Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Tunisia in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings Working Group I


On November 10-11, 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the first working group under its research initiative, “Tunisia in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings.” This was a Faculty Research Project under the intellectual leadership of a member of the Georgetown University faculty, Professor Mohamed Zayani. CIRS invited a group of scholars to discuss various topics and identify the gaps in the existing scholarship. The presentations took several different approaches ranging from theoretical deliberations to practical implications to historical narratives. Some of the topics discussed by the participants included political Islam, civil society in Tunisia, economic challenges, social justice, youth involvement and identity politics, security challenges, media dynamics, power politics, and authoritarianism in the Middle East. Via a multi-disciplinary approach, the meeting offered an in-depth discourse on post-revolutionary Tunisian state.

The initial discussion focused on the persisting conditions of authoritarianism in the Middle East and how they are affecting the transition in Tunisia. It was argued that when taken into context, the conditions pertaining to transition in the Middle East are very different from other regions, i.e., Latin America and South Africa. The existing literature on transition points towards a degree of awareness on the part of political leaders that a change is required, which is missing in the context of the Middle East and thus makes it more difficult for a transition to take place. Populations all over the Middle East are weary of the current status quo. The uprisings in these second wave of protests have more of a political element than an economic agenda. However, the political elites in many of the countries across the region are not ready to introduce change to the existing political arena. Though transitions have been more successful when guided from the top, in the case of the Middle East, the transition has to happen in a context that is different, i.e., has to come from the bottom. The relative success in the case of Tunisia can be attributed to limited foreign intervention compared to other countries and the non-politicized nature of the military. However, there are elements of the old regime still in place, and the leadership needs to realize that democracy comes with compromise.

The discussion then shifted to the power politics in Tunisia, and scholars looked at methods to transform the deep political power frameworks that currently exist. The overshadowing of politics by the state has had severe consequences in the post-revolutionary Tunisia. Some of the research questions that were proposed included examining how Tunisia political culture can translate into real politics; How and what kind of local leadership can emerge in this second phase of the transition; What does the success of Kais Saeed’s success indicate and point to regard political outsiders? What kind of new conflict resolution tools can be expected in the upcoming period? In addition, the participants discussed the rise of populism in the country and its impact on Tunisian politics.

The conversation was then centered on the topic of political Islam, and it was contended that are no political Islamists nor Salafists exist in Tunisia today and that the present-day situation is a reflection of post-2011 Tunisia. Ennahda became a major topic of study after 2011; however, the question remains as to how much of its Islamists agenda is the party going to pursue now that it is in power. One of the understudied areas in the Tunisian case highlighted was the separation of politics and da’wa and what it meant for Ennahda. Other areas for potential research identified were a reconfiguration of a religious public sphere and examining what is a religious public sphere in Tunisia today, historical account of the Salafists, and their specific categorization in Tunisia and Salafist Jihadists.

The discussion on Tunisia’s reinvigorated civil society expressed the importance of establishing the value of analyzing the formal associational sphere where groups and organizations would, by necessity, register through state-established parameters. It then laid out a working definition of civil society and then contextualized the concept within two broad overarching narratives that often run in parallel to one another, democratization, and neoliberalism. The number of legally registered associations in Tunisia in 2010 was 9,996; in 2012, this number increased by approximately 50 percent to 14,966, and as of October 2019, there are now 22,954. Some of the research questions proposed were; Is the role of civil society in good governance as it relates to time-dependent democratization serving as a mechanism to plant the seeds/lay the groundwork for stronger and more pluralistic engagement; Are Tunisia’s economic grievances being met by civil society organizations by providing social welfare services to marginalized communities the state is unable/unwilling to reach? Is civil society filling a gap left by the state? Following the uprisings, is civil society now ’embedded’ in Tunisia? Which institutions would need to be examined to determine civil society’s engagement in good governance and in holding state institutions accountable?; What can we say about the fabric of civil society today – is this a pluralistic space? Where are the exclusions [marginalized groups outside larger urban centers], and are there surprising inclusions? Where are the rivalries and divergences in post-uprising Tunisia today?

The scholars next discussed Tunisia’s economic challenges and it was stated that per capita income in the country had tripled since the revolution and that major leaps had been made in the education sector. Prior to 2010, Tunisia was in good standing in terms of its macroeconomics with low public debt and inflation rates. However, inequality in terms of income distribution, environmental problems, the impact of globalization, and corruption were some of the factors that led to the uprisings in 2011. Post-revolutionary Tunisia is still dealing with inequality; the young population in the country is demanding radical change but is hardly aware of what that means. The Islamists party has managed to be the strongest party; however, the political landscape is very much divided, and this can impede the democratic transition. There are no plans for an economic strategy and no response to people’s expectations. There is a declining business environment in the country with minimal investments being made. Not much has been done in terms of development; there is higher inflation, much lower growth in the country, and very little has been done in terms of improvement of fiscal resources. The need for a new social contract was expressed with better management of micro finances in the country and improving the quality of the services.

Precarity and social justice were next deliberated. The meaning of the term precarity was debated and examined in the context of Tunisia. An anthropological approach was taken that views precarity as a master term that designates new forms of social mobility and labor regimes. It was expressed that it is applied to a new class of a dangerous heterogeneous group of people and refers to the social condition of vulnerability and capital forms of labor. Precarity in Tunisia can be seen in terms of revolutionary uprisings and may be understood as a resolution of the precariat. The majority of social movements in Tunisia have been about demanding employment from the state, preferably in the public sector. Work in the private sector is often exploitative because of the absence of a contract and legal safety. Another aspect examined was the mobility practices in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Massive waves of Tunisian youth have migrated after the uprising, and it was suggested that in order to better understand the cross border survival strategies and mobilization of jihad as a form of migration, explaining these mobility practices of precarious Tunisian would be necessary. In terms of social justice, it was suggested that corruption under transition needed to be studied as it has become democratized. More nuanced accounts of channels of corruption and marginalized groups, such as women and youth from interior regions, were suggested as an area for further research.

