Tunisia will go to the polls on 26 October in order to decide the composition of the new parliament and the new political balance that will determine the next phases of political transition. Since the uprising, there have been many and important steps toward real political and institutional change. Indeed, Tunisia has undergone a process of policy change involving the liberalization of political landscape, the subsequent participation of new political forces in the electoral process, the marginalization of the radical fringes, a dramatic rise in the levels of civil and political rights, and the adoption of a new constitution. Moreover, this process has taken place through national dialogue between the most important political actors, with civil society actors, such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), at the center of these talks.
All these factors paint a relatively optimistic future for Tunisia, especially on the eve of the next elections. Many analysts and experts have agreed in defining Tunisia as “the only success story” of the Arab Uprisings. Of course, there are still causes for concern, such as the ongoing economic difficulties Tunisia has to manage, the increasing polarization between Islamists and secularists, and the arbitrary arrests of political opponents and activists, which raise serious concerns about the question of human rights in the country. While this could be considered typical of political transitions, it is also indicative of various aspects of the democratization process, which has always entailed different phases leading up to the final stage. However, in addition to elements of optimism, it should be noted that Tunisia has yet to overcome a number of challenges in order to be considered a “successful case study” with regard to its process of democratization. These challenges can be addressed through policies and implemented by the new Tunisian government, but at the same time, their potential to generate new instability should not be discounted.
Despite the fact that Tunisia is now a relatively more “free” country than it was four years ago, regional inequalities continue to plague the country. These inequalities represent the internal socio-economic concerns of the country and are characterized by marked differences in levels of development between the coastal regions and the internal, southern ones. As the most recent World Bank report underlines, the unemployment rate in the region of Gafsa, for example, exceeds thirty percent, while the national average, still high, is half of that. While access to basic services is fairly widespread in coastal regions, the same cannot be said about the western regions. In Tunis, ninety-seven percent of the population has access to water, whereas this percentage drops to forty percent in the rural areas of the northwest. Even wider is the gap in access to sanitation services. In Tunis, ninety-three percent of homes have access to sanitation services while only twelve percent do in Sidi Bouzid, for example. Seventy-seven percent of public health structures are concentrated in localities that are less than an hour away from a major city, while only one percent is located in villages that are more than two hours from major urban centers, where twenty percent of the Tunisian population lives. The government’s policy of investments in infrastructures during the past few decades has focused almost exclusively on the development of coastal areas. As for foreign investment, only thirteen percent of all companies that are established in Tunisia are located in lesser-developed areas.
Such differences are at the basis of the uprising of 2010-2011 and, until the regional gap is bridged, Tunisia cannot be said to be a country completely democratized. The spatial imbalance brings us to the real challenge for Tunisia today: economy. In part related to the problem of regional disparities, Tunisia`s economy has a number of structural weaknesses. The high rate of unemployment is a structural problem in the country, as is evident with the high unemployment rate of graduates. Just before the fall of Ben Ali, what was painted as a model of development has now been characterized by its serious deficiencies, such as the low level of internal competitiveness, a high trade deficit, public debt, high level of corruption, and the absence of targeted investments for the development of the less well-off. The Jomaa government has, in part, been trying to start a process of reforms in the economic sector and, at the same time, Jomaa himself spent much time abroad in search of new investments and loans. However, the new government will have to implement an organic system of reforms that will make the Tunisian economy more competitive and adequate enough to meet the high standards of its workforce and infrastructures.
