Tunisia: the bitter fight for transition



Just two years ago, after three weeks of mass demonstrations and labour strikes organised by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), President Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since his coup d’état in 1987, fled the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia.

He left behind him a trail of bloody repression, hundreds dead and thousands injured, a constitutional void and people in the streets chanting the same slogan, "freedom, dignity, social justice".

One distinctive element subsequently seen in other Arab Spring countries is the fact that it was not the opposition parties that forced the dictator to flee, having been reduced to silence for so many years, but the people, who were no longer able to tolerate the social and economic decline, the corruption and the systematic stifling of rights and freedoms.

This determined desire for change had been instilled in all sectors of society over the years by those whom sociologists refer to as ’the new social actors’: social media networks, the young unemployed, human rights activists, judges and a variety of NGOs who found logistical and operational support in the trade union apparatus of the UGTT.

On 14 January, 2011, Tunisia suddenly found itself, on the one hand, with a repressive system still in place but deprived of its head and, on the other, a people rising up but with no recognised leadership.

Faced with this equation, the army took the initiative of adopting a constitutional solution: it called on the head of parliament to be sworn in by virtue of the constitution, requiring an interim of two months before a new president could be elected.

The prime minister hence filled the void, but the people, keeping up their street protests for weeks on end, demanded the departure of all Ben Ali’s ministers and the election of a new Constituent Assembly with the aim of adopting a new constitution.

The second prime minister subsequently appointed was a politician who had been out of the public arena since 1990.

He secured the people’s support and vowed to respect their demands. Thus commenced, in a climate of relative calm, the democratic transition still underway in Tunisia today.



The election of the Constituent Assembly took place on 23 October, 2011 but, before the campaign even began, it was clear that one of the parties, the Islamist Ennahda party, already had a major advantage over all the rest.

Founded in 1981, it had a well-structured central apparatus that had been forged underground and in Tunisia’s prisons.

Its discourse, infused with religious ideology, is clearly backed by exceptional financial resources and its propaganda was relayed by several TV channels, such as Al-Jazeera, broadcasting by satellite from the Gulf.

It was a party that had never been in any way exposed to the test of power. In short, it had the ideal profile for a nation in search of radical change.

During the electoral campaign, Ennahda engaged in wide scale charity work in Tunisia’s poor neighbourhoods, pledged to create 400,000 jobs in a year, to triple the minimum wage, to recognise women’s rights to equality and to refrain from creating a theocratic State.

Not surprisingly, it triumphed at the elections with almost 43 per cent of the vote, winning 89 of the 217 seats.

Civil society representatives and independent candidates secured almost the same number of votes but were so scattered that they did not secure a single seat in the new Assembly.

To ensure an absolute majority for itself, Ennahda allied with two secular parties, one of which is a member of the Socialist International.

Tunisia thus became the first Arab country to experience being governed by a democratically elected Islamist party (to be followed by Egypt and Morocco).

Once in power, the Ennahda movement soon disappointed growing numbers of Tunisians, dissatisfied with its failure to deal decisively with urgent issues such as compensation for the families of those killed and injured in the Revolution, the fight against corruption, and the impunity still enjoyed by most leading members of the former regime.

At the same time, the opposition started to denounce the infiltration of the state apparatus and the recourse to systematic voting within the Constituent Assembly.



Criticism swelled against the attempts to control the media and the judicial system, to ban street protests, and the re-emergence of torture in Tunisia’s prisons. Resistance was organised and trade unionists, lawyers, judges and journalists mobilised en masse, forcing the Ennahda party to backtrack.

Women also succeeded in forcing it to withdraw a dangerously ‘ambiguous’ article drafted for the Constitution. On the economic front, the situation has worsened, with rising poverty and unemployment.

The deprived regions from which the Revolution was launched are seeing no sign of change. Falling production and investment are coupled with rising prices, and the country is experiencing water and power cuts for the first time.

Alarming socio-economic indicators are set against a background of public insecurity combined with a deficient police force and a surge in organised crime and smuggling.

The leaders of the Ennahda party recently admitted that they had not realised that the "country’s problems were so hard to resolve and that they do not have a magic wand".

The now united democratic opposition, which looks set, according to opinion polls, to win a majority in the next legislative elections, is relentless in its pressure to speed up the adoption of the new constitution and to set a date for the legislative elections.

But Ennahda is keeping silent.

Concerned by the gravity of the situation, the UGTT, which played a central role during and after the Revolution, took the initiative of convening a national round table in October 2012 with a view to drawing up a roadmap to complete the transition.

All the parties gathered around the table; except for the main ruling party Ennahda.

As we enter 2013, Tunisians are waiting impatiently for Ennahda to finally respond to the following key questions: when will the new constitution be adopted and when will elections be held? Under what electoral code and what conditions? Finally, will this Islamist party renounce the hegemonic desires it has on the state and society, and finally accept, without ambiguity, the rules of democracy and change-over of power?

Once again, it is the people of Tunisia itself that can make the difference, through its power to mobilise in favour of democratic forces and its determination to keep up the fight to defend its fundamental rights. Day after day.