Tunísia: Entre a força do Autoritarismo e a vontade da Democracia

 As opiniões expostas neste artigo vinculam exclusivamente os seus autores.

Once regarded as “Free” by Freedom House, Tunisia has now been characterized as “Partly Free” as it has been facing an authoritarian shift, which is alarming (Freedom House, 2022), especially for the European Union, since the country has been a major ally with whom it has long-standing trade relations – since both actors signed an Association Agreement in the 90s – in particular after the 2011 Revolution, seen as a turning point from which the EU started to support its democratic transition (European Commission, 2022). Nevertheless, things appear to be changing and the remaining question is whether Tunisia can overcome this stalemate and keep being one of the Union’s closest allies in the region and role model for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa regarding democratization. 

From the moment of its independence until the famous Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia only met two leaders – Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali –, both leaving a mark on the country, albeit for different reasons (Bessis, 2019). If, on the one hand, Bourguiba had the mission of creating a Nation-State after several years of French domination, on the other hand, Tunisia under Ben Ali got to be known as the police state par excellence (Lutterbeck, 2013) while trying to end Bourguiba’s legacy and secularising the country (McCarthy, 2014).

After achieving its independence in 1956 from France (Bessis, 2019), the country welcomed Habib Bourguiba as President, whose aim was to initiate a process of modernisation: the Code du statut personnel was created, which was a set of laws enabling equality between women and men: for instance, requiring marriage to be performed only in the event of the mutual consent of both parties and creating a judicial procedure for divorce (McCarthy, 2014, 1957); the school system, based on the koranic and westernized double teaching curriculum, was modified; the dual system of justice was abolished, establishing civil courts and ending the influence of religion on the judiciary. Even though his intention was not to disregard the role of Islam within society, his measures were the object of much criticism by Tunisians who were open to a renewal of Arab-Muslim values – but not to leave their identity behind (McCarthy, 2014, p.).   Although considered as “hardly democrat” – mainly for using the judiciary to oppress its opponents (in particular the Islamists) – Bourguiba was particularly remarkable for its historic role in the achievement of independence, but also in matters of generalising education and free healthcare (The Economist, 2014)

In 1987, the Father of the Nation (Omar Fassatoui & Zyed Krichen, 2022) was deposed by the controversial Ben Ali[i]: while contributing to the modernisation of infrastructures and economic growth, his 23 years in power will always be remembered as “la mise en place d’une succession de dispositifs destinés à pérenniser le pouvoir du Chef de l’État et à garantir l’enrichissement de sa parentele[ii] (Bessis, 2019). More than the opposition he showed to Islamic heritage and influence in the country (McCarthy, 2014), what stood out from his regime was the way the police served as its main source of power (Lutterbeck, 2013)[iii].

The brutality of the regime, coupled with high unemployment and poverty, led to a massive wave of revolts[i], even though protesters were quickly arrested and even tortured in jails – Ben Ali was against any sort of organized activity criticizing the government (Chomiak, 2011; Mandaville, 2020). It was the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution. However, the democratic transition rapidly gave place to a disturbing and confusing process (Chomiak, 2011).

In October 2011, the first free and fair elections were held, giving the majority of votes to the moderate islamist Ennahdha party[i] (Lamont & Pannwitz, 2016; Lutterbeck, 2013), and, in 2014, a Constitution was adopted – considered a milestone in North Africa’s political history and its “most progressive and democratic constitution” (Gallien et al., 2019): it limited the role of the military; guaranteed equality between men and women; emphasised the independence of the judiciary; the executive was shared between the Prime-Minister and the President of the Republic; established the separation of politics and religion; and it created the Truth and Dignity Commission to investigate human rights abuses in the country’s authoritarian past.  

Even though it seemed that all conditions were favourable to a peaceful transition, the polarisation in the political party system[i] exacerbated the political atmosphere, preventing possible developments (Chomiak, 2011). Furthermore, the government failed to implement any significant reforms regarding the country’s internal security system, one of the sectors that urgently needed (and still does) revision[ii] and, worsening the situation, no amendments were made to correct the economic structures that led to years of corruption (Lutterbeck, 2013).

Well, what should have been a process to avoid concentration of power in one single person ended up paving the way for a pseudo coup d’état. In 2019, the presidential elections were won by the independent candidate Kaïs Saïed (Aljazeera, 2019), who shook up the whole country when in July 2021 he suspended the Parliament and dismissed the Head of Government (Aljazeera, 2021); “Il s’est ensuite arrogé tous les pouvoirs”[i] (Nadia Chaabane, 2022). Against all odds, people crowded the streets in support of his action: he appeared to be “riding a wave of popular anger against a political elite that has for years failed to deliver the promised fruits of democracy” (Aljazeera, 2021).

25 July 2022: his constitutional proposal – which appears to be a comeback of an authoritarian regime, due to its vastly unchecked powers – was approved on a referendum whose results seem anything but reliable (only 30,5% of voters participated (Cordall, 2022)). 

For now, no one really knows what the future holds and how the situation will evolve. Of course, the West has criticized this step back, showing its fears about the possible consequences this situation might have in one of the nations with whom it has stronger relations in the region (Reuters, 2022). The only certainty for the moment is the support of the vast majority of the population, who see in Saïed a symbol of hope for a better life. 

[1] In fact, Bem Ali’s rise to power says a lot about the President he would end up being. This is so because the latter came to power through Tunisia’s internal security system: he was already the command of police and internal security forces which gave him enough strength to topple Habib Bourguiba (Lutterbeck, 2013).

[1] Translation: “the establishment of a sucession of mechanisms destined to perpetuate the Head of State’s power and to guarantee the enrichment of his relatives”

[1] Pretended electoral process, the police state, illicit economic practices, harassment of oppositional actors led him to be named as the Pinochet on the Mediterranean (Chomiak, 2011).

[1] The drop of water was the death of a Tunisian citizen, who self-immolated as a protest against the regime’s mistreatment of people. This situation angered people, generating the popular uprisings in six Arab countries (Mandaville, 2020).

[1] Albeit acquiring the majority of votes, it did not succeed having enough to govern by itself (Lamont & Pannwitz, 2016; Lutterbeck, 2013).

[1] The country was profoundly divided, mainly between islamists and secularists. At the time, there were 95 political parties (Chomiak, 2011; McCarthy, 2014).

[1] Lack of transparency, accountability or parliamentary supervision characterize the security sector (Gallien et al., 2019).

[1] Translation: “He then assumed all the powers”

Inês Martins

Mestranda em Direito – Especialização em Direito Internacional e Europeu

Nova School of Law


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