While the economy still faces recovery, security issues have gained greater traction Tunisia during the last months. The question of security is closely tied to the political assassinations of two prominent members of the opposition: Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. These assassinations and other occurrences are symptomatic of the emergence of new forms of radical Islamism and jihadism within the country. These are the result of a double phenomenon, one of which is linked to the expansion of groups linked to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is spreading in Tunisia and has become the perpetrator of several attacks against security forces on the border with Algeria, primarily in the area of the Chaambi Mountains. This internal war has already caused dozens of casualties among Tunisian soldiers. The other aspect is that there is a growing trend of radicalization among Tunisians, who are increasingly feeling marginalized by a process of transition that initially characterized them as protagonists. Oftentimes, these groups are comprised of disenfranchised youth, mostly concentrated in the suburbs of large cities, such as Tunis, and in lesser-developed areas, such as Kasserine. The so-called foreign fighters who went to fight in Syria and Iraq stand as a litmus test for the verification of this growing trend of radicalization in Tunisia. According to a study based on official estimates, there are more than three thousand Tunisian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, the highest number of any foreign national group fighting in the region. From a political point of view, the troika government has focused exclusively on the suppression of the Salafi movement associated with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), taking advantage of the internal conflict for political capital. However, there is no evidence directly linking AST and the jihadist groups active in the Chaambi. Moreover, from the legislative point of view, there is the need for a new anti-terrorism law that goes beyond that of 2003, which has been criticized as detrimental to human rights. Most importantly, the Tunisian political class should be more inclusive in its processes, involving segments of the population that have been marginalized over the years.
It is difficult to talk about a successful transition when data about the growing disaffection toward the “new” politics paints an image of a Tunisian population that is increasingly disillusioned. According to a research conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Tunisians who now believe that democracy is the best kind of government is only forty-eight percent, against sixty-three percent in 2012. Seventy-three percent of Tunisians believe that the most important thing for the country is a strong economy, while only twenty-five percent think it is a democratic government. In comparison with 2012, the percentage of those who think that a stable government without democracy is better than the opposite has doubled from sixty-two percent. Eighty-one percent of respondents are not satisfied with how things are going in Tunisia and the two most popular institutions are the army and the police. From these data we can easily perceive the frustration that is still present among most Tunisians. As previously underlined, the security situation is deteriorating, while the socio-economic conditions have not yet improved. In light of these factors, most Tunisians think that a better economic situation–even without democracy–would be preferable to a democratic system without economic and political stability. On the one hand, this confirms how much economic and security issues are perceived as more important than democratization. On the other hand, this is a worrying signal that highlights the weaknesses of the current political class in failing to convince its constituents regarding its commitment toward democratization.
Indeed, by contrast, the political parties that have been involved in the transition have been increasingly viewed with disfavor. The three parties making up the so-called troika, Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), and Ettakatol, have seen their popularity fall compared to 2012, respectively, from sixty-five percent to thirty-one percent, from forty-eight percent to twenty-six percent, and from forty-four percent to twenty-six percent. This means that Tunisians negatively judge the government that has ruled so far. Therefore, this could turn into a victory for Nidaa Tounes, even if the conservative electoral base will likely support Ennahda again. However, the political actors in which Tunisians have more confidence are the current Prime Minister Jomaa (a technocrat), and the UGTT, a symptom of a disconnection between politics and citizens. Moreover, a generational gap does exist. Despite the post-Ben Ali openness, the most important political positions are still occupied by people belonging to the old guard. For example, RCD-linked figures are making a comeback within the ranks of Nidaa Tounes. Additionally, the average age of the various political parties` leadership is high, as exemplified by Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes and one of the likely winners of the next presidential election, who is eighty-eight. In the light of these numbers, many Tunisians are asking themselves where the supposed new politicians are and whether or not it is worth to vote. In 2011, young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five who voted in the elections made up only seventeen percent of the total turnout. In the meantime, many young Tunisians preferred not to directly participate in the political process, but chose rather to be active within non-governmental organizations or within student movements.
The problems highlighted indicate that the Tunisian transition is still rife with obstacles. The parliamentary elections of 26 October represent a turning point in the democratization process of the country. However, in addition to the grounds for optimism there are persistent socio-economic and political problems that threaten a linear path of political transition. In particular, although there have been undeniable progresses in terms of political and civil liberties, there still remain difficulties in the economic field, as well as in the political system, which is still perceived as too distant from the real needs of the population. Post-elections Tunisia will have to be able to offer alternatives for all Tunisians and overcome internal ideological divisions. The need for renewal is as true for Ennahda, as (even to a greater extent) for the secular parties, who are oftentimes more involved in personality campaigns than in programmatic ones. However, what is needed to consolidate the first phase of transition is a structured political program with a long-term vision. If long-term policies are implemented in order to cope with these major challenges, then Tunisia could be said to have inched toward democratization. The conditions are there, but there is still a need for concrete responses to the challenges that, since 2011, have been left unaddressed on the Tunisian government’s table.