Tunisia, democratic transition and future challenges

Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring first arose, has a new democratically elected government. The secular Nidaa Tounes party overtook Ennahda in the parliamentary elections and won more seats than any other party and Beji Caid Essebsi won the presidential elections with a margin of more than 10 percentage points. His victory led the country to achieve a historic success: by selecting a new Parliament and President through democratic and regular elections, Tunisia became the first Arab country to have completed a democratic transition since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The country has been experiencing a political transition since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, giving way to Ennahda, the country’s Islamist movement that won the parliamentary elections. Due to the deal between Ennahda and two other parties, the presidency of Tunisian Parliament was given to Ennahda’s ally Moncef Marzouki, who secured the power in December 2011. Now Tunisia’s moderate Islamists, who won the election immediately after the 2011 revolution, remain the second largest party in the parliament but are not expected to be part of the coalition.

Tunisian elections represent the most significant proof that an inclusive political and democratic process is possible to achieve within a Muslim society after years of autocratic dictatorship. For this reason the United States strongly welcomed the new leadership and the U.S. Secretary of State Kerry defined Tunisia a “shining example to the region”. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, called the new Tunisian President to congratulate him on his victory, lauding the Tunisian spirit of peaceful compromise that prevailed during the four-year-long democratic transition and stressing the United States’ readiness to assist the incoming government.

The power handover ceremony was held on December 31th at an extraordinary plenary session in the House of People’s Representatives (HPR). President-elect Beji Caid Essebsi delivered a speech before an official power transfer ceremony took place between him and the outgoing President Moncef Marzouki in the Carthage Palace. The new President in his discourse stressed that the Tunisian democratic process has to rely on the legitimacy of national consensus in order to strengthen the electoral legitimacy of the institutions and the overall Tunisian political system. During the official ceremony of the celebration of the 4th anniversary of the Dignity Revolution and he defined that both national dialogue and national consensus the basis of the Tunisian experience, generally recognized an exeption in the region, paying tribute to the initiators of the national dialogue and, in particular, political parties involved in the transition process. As constitutional institutions of the “Second Republic” are established, it is necessary to address the issues that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring, therefore the President mentioned the importance of overcoming the factors of fears in order to achieve security in the country. Democratic transitions are usually fragile and affected by many factors of instability, therefore it appears fundamental strengthening institutions and laws, as well as to act concretely in order to protect free press and the civil society. Supporting the war against terrorism providing to those who defend the country means in terms of protective law, materials and equipment is another objective of the newly-appointed President, who called to mind “the heavy price paid by the security and military institutions in the war against terrorism. They lost 70 of their heroes, martyred in the field of honor in addition to 200 wounded”. To trust in the country’s future is the main recommendation is the main recommendation he did to Tunisian people, stressing the importance to trust in their elites and leaders without doubt and suspicion, as they “will lead to nothing good”.

Regarding the political assassination of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi, Beji Caid Essebsi affirmed that institutions will carry out investigations to reveal all the truth behind the attacks, stressing the steps forward in identifying the murderers of Lotfi Kallel, lynched by organisations pretending to be revolutionary guards. “The Dignity Revolution and was led by youths, not guided by politicians, without leadership, claiming no religious or political ideology and without external connection. This revolution has opened new prospects before Tunisians. It gave them great hope and allowed them to distinguish themselves abroad. It made of them an exception for the peaceful and civilised manner they led the democratic transition process”. Tunisians, he further added, paid a heavy price for the Dignity Revolution, as more than 300 Tunisian youths were martyred and nearly 4,000 wounded.

