The ‘Arab Spring’ was triggered by the self-sacrifice of a Tunisian. Four years later Tunisia is the only country where the Spring’s early promise persists and, despite extreme pressures and many risks, political change is unfolding relatively peacefully. The new Nobel laureates, the National Dialogue Quartet, are an important part of the reason why. Here is some of the background.
Independence and after
Tunisia’s history has a gentler tone than its neighbours. It was part of the Ottoman Empire, yet with significant autonomy. Then it was under French control, yet never as tightly as neighbouring Algeria. And the war of independence, starting in 1953 was shorter than Algeria’s, with fewer casualties, and less trauma for both Tunisia and France. It led to autonomy in 1955 and independence from France the following year.
Tunisia was led to independence by Habib Bourguiba. His agenda was modernisation, his means were authoritarian and his politics were populist and nationalist. Bourguiba took control of the Neo-Destour Party machine before independence and the machinery of early statehood immediately after. Discussion about the new constitution was restricted to a small circle within the party. Political rivals were marginalized or arrested. Overall the aim was to create a secular republic, with equal rights for women and men, and limited privileges for Islamic institutions.
Independence provided distinct gains for ordinary citizens in education and the economy. Generally, if not comprehensively, living conditions improved. Over time, however, progress stalled. Expectations were raised and then disappointed, so frustration grew and the authoritarianism of the system allowed little room for manoeuvre. In 1987 the Prime Minister, Zine Ben Ali arranged for Bourguiba to be declared mentally unfit to govern. It was a bloodless coup, but little changed as Ben Ali won Presidential election after election with huge majorities.
The year of the spring
Mohamed Bouazizi was a university graduate; with no jobs available, he became a street vendor, facing constant police harassment and humiliation. One last incident pushed him to breaking point and he set fire to himself in December 2010. His suicide triggered political protests in early 2011 – the so-called Jasmine Revolution – that brought down President Ben Ali within weeks.
Part of what now kept Tunisia on a relatively peaceful track compared to Egypt, Libya and Syria was that the army was not an important political player.
Similarly, while the Salafist tradition in Tunisia is strong, it is not dominated by political militancy in the way it is in some other countries. The leadership of the Ennahda movement, the Islamists who had the leading role in the coalition that came to power in 2011, was cautious and pragmatic. Though the movement includes more militant and impatient groups, and despite inconsistencies in policy and action, the Ennahda government avoided the error that the Islamists committed in Egypt of pressing forward with a narrow agenda that would please only the movement’s supporters.
2013: the year of danger and dialogue
Even so, the signs were not good. In February and July 2013, political crisis was provoked by the murders of two leading left wing politicians. The coalition government steadily lost public support. The international environment deteriorated rapidly with growing chaos in Libya, the build-up in Egypt to the military removal of Mohammed Morsi from the Presidency, and the escalation of civil war in Syria.
The General Labour Union of Tunisia (UGTT) had called in June 2012 for a national dialogue. In July 2013 with the crisis intensifying it repeated the call, further asking for an interim government and a new constitution. Three groups joined the UGTT – the National Lawyers’ Organisation, the Human Rights League, and the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) – and thus the Quartet was formed. More than 20 political parties joined in a dialogue process that lasted from August 2013 to the following January, moderated by the Quartet.
Together, the Quartet had unparalleled legitimacy. Each of the four organisations seems to have had a solid basis in support from “its” sector of society and the cooperation of workers’ and employers’ organisations alike (UGTT and UTICA respectively) meant that initial criticisms of political partisanship, because the Quartet called for the coalition government to step down, carried less weight than they might otherwise have done. At the same time, it appears that the leaders of the four organisations understood how to apply their combined weight to achieve political compromise.
It is that period – the last third of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 – when the Quartet had its major impact. In 2014, under a new constitution, there were new elections, won by the secular Nidaa Tounes party, also a coalition of disparate forces including some leading figures from the days of Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
Sadly, the spirit of compromise appeared to be lost somewhat in an election campaign in which Nidaa Tounes used extreme language about the threat to freedom if Ennahda won.
Tunisia lives in a dangerous neighbourhood with war to its east and jihadis on all sides. With growing alienation among young men and a feeling of being left out of the benefits of revolution, recruitment from Tunisia for ISIS in Syria has been disproportionately high. Many Tunisian jihadis are also training in Libya.
The country has faced plenty of jihadi violence and in 2015 the tempo and scale of the attacks began to increase with the March massacre at the Bardo museum and the July beach massacre at Sousse.
Tunisia has great capacities for peaceful development, as the story of the Quartet shows, and as exemplified in the moment when waiters at the beach hotel at Sousse formed a human wall to protect tourists from the killer. It both needs and deserves international support that respects the strength of those capacities, as it continues to seek a peaceful way forward.