Inspired by the attempted January 6th insurrection in Washington, D.C., “Changing of the Guard” is a series of reflections on transitions of power — the peaceful, the violent, and the era-defining.
Tunisia has managed to establish itself with impressive feats such as being the only country in North Africa labelled as “Free” by Freedom House and one of the only Arab countries to be regarded as democratic by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. It is also the country that largely influenced the 2011 Arab Uprisings which swept through the Arab world and caused large-scale protests and demonstrations in countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Yemen. In Tunisia’s case, they were able to gain democratic freedoms the people had fought hard for but unfortunately the same had not happened for other countries that had followed their example. That being said, Tunisia’s history is one largely characterized by rapid transitions of power and coups. The big question is whether Tunisia has moved on from these instabilities or is there risk of future instability in the region? Were the rights gained in the Tunisian Revolution truly worth it or is there another political leader on the horizon just waiting for the right moment to strike?
Habib Bourguiba: The Revolutionary
The first major transition of power occurred in 20th century Tunisia with Habib Bourguiba who was one of the most central figures in shaping Tunisia into what it is today. Bourguiba started from humble beginnings and by his thirties was largely involved in the anti-colonial movement that was rapidly gaining traction. He went on to co-found the Neo Destour Party which ended up leading the Tunisian Independence Movement. After decades of struggle, Tunisia finally gained its independence from France in 1956 with Bourguiba appointed Prime Minister by King Muhammad VIII al-Amin. The freedom of shedding a colonial identity can never be overstated. It seems counterintuitive to have to fight for independence seeing as freedom should be a given. Unfortunately, the history of this world has proven this to be false and so the decolonization that swept through African countries during the 50s and 60s is truly a triumphant shift in power.
The same day that the Constituent Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy, Tunisia was declared a republic. Bourguiba would go on to become the first president of Tunisia’s history. He would go on to have a 30-year reign and even boldly declared in 1975 that he would be “president for life”. It would take a bloodless coup in 1987 to oust him from power and this was carried out largely because of the fear that Bourguiba was no longer acting rationally. However, in his prolonged time in office Bourguiba carried out many reforms that are largely why Tunisia is seen as so democratic today. His contributions to women’s rights are especially noteworthy. His passage of the Code of Personal Status (CPS) represented his commitment towards codifying necessary rights for women such as legalizing divorce and abolishing child marriage. It isn’t a perfect document and there are still issues of gender equality that need to be addressed such as unequal inheritance laws between men and women. These reforms are accurately held as incredibly influential and demonstrated Bourguiba’s willingness to move towards greater equality between men and women. He was seen as a revolutionary for his relentless pursuit of independence and his commitment towards making laws aimed at modernizing Tunisia. The contradiction is clear, his democratic reforms were lauded for being ahead of its time but he was still an authoritarian ruler who didn’t believe his people were ready for political pluralism and ensured that Neo Destour would be the only legally permitted party in 1963. His successor Ben Ali would represent yet another transition in power in Tunisia’s history.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: Deposed by the People
In the bloodless coup in 1987, Habib Bourguiba was replaced by his recently appointed prime minister Ben Ali, who invoked Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution in order to gain power. Ali listed Boruguiba’s failing health as an inability to effectively lead and take control. Ali stated his intent to be more democratic than Bourguiba but by 1989 it soon became clear that this wouldn’t be the case. After all, power and influence are two very potent and dangerous drugs. During his 23-year reign, the press was subjected to harsh censorship, political opponents were largely disenfranchised, and Ali continued to win elections with improbable amounts of votes. There were other major issues in the country such as large amounts of unemployment which greatly angered people who felt ignored and unsupported. Furthermore, not only was freedom of the press largely restricted but there was little to no freedom of speech. All of these came to a head in 2011 when massive protests demanded Ben Ali’s immediate resignation. These protests were greatly fomented by the 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which gained international renown. It is hard to imagine the level of repression Bouazizi and others like him faced which drove him to set himself on fire. His actions are credited with being the catalyst for the 2011 Tunisian Revolution (also called the Jasmine Revolution) which in turn influenced the Arab Uprisings. The widespread protests in Tunisia ultimately succeeded in overthrowing Ben Ali. Ousting Ben Ali meant that Tunisia could begin a transition to a truly democractic form of governance uninhibited by an autocrat. In the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia was able to host free multiparty parliamentary elections. A presidential election then followed where Moncef Marzouki (a former dissident) was elected. To this day Tunisia is categorized as a democratic republic and the revolution was able to grant citizens civil liberties such as greater freedom of speech. In countries like Yemen and Syria, intense civil conflict erupted as a result of the Arab Uprisings but Tunisia largely emerged stable. With new political liberties granted to citizens, many saw Tunisia as one of the few success stories of the Arab Uprisings. For once a transition of power was demanded by the masses and achieved. And unlike countries like Yemen and Syria which erupted into civil war, Tunisia did not experience such a phenomenon. However, 10 years later, there are now those who wonder if it was even worth it in the first place.
“The only positive thing we got out of the revolution was the freedom to say anything we wanted…Maybe we understood freedom wrong, because we’ve made no progress in the last 10 years,” said Ayman Fahri, 24, to the New York Times, a trade student who said he wanted to leave Tunis, maybe for Turkey, because of the lack of opportunities at home. A lot of the problems faced by the country which led to the protests in the first place, such as unemployment, are still an issue today. There is also deadlock in the parliament which stems from wealthy elites facing off against each other. This has rightfully caused tremendous frustration amongst the people which has also translated into lower voter turnout (from a high of 68 percent in the 2014 parliamentary elections to 42 percent in 2019). While there is a shared sentiment that the freedom of speech gained from the revolution is invaluable there is still great disillusionment across Tunisia that all the fight was for nought. Since January 2021 there has also been a rise in protests and riots in the country by young people and civil society groups who are highly dissatisfied with the current situation. Citing reasons such as police brutality, corruption, and severe problems as a result of the pandemic, many have taken to the streets to protest the government and their ineptitude in solving these major issues. Unless major and radical change occurs it is hard to envision a peaceful resolution for these protests where over 1,400 people have already been arrested and countless more are willing to risk their lives to fight for what’s right. This is a precarious situation and one that can be easily taken advantage of.
A figure that has grown in prominence and distinction in recent years is Abir Moussi, a former official of Ben Ali’s party. Moussi represents a populist, anti-revolution movement that continues to gain more and more popularity. While she denies any accusations that she is in a bid to gain power, it is wise to approach these words with great caution. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time in the country’s history that a charismatic leader has managed to gain vast amounts of support and gain power. At this point, one can wonder why a country who fought so hard to escape authoritarianism would fall back into it but it’s important to recognize that in other areas of the world, authoritarian regimes are not always seen as bad. It is a very Western-oriented frame of mind to believe that democracies are what should always be instated. If a regime manages to offer stability, prosperity, and security to its citizens then what more could someone ask for. Human rights abuses are commonly touted as a reason why authoritarian regimes should not be allowed full reign and I completely agree with this argument. This is why moving forward, I hope Tunisia remains vigilant and works hard to ensure that leaders who wish to cause harm are not able to come to power. Tunisia has proven time and time again that it is not to be underestimated. It is truly an influencer of change and with luck, it will manage to find a way to ensure stability and bring reprieve to its citizens.