a vocal opposition against the system

Nabil Karoui is one of the two candidates who survived the first round. He will be up against Professor Doctor Kais Saied in the second round. The interesting fact here is that Mr Saied is also an outsider. He is a University professor that emerged out of nothing and who is not affiliated to any traditional political movement. Although of a totally different character, one could also describe him as a representative of the ‘anti-system’ vote.

In Tunisia the first round of the presidential elections have sent a message, one of a vocal opposition against the system. The system that has not delivered the expected improvements and that has left many in the cold.

If the choice for ‘anti-system’ candidates was not enough to send the message, the unpleasant supplementary truth is that the turnout at the elections was estimated at only 45 percent of the registered voters. The majority of the people simply stayed at home. The apathy and disappointment in Tunisia seems to be complete.

A breeding ground for extremism?
It all sounds very familiar: a Berlusconi look-alike, populism, a winner that is suspected of fraud, non-affiliated newcomers that are attractive to the voters. The phenomena are known by now, it is a sign of our times. In this sense, one could claim that Tunisia is going through the motions of what seems to become the new normal in twenty-first century democracies. The system itself is under attack, in Tunisia as much as elsewhere.

However, some alarming circumstances make Tunisia stand out as a particular case. To judge the political situation, these complicating factors need to be taken into account on top of the fact that Tunisia’s drastic democratic transition only dates back to 2011, some eight years ago. Democracy is still young and inexperienced. Moreover, the architect of Tunisia, the late President Béji Caïd Essebsi who played a constructive role after independence and after the 2011 revolution, is no more.

The orphaned country has some further concerns. First of all Tunisia is not placed somewhere between Belgium and France. It is geographically positioned in the heart of a region that is in turmoil, squeezed into a corner between Algeria and Libya.

Neighbouring Libya is a serious threat to the security of the whole region, but even more to its direct neighbours. There is hardly any control of the borders from the Libyan side. Securing the influx of armed groups, traffickers or other criminals is a concern left to the Tunisians.

‘Anti-system’ propaganda of IS may very well find support amongst the disappointed youth in Tunisia

The number of attacks by armed groups has been high in Tunisia, certainly up to 2015 when attackers killed tourists in Sousse and at the Bardo museum in Tunis. Even in June this year IS claimed responsibility for an attack in the capital.

The fact that IS emerged in Tunisia should not surprise us. Since the success of the international coalition against IS in the Middle East, members of the group that survived were looking for new battleground and fertile soil for their propaganda; propaganda that is ‘anti-system’ in nature. They may very well find support for that message amongst the disappointed youth in Tunisia.

Ballots in a polling station in Tunis during the elections of 2011. ©European Parliament/Flickr
Ballots in a polling station in Tunis during the elections of 2011. © European Parliament/Flickr

One may argue that the political newcomers, like Karoui and Saied, may give a voice to the disappointed and the marginalised. That may happen, but it is a risky gamble. Mostly because there is a different element at play. Tunisia holds a top position in the ranks of countries of origin of foreign terrorist fighters: radicals that joined IS in the Middle East. An estimated four-and-a-half-thousand Tunisians joined violent extremist organisations.

So far a thousand have returned to Tunisia, according to official figures. Apparently an additional thirty-thousand Tunisians were stopped from joining violent groups.

In a recent report produced by the Egmont institute in Brussels in April 2019, the organisation comes to the conclusion that the policies in Tunisia to deal with these returnees, and the ones that were stopped from travelling in the first place, is still in the making. The report claims that the absence of real deradicalization programs in Tunisia may very well result in the return to a radical environment of former foreign fighters.   

The mixture of disappointment with the results of political changes, ‘anti-system’ narratives, experienced fighters, porous borders, instable neighbours and the bankruptcy of a political elite, may very well give rise to explosive developments in Tunisia.

The country may deserve the status of a donor darling of the West, but only if the donors assist in real economic progress for the majority of Tunisians and if this is accompanied by tailor made and large-scale demobilisation and deradicalisation programs. If not, we may very well be in for a new disappointment.

Auteurs

Peter Knoope
Senior Visiting Fellow Clingendael