Where are the democratic dividends for Tunisians?

Demonstration on the tenth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, December 2020.
Demonstration on the tenth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, December 2020.

Tunisia has launched a successful transition to democracy, but difficult economic and social times lie ahead. According to political scientist Said AlDailami, Europe should focus more on joint interests in its co-operation with the North African state. Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

Mr AlDailami, do you consider Tunisia to be an example of successful democratisation?

Said AlDailami: On the whole, Tunisia is a good example of a successful transition process. Unlike its neighbours, Tunisia has earnestly and authentically steered a course towards democracy and has definitely been remarkably successful in doing so.

After the elections in 2014 and 2019, there were peaceful transitions of power, which is certainly not to be taken for granted when you look at the situation in other Arab states. The new constitution of 2014 is just as much evidence of this new beginning, as the process of decentralisation that has been launched.

When you consider the social and economic consequences of this transformation process, the picture is somewhat less clear cut. In this respect, there is an unease that undermines the legitimacy of the democratic project. People are saying, what good is democracy to me if there is no prosperity? As far as the economy is concerned, there is no democratic dividend whatsoever. It is safe to say that Tunisia's democracy lacks output legitimacy.

Why is the economy not making progress?

AlDailami: We expect a recession with a 7 percent drop in economic activity this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The tourism sector never really recovered from the terrorist attacks of 2015, despite the fact that there have not been any serious terrorist acts since 2016. There are major social and trade union problems relating to important export goods such as phosphate.

The apparatus of government, which is modelled on the French administrative structure of the 1970s, is ossified. The internal forces of resistance to any kind of structural reform have been incredibly strong for decades. This hampers increased flexibility of investment and allows corruption to rage unchecked, which in turn weakens the implementation of major economic projects. If we take this to its logical conclusion, a crisis in the coming years is inevitable.

Monument to the young vegetable seller Mohammed Bouzizi in Sidi Bouzid (photo: Reese Erlich)
The motherland of the Arabellion is floundering: Tunisia is beset by a deep economic crisis that is affecting young people in particular. In some regions, youth unemployment is around 30 percent. Thousands of young people are therefore fleeing from the impoverished interior to the suburbs of the capital Tunis and the large coastal cities. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation

Tunisia remains socially and economically fragile

What does that mean in real terms?

AlDailami: The social unrest that always occurs in December and January is likely to be more severe this time. The pent-up frustration is generally vented during the winter months, especially in the south of Tunisia, which feels left behind by the central government in Tunis. Most people there earn a living from smuggling. When the trade in smuggled goods decreases as a result of the weather, they draw attention to their lack of prospects by setting up roadblocks and rioting.

Unfortunately, Tunisia does not have an adequate response to problems such as a growing budget deficit and a rising reliance on foreign credit and donors. High unemployment among young people and academics combined with a lack of prospects – the certainty that they won't find a job in the foreseeable future – is a major source of frustration for people.

There are already fears that the country could drift into bankruptcy during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the high level of national debt.

AlDailami: Yes, Tunisia is on a drip-feed. Horrendous sums are spent on the salaries of civil servants, and dismantling this system is a challenge Tunisia continues to wrestle with to this day. But the Europeans are very keen that Tunisia will not have to go bankrupt. So it is safe to assume that loans will continue to flood into the country.

Has Tunisia sufficiently come to terms with its past under Ben Ali?

I get the impression that the vast majority of Tunisians have no real interest in working through every last detail of the past. Perhaps it is more of a German virtue, to work through everything very thoroughly. We should not project our way of looking at things onto the Tunisian people.

Overall, the principle of political inclusion has become well established over the past ten years. The coalition of Islamic conservative and lay conservative parties has shaped the past ten years and led to the realisation that it is only by working together that social and political peace can be achieved in the country.

Yet last autumn, there were protests against a planned law on impunity for former members of the security forces.

AlDailami: But those who protested against it were in the minority. Most Tunisians are of the opinion that public security was eroded after the revolution because the security apparatus was entirely dismantled. But a state needs security forces. People in Tunisia say that their general feeling of security over the past ten years has been much lower than it was under Ben Ali.

What about the fortune of Ben Ali and his family?

AlDailami: No agreement has been reached about Ben Ali's fortune, which was deposited in banks outside the country, primarily in Switzerland. This is the case with the fortunes of all Arab dictators in Swiss banks. Bank accounts in Tunisia itself and across the region were seized, but the way this money and these assets are managed comes in for massive criticism in Tunisia because of a lack of transparency.

The Swiss banks are stonewalling?

