Background and Scope of the Project

The Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) launched a new research project on “Tunisia in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings.” The aim of this multidisciplinary research initiative is to examine changes and transformations in Tunisia since its revolution and what these evolving socio-cultural and political dynamics mean for the country as it negotiates its transition.

Nearly a decade after the outbreak of the uprisings that toppled iconic figures of Arab authoritarianism, the Middle East and North Africa region continues to experience turbulent developments. Hopes for social and political change that fueled the initial uprisings have not materialized and turmoil continues across the region. Although Tunisia has charted a different path which put it on a promising course, it remains mired in a difficult transition politically, socially, and economically. A decade after its revolution, Tunisia emerges as a liminal state that is characterized by perpetual fragility.

As a theoretical frame, liminality can help better understand how Tunisia has negotiated its transition and adapted to its new reality as it emerges out of the authoritarian mold that characterizes much of the region and embraces change. Originally developed within the field of cultural anthropology, the concept of liminality has gained currency within political sociology (Yang), political anthropology (Thomassen) and international relations (Maïlksoo, Rumelili). Liminality designates a state of in-betweenness that is marked by uncertainty and formlessness. Transitions, in particular, have a pronounced liminal dimension as they are marked by the dissolution of a particular order and the advent of a new state of indeterminacy and uncertainty. Highlighting aspects of this liminal dimension can illuminate the case of Tunisia and add to our understanding of complex ongoing transformations associated with post-revolutionary dynamics.

Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has implemented a peaceful transition that earned it praise as “a beacon of hope” in a troubled region. The country managed to build a nascent pluralistic democracy, hold parliamentary, presidential and municipal elections, and ensure a peaceful transition of power during trying times. The fact that Tunisia favored inclusiveness over partisan politics facilitated the integration of its main Islamist party in its newly adopted political system and enabled the country to develop a culture of political compromise as epitomized by successive unity governments and recurring coalitions between key political parties and prominent political players. Equality noteworthy is the country’s burgeoning civil society, its various institutional reforms, and its progressive new constitution, which upholds individual freedoms, champions women’s rights, and protects the freedom of speech.

In spite of these achievements, daunting challenges remain. Although Tunisia has fared better than other Arab states that were shaken by revolutions and although it managed to diffuse several crises, its transition has been uneasy, its democracy fledgling, and its future outlook uncertain. As the country emerges out of decades of authoritarian rule, it is finding itself faced with enormous political, economic, social, and security challenges that are undermining its peaceful transition.  Increasingly, these formidable challenges are locking the country in a liminal state that is characterized by perpetual fragility.

Politically, Tunisia’s democratic transition did not translate into a strong political culture as the political scene remains both unbalanced and unstable. Although the country’s main secular party, which emerged in the aftermath of the dissolution of Ben Ali’s ruling party, managed to mobilize a large following that enabled it to win the elections under the new constitution and to position itself as a counterweight to political Islam, it soon fell into political wrangling, internal divisions and power struggles. The plethora of splinter groups and newly formed parties that emerged proved to be rather elitist formations that lacked a clearly articulated vision and a popular base, resulting in a weak ruling party and a fragmented opposition. Further undermining the new political culture is the fact that such fragmentation made the exercise of power more dependent on individuals than on political party institutions. These configurations consolidated the position of Ennahda, the country’s main Islamist party, which managed to position itself at the center of the country’s reformulated political scene, drawing on its long political experience, its organizational strength, and its disciplined rank and file. Overall, while the political culture that has developed in the post-Ben Ali era is one of coalitions and compromises, it is not void of tensions and schisms, which on occasions reached crisis proportions, thus raising the specter of political instability and eroding confidence in the entire post-revolutionary political system. Unsurprisingly, these recurring political tensions and crises proved to be fertile ground for anti-democratic forces to resurge and for the lurking deep state to regain momentum. Further affecting the transitional process is the slow pace of reform and the difficulty of achieving transitional justice and reconciling the country with its troubling past in ways that could pave the way for a new start.

Even more disconcerting is the persistence of the problems associated with the underlying roots of the revolution that toppled Ben Ali, including the unrealized aspirations of the youth, the unfulfilled promise for inclusive development in the inner regions, and growing socioeconomic disparities. An underperforming economy, chronic problems of unemployment, rising inflation, declining purchasing power, and the deterioration of the standard of living are producing considerable discontent and fueling waves of social protests. The social effects of the country’s deepening economic problems often brought the government in confrontation with the nation’s main trade union organization (UGTT), which leveraged its ability to call for strikes to regain its political weight, making it difficult for the state to implement deep economic reforms, which are widely perceived by critics of the government as policies that have been mandated by foreign financial institutions and international donners to the detriment of a declining middle class. Further deepening the country’s economic woes are widespread corruption, sprawling networks of informal trade and the persistence of a parallel economy which developed at the expense of formal economic activity with detrimental fiscal effects on the state.

Attempts to revive the economy, attract foreign investment, and boost the vital tourism sector have been hindered by mounting security challenges the country has been facing, with the specter of political violence and the threat of extremism and terrorism never far off. These security threats have been compounded by troubling developments in the region, particularly with neighboring Libya descending into chaos and Algeria embracing the unknown with an entrenched ruling elite facing defiant popular pressure for real change. Further affecting the country’s unfolding socio-political and economic dynamics are broader regional developments ranging from the advent of an Arab counter-revolutionary tide by regional players whose survival is threatened by the reverberations of the Arab uprisings to reconfigurations that involve international players with geopolitical and economic interests in the region. Such challenges during a crucial phase in the history of the country are making a delicate situation even more complicated.

A decade after its revolution, Tunisia emerges as a liminal state characterized by perpetual fragility. While the formidable obstacles Tunisia continues to face do not preclude that the ensuing uncertainty carries within its fold new and promising possibilities, they call into question overly optimistic accounts of Tunisia as a democratic exception that stands out as a model for the Arab world. Significantly, the unsettling changes and growing uncertainties that are pitting the country in a state of liminality are not confined to the political sphere. Moving beyond analytical debates that examine the Tunisian experience from the narrow perspective of democratization, this project attempts to capture the complex nature of the country’s ongoing transformations, paying attention to how intersecting political, social, cultural and economic dynamics are shaping its transition.

The contributors to this collaborative research project examine various developments in Tunisia from the perspective of their disciplinary specialty and research focus. Collectively, the project seeks not only to identify and better understand trends that characterize the country’s uneasy transition, but also to investigate the extent to which these complex changes are locking Tunisia in a permanent state of fragility and what such predicament means for the country. The individual inquiries relate to Tunisia between changing geopolitical realities and the region’s persistent authoritarianism, power politics and (in)governmentality, the evolving faces of political Islam, the National Labor Union as a socio-political player, the reinvigorated civil society, contestation and state-society relationship, national memory and transitional justice, women rights and civil liberties, growing economic and security challenges, youth involvement and identity politics, cultural reconfigurations of the secular and the religious, and newly-acquired freedoms and changing media dynamics.

A number of scholars and experts were invited to take part in this CIRS research project and to provide in-depth critical analysis of the aforementioned topics. CIRS plans to publish the outcome of this timely research in a collaborative volume.

Article by Mohamed Zayani, Professor at GU-Q.