Tunisia is often held up as the one bright result of the Arab Spring, but growing disillusion at the slow pace of economic development is giving rise to populist political leaders and places the achievements of seven years ago at risk, argue Elie Abouaoun and Molly Gallagher


The 2011 Arab uprisings brought about a number of today’s most brutal and relentless conflicts, some of which still rage on seven years later. Indeed, what began as mostly peaceful political protests played out differently across the region. On one end of the spectrum lies Syria, a country that seven years on bears little, if any, semblance to its pre-2011 self, and on the other end of the spectrum: Tunisia.

The tale of Tunisia is often paraded about as the single, shining success story to come out of the Arab Spring. The international community has since been quick and proud to praise its strides towards democracy and away from its legacy of an oppressive dictatorship, which, to some degree, is of course warranted. However, the one side of Tunisia’s story of transition that is often overshadowed is the perilous escalation of tension on all fronts (political, social and economic) that threaten the progression of the last seven years.

“This rising tension in Tunisia is largely due to the vast discrepancy between what citizens expected from the post-2011 government and the pace at which the new system… is actually able to deliver”

This rising tension in Tunisia is largely due to the vast discrepancy between what citizens expected from the post-2011 government and the pace at which the new system ― like any new system ― is actually able to deliver. The patience of the once hopeful citizenry is dwindling as it awaits the prosperity and fulfillment of the hastily-made promises of successive governments in the last seven years.

In the wake of the revolution, Tunisians witnessed rapid and momentous change. Within months they saw regime change, the creation of a new constitution and the formation of a new National Assembly. Many expected delivery on all their demands ― mostly economic ― to continue at this rapid pace. When, of course, it didn’t, the citizenry developed grievances, not against the economic and social actors at play, but rather against the post-2011 system of democratic governance itself. In parallel, leading figures in religious, political and social spheres still hesitate to effectively make public the reality that meaningful improvements in any of these realms would take years, if not decades, to achieve. Unfortunately, instead of arguing for innovative ideas about what could reasonably be achieved within the bounds of this fledgling democracy, rising populist actors on both sides of the political spectrum hope to exploit the widespread grievances to consolidate their own political reputations. This they do by promising what they cannot at this time achieve.

All of this disappointment resulted in incredibly low voter turnout rates in the first-ever municipal elections in May of this year. The numbers, a mere 33.7 percent of eligible voters, are indicative of a growing disillusionment in the political process by a disheartened constituency that no longer sees elections as a vehicle for political change.

Thousands of people gather on December 17, 2011, in Sidi Bouzid’s Mohammed square to celebrate of the first anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled their long-standing dictator (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Tunisians are also left shaking their heads at the recent chaotic political reshuffles and instability at the national level that are, by some, summed up to be personality-politics and the result of poor leadership and dysfunction within deeply fractured parties. The implications of such political standoffs for law enforcement agencies and for economic growth are visible and undermine tremendously the confidence of Tunisians in both their system and their leadership.

“What was once a sense of optimism and hope has faded to disenchantment and, what is arguably worse, apathy.”

What was once a sense of optimism and hope has faded to disenchantment and, what is arguably worse, apathy. Now a growing number of Tunisians have begun to believe that the prosperous and secure future they thought was on the horizon immediately after 2011 was “only a mirage”.
However, a nation can, in fact, bear the fruit of a hard-fought revolution given time and patience. Tunisia can also examine a few different remedies to repair the situation.

The first is decentralization, but only if done right. Despite the government’s recent baby steps to dilute the power concentrated in Tunis and distribute authority to the country’s most marginalized and rural areas, such efforts to bridge the gap between authorities and citizens will only be meaningful if carried out in parallel with anti-corruption laws, transparency, accountability and oversight. Otherwise, the government runs the risk of simply replicating bureaucratic inefficiencies and patterns of corruption on smaller scales.

On another front, well structured, outcome-oriented and community-based dialogue processes could also play a key role in bridging the gap in expectations between authorities and citizens; a gap that continues to widen as the government lacks anything even close to a communications strategy to explain its policy decisions. Conducting a dialogue process aimed at demystifying the policy options embraced by the government, including the adoption of controversial austerity measures, would serve to mitigate the tensions and confusion of citizens who currently think their government has hung them out to dry simply to improve its standing on the world stage.

In addition to better understanding and managing some expectations, a dialogue process may not only help to clarify some of the required, yet, unpopular economic decisions, but could also open the channels of communication to offer alternative solutions to complex issues such as the public sector employment, the old- fashioned and hidebound currency protection policies, redefining the necessary but currently distended role of powerful unions, and other reforms to stimulate growth – the only antidote to the current crisis.

It is important here to note that an effective dialogue process would not be one that merely convenes the country’s elite youngsters in the capital’s 5-star hotels in what many would likely deem a shallow public relations effort. Ideally, an an effective dialogue will initially focus on building consensus on local levels on the most urgent economic and social issues that the country is facing and could later expand to address broader, more contentious issues such as transitional justice. To strengthen these community-based dialogues, they should be paralleled by the same conversations at the national level.

The presentation of a solid, robust decentralization plan that the population can reasonably expect to see implemented, complemented by a structured economic and social dialogue has the potential to restore public faith in the political process and in Tunisian leadership. In the absence of these two factors, more frustration and tension could bring send the country backwards, rather than towards the long-awaited prosperous, stable and democratic Tunisia that its people so tirelessly fought for and, with these measures of good-will by the government, can still have reason to believe in.

Needless to say that such an endeavor is not the sole responsibility of an elected government. In fact, the private sector, unions, civil society organizations, media and other stakeholders have a crucial role to play, not only in pushing for the above-mentioned remedies but most importantly to be effective partners in setting the right agenda, building consensus and operationalizing the outcomes of the dialogues and reforms. The secret to inducing the overdue change that everyone is looking for lies first in the mindset of the key actors, including but not limited to the government.

Elie Abouaoun is the Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, based in Tunis, Tunisia. He specializes in Conflict Analysis & Prevention, Democracy and Governance, Global Policy and Violent Extremism in the MENA Region.

Molly Gallagher is the Executive Assistant for Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, based in Tunis, Tunisia. She is a recent graduate of the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, where she focused on Global Security, Conflict Resolution and Peace.