AlDailami: There have been negotiations, and the banks were willing to hand over part of the assets. But it is likely that the disputes will have to be settled in court. And as we know, something like this can last quite a long time.

Caught between the Emirates and Turkey

Since 2011, the geopolitical situation in the region has fundamentally changed. What impact has that had on Tunisia?

AlDailami: The political and partial military withdrawal of the U.S. from the region created a political power vacuum that Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates want to fill. These changes – as well as the civil war in Libya and the situation in Mali – all impact on the reality of the situation in Tunisia. As a result, the country is caught between the regional power ambitions of the Gulf States on the one hand and Turkey on the other.

Above all, the Emirates are exerting huge pressure on the government in Tunis to end the co-operation with the Islamic conservative party Ennahda. They are fighting the Muslim Brotherhood wherever they encounter them. Turkey, on the other hand, supports Ennahda and also senses major investment opportunities in Tunisia's neighbour, Libya, where it has stepped up its presence.

Until now, Tunisia has cleverly and diplomatically succeeded in wriggling out of this dilemma. But the pressure from both camps is getting perceptibly stronger, especially as Tunisia relies on financial support from these countries.

This is why the relationship with Europe is more important for Tunisia today than it ever has been before. It hopes that Europe shares this view, before it is too late.

The EU would be well advised to continue stabilising Tunisia and to establish co-operation at eye level. Tunisia should be shown that Europe does not just want to stem migration and fight its causes, but is also seriously interested in advancing joint interests on both side of the Mediterranean.



The domestication of political Islam

How has the party of political Islam, Ennahda, developed over the past ten years?

AlDailami: Ennahda has gone through a process of transformation, just like Tunisia has. How this transformation will end remains to be seen. Ennahda initially centred on a group that was still strongly influenced by the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Over time, this core of activists, who went into exile or were imprisoned under Ben Ali, came to understand that the situation in Tunisia would not accept the brand of political Islam that is preached in other Arab countries. Secular, open-minded Tunisia led to a domestication and partial secularisation of Ennahda, which had no choice but to go through this transformation to avoid being politically sidelined. This change is largely borne and supported by a young party elite that likes to see itself as Muslim, democratic and open minded and in which women play an important role.   

Political scientist Said AlDailami was head of the Hanns Seidel Foundation office in Tunis from 2014 to 2020 (photo: Said AlDailami)
Politikwissenschaftler Said AlDailami leitete von 2014 bis 2020 das Büro der Hanns-Seidel‐Stiftung in Tunis, verantwortete zivilgesellschaftliche und politische Projektarbeit zum Aufbau von Frieden, Demokratie und Rechtsstaatlichkeit.


What evidence is there of this change in Ennahda?

AlDailami: Well, for one thing, party chairman Rashed Ghannouchi is no longer venerated like a saint. A new generation has grown up and this generation is no longer focused on him. Initially, Ennahda presented itself as a unified whole. Internal problems were discussed behind closed doors and the party spoke with one voice in public. Ghannouchi did not carry this democratic new beginning into his leadership and actions within the party, and that has – in the last two years in particular – caused huge tension within the party.

So is Ennahda today a kind of Islamic version of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union, the CDU?

AlDailami: There are still parts of the party that do not want to reconcile themselves to the modern age and to secularism; in other words, those that have not yet been "tunisified". There will have to be a debate with these hardliners within the party. Ghannouchi himself has often compared the party with the CDU. However, the origins and development of the two parties are so utterly different that comparisons of this sort should really be taken with a pinch of salt.

What do you think the future holds for Tunisia?

AlDailami: In the short term, the future does not look very bright because the economic and social outlook is not good and this could destabilise the political situation. Ten years after the upheaval, we have reached the pinnacle of a process of estrangement between the people and the political elite. This could soon boil over into major, nationwide protests. The consequences of the pandemic will increase the threat considerably.

Looking further into the future, however, I am rather optimistic. Europe is currently waking up to the fact that it would be better not to be completely dependent on China. Tunisia holds many trump cards when it comes to moving production locations from China to North Africa. Over the course of the coming decade, it could find its place in the industrial production, renewable energy, and service sectors, therefore becoming an important partner to the EU on the far shores of the Mediterranean.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Said AlDailami was born in Sana'a, Yemen, in 1978 and went into political exile in Germany with his family as a child. He studied political science and social science at the Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich, earning his doctorate in 2011 with his thesis on "Attitudes to Renewal in the Islamic World". Having taught for several years at the university, he was head of the Tunis office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation from 2014 to 2020. He currently works at the foundation's headquarters in Munich.


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