The former Ministrer of the Interior Habib Essid, as Prime Minister designate, has been asked by the newly elected president to form a coalition and name a cabinet over the next month. He held many posts in the previous governments. In particular he served in the Ministry of the Interior under Tunisia’s former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as chief cabinet secretary for four years starting from 1997, including during the 1999 presidential elections allowing Ben Ali to secure the powrer with 99.4% of the vote and judged neither free nor fair by the international community. The announcement was made after a meeting with Beji Caid Essebsi. Ennahda, whose members have been strogly repressed during Ben Ali dictatorship, was expected to protest against Essid’s appointment, but its spokesman Zied Ladhari welcomed the newly elected president’s decision, defining the decision to nominate an independent candidate from outside the majority party “a positive development” for the future of the country. The contrast with other released statements made by anti-regime parties such as Popular Front (al-Jabha) and the Democratic Current (Ettayar Addimoqrati), is evident. This attitude is a significant proof of Ennahda’s readiness to collaborate with the new President and Prime Minister, that will be in charge to choose Ministers and Secreataries of State who will have a seat in the new cabinet, excepting the Ministers of the Defence and of the Foreign Affairs. If the government will obtain the HPR’s confidence of the HPR, the President of the Republic will appoint the Prime Minister and the selected government members. In recent weeks, newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda’s leader Rashid al-Ghannushi seem to be preparing their constituents for the collaboration between the two main parties, as they are softening their respective images in the eyes of their supporters. For instance, Essebsi limited his usual criticism of Islamists, as despite continuing to blame Ennahda-led government for the current challenges the country has to face, he stated that Nidaa Tounes “will not govern alone” and that the party “does not want to build a partisan government”. These comments introduced the possibility that Ennahda could become a responsible political partner, whether in the coalition or the opposition. Rashid al-Ghannushi also adopted a positive attitude towards Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes, stating that if Ennahda did not fail the elections, there would have not been a political institutionalized turnover. He refused to support popular critics that Essebsi is part of Ben Ali’s old establoshment and that his victory represents a return to the former regime.

These declarations are part of Ennahda’s attempt to regain trust and restore its political standing in Tunisian politics. Indeed, despite the poor results gained in the legislative elections, the party celebrated “Tunisian democracy”. Furthermore, in order to demonstrate that it was taking in serious consideration the previous government’s mistakes, Ennahda decided to abstain from the presidential elections. This allowed the party to avoid making new enemies and gained political capital and possibility for new alliances with Nidaa Tounes.

On the other hand Nidaa Tounes, born in 2012 to contrast the Islamist Ennahda, lacks internal organization and has yet to hold a party congress. It is still weak in terms of internal organization, therefore the political strategy that will decide to adopt appears fundamental for its future. It could form a coalition government with Ennahda, but it risks confusing the party’s political aim and may loose those supporters who oppose any alliance and compromise with Islamists. On the other hand, without Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes should partner with smaller party blocs, creating a weaker and contradictory coalition whose members would come from very different political orientations and objectives, from radical leftists to pro-business capitalists. This would not be the ideal combination for a government whose principal goal is to fix Tunisian economy and consolidate the largely successful democratic transition.

Tunisians must now roll up their sleeves and begin the next challenge of actually governing. Nidaa Tounes won elections, but seems increasingly aware of Tunisia’s delicate situation and the importance to work with Ennahda, or at least find a mutual compromise to pursue the objective of political stability and foster economic growth. In the regional context Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition and it is important for the international community to support the country in this exceptional course.

The new President will have to contribute to pursue a deeper national unity in coordination with the new government and Parliament, addressing the legitimate grievances and overcoming the country’s divisions. It will be fundamental for the country’s democratic consolidation to protect freedoms and improve the transitional-justice process, as well as stimulate the economic growth, promote collaboration between parties, address domestic inequalities and create a strategic plan for fostering political decentralisation and non-discrimination. Governing institutions will be committed to address these goals, on the basis of a charter of political accountability.

After four years from the Arab uprisings, Tunisia became an example of democracy and stability for the entire region. Beji Caid Essebsi has defined the Dignity Revolution “a success that could not have been achieved without the contribution of successive governments since the Revolution, without the Tunisian administration, free press, civil society, national organisations and without those who chose to do something to serve Tunisia in difficult conditions for the sake of the national flag”. The Revolution has not stopped, it is in the text of the Constitution and in Tunisian institutions and development programmes. It is an unique example of free elections, free press and vibrant civil society, so that the country has been selected by “The Economist” as country of the year. 2015 will be a year of transition and challenges that will be faced by the government that will be created by the Prime Minister designate, Habib Essid. Restore security, establish political stability and foster economic growth reducing unemployment and ameliorating living standards in the interior regions are three objective strongly interconnected. What measures the institutions will adopt for solving the economic underperformance will have repercussions on addressing social divisions and the hoplessness that led many young Tunisians to depose Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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