Media dynamics and freedom was also discussed and was categorized into four main areas in post-revolutionary Tunisia, the quasi-non-governmental organizations, particularly the political talk shows on TV and radio, the political structures and electoral debate, the advocacy groups, such as closed Facebook groups and the revival of the Tunisian cinema. Some of the research questions proposed included looking at in what conditions have these quasi-non-governmental organizations have been created in Tunisia? What are some of the strategies that they employ? Which sector has more priority, and how can we account for these priorities? How could the presidential debate be a precedent for the re-appropriation of TV shows? Looking at the participatory politics of media through these talk shows; studying the performance of citizenship via facebook groups; and lastly examining how the revival of the cinema in Tunisia was the way the movie directors set themselves free from ongoing moral codes, in terms of the subjects they chose and the type of films they made.

The discussion was then shifted to Tunisian history and some of the legacies that impact the current political and social dynamics in Tunisia today. Two significant vestiges, both from the Ottoman and the French colonial eras that are relevant are the land distribution and people’s identity either as an Islamist or secularists. Awqaf was a religious, administrative institution established during the Ottoman era, which was demolished during the colonial rule. Ennahda has introduced the idea of reestablishing the system under the current administration, which has had some opposition. It is seen as a political body that could operate outside the control of the state system and has serious consequences. The two political figures, Salah ben Youssef and Habib Bourguiba that rose to prominence during the French rule and introduced two different sets of ideologies also have impacted the political system today. It was proposed that further research could look into Tunisian history in three different ways; examine the different periods of history and their impact; look at the development of the political parties in Tunisia; and study the mechanism of reproduction of political alliances and affiliations that are passed down either through familial channels or educational institutions.

The attention was then shifted to youth involvement and identity politics, and it was specified that the youth mobilization in a current period different from in 2011. The ongoing narrative among the youth is that the revolution never took place in reality as some elements of the Ben Ali regime are still evident. The majority of the youth and street activism lack leadership and have not been developed into political engagement. The current wave of mobilization is driven by the question of dignity and the struggle for recognition. Some elements of these mobilization share similarities with the demands that are being voiced in western societies, such as recognition and equal rights of the LGBT community. Youth in Tunisia cannot be perceived as a homogeneous group, and a clear categorization is required. Youth in Tunisia feel as sub citizens where they are often excluded from the political scene. The problems faced by the youth need to be brought to the forefront, and the local context and cultural aspects also need further examinations. Some of the research gaps identified were examining the commonalities shared by the older generation and the young Tunisian, studying and comparing rural youth to their urban counterparts, and deconstructing the educational system and identifying how it contributes to the current economic divide.

The attention was then shifted to contestation and social movement in Tunisia after the revolution. The argument made was that the protests are an ongoing process in Tunisia and can be looked at from three different dimensions, the protests themselves, the interplay between protestor and state sponsors, and the role of international actors. The existing literature has looked at the sociological influence of the protests, and there are different case studies that have been examined. The democratization process has not opened political opportunities and cooperation in Tunisia, and this leads to the question of whether Social Movement Theory can be applied to the MENA region. Protests erupted over substantial injustices, i.e., provision of necessities and rights, as well as procedural injustices, i.e., corruption. This lends to institutional questions when talking about protests, i.e., how people organize and what they want in protests? Another important aspect highlighted was the state’s response to the protests and whether there has been any fundamental change? Examining the limited role of IMF and its impact comparatively was also suggested.

The last topic discussed was Tunisia’s security challenges in terms of policies implemented in the country and radicalization. The group also looked at the help Tunisian security forces have been getting from external actors, namely the EU and the US, since the revolution, such as the creation of G7+ and training programs for the security forces. The various terrorist attacks and political assassination in Tunisian polity have been aimed at creating an international emergency and deem Tunisian as an unsafe state. This leads scholars to question the kind of polity the Tunisian state is leaning to; What are the different rationales behind the various terrorist attacks? As a countermeasure, local security committees have been formed in various regions and introduced new forms of micro surveillance. Some of the questions posed were, Why is there a large number of jihadist Tunisians? What are some of the strategies through which the state is empowering the citizens? How can societal resistance be fostered? What are some of the dominant discourses that shape the security agenda in Tunisia? Moreover, to what extent state security hinders ontological security? 

The participants will contribute empirically grounded papers addressing these questions, among others, to be published in an edited volume under the auspices of CIRS.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Maram Al-Qershi, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Alexandra Blackman, New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE
  • Amel Boubekeur, MENA program at the European Council, Algeria
  • Mongi Boughazala, University of Tunis El-Manar, Tunisia
  • Edwige Fortier, SOAS University of London, UK
  • Zouhir Gabsi, Deakin University, Australia
  • Ruth Hanau Santini, Universita Orientale Naples, Italy
  • Salma Hassabou, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Enrique Klaus, Galatasaray University, Turkey
  • Fabio Merone, University of Ghent, Belgium
  • Alyssa Miller, University of Pennsylvania, US
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Marina Ottaway, Woodrow Wilson Center, US
  • Irene Promodh, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Abdul Rehmaan Qayyum, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Khushboo Shah, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Irene Weipert-Fenner, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Germany
  • Mohamed Zayani, Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS