Tunisia in Context

Tunisia in Context

The revolution in Tunisia did not take place in a vacuum. After having been ruled for more than 30 years by the same president, Zineal-Abidine Ben Ali, with his continued corruption, repression and abuses of power, the Tunisian people rose up in protest. But maintaining the revolution’s momentum toward democracy will remain a challenge in the months to come.


In 1987, Habib Bourguiba was ousted from the presidency by a coup d’etat, thereby dismantling the political bases that had sustained the Tunisian regime since 1956. Ben Ali was appointed president and immediately proclaimed the restoration of a New Republic that would be led by a democratizing driving force.

The first presidential step taken toward the political liberalization of the country was the renaming of Bourguiba’s party Neo Destour into the Constitutional Democratic Rally, which was regarded as a symbol of the advent of Ben Ali’s new leadership. The liberation of political prisoners, the legalization of lay political parties and the recognition of the Islamist party (Ennahda) as a political interlocutor were also seen as further advances toward the achievement of political pluralism. As another liberalizing gesture, the new constitution and electoral code conferred an elective character to the Parliament and the presidency. Finally, promises of social and economic development gave Ben Ali the people’s vote of confidence.

However, the process of dialogue and promising transition stopped at that point. The rest of the story of Ben Ali’s Tunisia was dominated by frustrated expectations and unfulfilled agreements. Ben Ali had control over all the institutional, political, economic, media and security tools required to manipulate the political process, and he did not hesitate to make use of them. The constitution and electoral code were amended time after time, facilitating five “tailor-made” presidential and parliamentary elections – held in 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009 – to secure the ultradominance of the president and his party in the parliamentary and executive arenas. Wide and dense social networks of informers were created to strengthen the regime’s security. Police and courts were overwhelmed, while political prisons were filled with journalists, human rights’ defenders and lay and Islamist political critics. The collaborationist and loyalist opposition (rewarded for supporting the president) moved away from taking up social issues, and in turn lost leadership appeal and legitimacy. Unbalanced investment policies created notable social and economic inequalities between regions. Administrative and commercial corruption made Ben Ali’s family businesses flourish, while social assistance – often linked to political loyalty to Ben Ali’s regime – did not in address increasing poverty around the country.


Ben Ali’s sixth presidential mandate began Nov. 14, 2010 without any political novelty on the horizon. At that time, the president could never have expected that one month later, the political mismanagement of a specific, individual and dramatic protest – Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide – would lead to a generalized and massive revolution.

Ben Ali made four consecutive political mistakes between the middle of December 2010 and the middle of January 2011 that fostered a chain of actions, reactions and counter-reactions that unraveled the sociological and psychological knots that he and his party had imposed on the fabric of Tunisian society for more than two decades.

Firstly, Ben Ali saw no reason to expect that Bouazizi’s death would have any repercussion. In fact, many others had previously died in prisons and revolts, or risked their lives with long hunger strikes, without having any noticeable impact on public opinion. However, out of the blue, Bouazizi became a potent symbol of the desperate situation that thousands of impoverished rural and urban Tunisians were experiencing.

Second, Ben Ali ordered the police to severely repress the first solidarity demonstration organized by Bouazizi’s neighbors. Within a short time, injured and dead citizens became a symbol of the people’s martyrization.

Next, Ben Ali accused those who participated in subsequent spontaneous mobilizations (demanding legal accountability, economic reforms and political change) of terrorism and betrayal. At that point Ben Ali lost all his political credibility and Tunisian citizens were committed to change. That is why Ben Ali’s later promises to leave the presidency by the 2014 election inflamed popular feelings of indignation and fury.

Finally, by ordering the army to open fire against unarmed demonstrators, Ben do compose a heterogeneous and diff use counter-revolutionary force whose mere existence threatens the successful development and conclusion of democratization efforts.

Why does some counter-revolution feeling persist? Several factors may justify the fervor of some of Ben Ali’s supporters and their feelings of being victims of institutional, political and social exclusion and revenge. Among these factors are the illegalization of their party and the seizure of their properties and money; the imprisonment of their party leaders; the exclusion of party militants from commissions overseeing the transition; the elimination of the party nucleus from the lists that will compete in the 23rd October 2011 elections; the party’s sudden and enforced lack of influence in the Tunisian system; the legalization of the Islamist party Ennahda and its stated aim to run in the next election.

In other words: a short while ago Ben Ali’s party “possessed the system” and now the system has dispossessed them. As a result, some of the dispossessed increase the sense of social insecurity at the neighborhood level by robbing and pillaging. Others operate around the country by “trimming” the recently won liberties of political expression and meetings in the streets by intimidating, provoking and attacking participants. A number of Ben Ali’s supporters are suspected of taking action at administrative levels by promoting institutional mismanagement – which has led to, for example, mass escapes from prisons. Various others are even thought to have infiltrated the army and to have prepared for a coup d’état in the case that the 23rd October electoral results give the Assembly majority to Ennahda.


Today, the interim authorities are not only dealing with conflicts that arise from counter-revolutionary activities, but also other destabilizing factors. Since strikes are continuing in some regions, key foreign industries are abandoning the country, which complicates the task of employment promotion. The Libyan civil war has put at risk the security of the Tunisian frontier and Tunisian income from foreign tourism. On the other hand, recent polls have shown that a significant portion of the Tunisian people disagree with Western military intervention in the region and European Union management of the irregular flows of Tunisian immigration. This taints the role that the United States and European Union may take in the supervision of the forthcoming Tunisian elections and the construction of a new regime. Furthermore, while Tunisians may feel interested in the elections, they do not clearly identify with the old or new parties, or their projects and their leaders, which may hinder election turnout. Additionally, a new radical Islamist party (Ettahrir) has recently become very active, negatively affecting the already delicate relationship between lay and moderate Islamists. More to the point, any debate about the Muslim or lay nature of the state could easily polarize Tunisian society during discussions about the constitutional amendments in the Constituent Assembly after the elections. In addition, al-Qaida members were recently captured and found guilty of planning a terrorist attack in the country, which confirms that the organization seeks to condition the Tunisian electoral process by means of terror.

There is no doubt about the complex panorama that surrounds post-revolutionary Tunisia. However, there are also no doubts about the enormous efforts being made to address the difficulties and generate the necessary conditions for a successful democratizing transition. At this moment, the tension between threats and opportunities are finely balanced. Now is the time for Tunisians to seize the moment and establish democratic stability.

Fuentes is professor of Arab politics and Maghreb political systems in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the University of Granade (Spain). Her main research interests are political parties and electoral policies


12/17/10 Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire to protest police trying to seize his veggie cart. This incident sparks the Tunisian protests.

12/29/10 Ten days after protests, Tunisian president, Zine Abidine Ben Ali appears on TV promising to institute reforms.

1/14/11 Tunisian President Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia amidst continued, massive protests in the country.

1/19/11 Switzerland freezes Ben Ali’s assets.

2/27/11 Tunisian Prime Minister, Mohamed Ganouchi, resigns amidst unrest.

3/09/11 A Tunisian court dissolves Ben Ali’s former political party. Tunisia celebrates.

4/23/11 Fedia Hamdi, the market inspector who allegedly slapped Bouazizi, is found innocent of slapping the vegetable seller, who later burned himself.

5/03/11 President Ben Ali’s assets in Switzerland are frozen for a three year term.

5/08/11 Tunisia enforces a night time curfew after clashes between protesters and police.

5/25/11 Slim Amamou, a former jailed Tunisian blogger quits his post as Minister of Youth and Sport, saying his job is done.

5/27/11 The G8 pledges 20 billion USD in aid to Tunisia and Egypt.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on