Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tunisia's Chaotic Transition

Revolution has proved more successful than in other countries, but it is far from over.

How has Tunisia handled its transition compared with other countries that have experienced revolutions in the region?

The Tunisian transition – compared with that in other Arab countries such as Egypt, Libya and Yemen – has been far more peaceful and stable. A lot of neighbouring countries may be jealous when they see the Tunisian transition. But that being said, Tunisians are still living through a somewhat chaotic and opaque transition.

For instance, all agree that one of the common gains has been freedom of expression – but that doesn’t mean the media are free.

A recent court decision ordering the Tunisian internet agency to ban a pornographic website is a clear illustration. The controversy surrounding the screening of the movie “Persepolis” is another example. It was shown on television a couple of days before the elections, with the implication that a vote for the Islamists would turn Tunisia into Iran. You can argue with the timing, but not with the fact that a television channel should be free to show it, that this should not lead to acts of violence, and that the owner of the station should not be facing trial for defaming religion and disturbing public order.

When a movie theatre which showed a film on secularism last summer was attacked, the government condemned the violence – but then again, it was not there to protect freedom of speech.

Many people, and especially youth – among whom participation in the elections was very low – are sceptical about the progress of the transition. For this reason, a large number of Tunisians did not want to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution on January 14, because the revolution has not ended – it’s a long process. Instead, many wanted to celebrate the start of the revolution on December 17.

The results of the elections are not disputed but the new government is seen as being unable to proceed with badly-needed reforms. The coalition, led by the Islamist Ennahda with the CPR [Congress for the Republic] and Ettakol parties, seemed to be on the same page at the beginning, but we have been witnessing many differences between them, which has harmed the performance of the government.

What major challenges remain? 

Accountability and change are slow. Almost every sector has the same figures in place. In the media, for instance, there have been no real, proper reforms.

Recently, the media unions organised a big protest because they discovered that the head of the national state-owned TV had got big bonuses for the way they had covered the elections, which was effectively a kind of bribery. The head of the state media resigned as a result and the government appointed a new head – someone from the old regime – but in a process without transparency or consultation. This led to a big clash with journalists, who called for a public, independent commission to make such appointments.

In the judicial system too, there is no clear vision of reform, and the same figures are still in place. Ministry of Interior reforms are also on hold. The police officers believed to be responsible for killing civilians during the revolution have still not been brought to account, and the families of martyrs continue to protest for justice.

So while Tunisians are freer to talk, there is no clear vision of how to proceed.

And as far as the economy is concerned, unemployment is increasing. More than one million people are now out of work, and I don’t know how the government is going to deal with it.

How are tensions between Islamists and secularists playing out?

The government is not able to govern very effectively right now, because the coalition is not coherent.

This growing polarisation is also seen in social media, which was such an important tool during the revolution. Facebook groups which are more conservative are attacking groups which are more secular, and vice versa.

There are also protests continuing in most Tunisian cities, which are led by the unions who say they are seeing no real change.

But then there are elements who are trying to show that the protestors don’t actually want change, they want to destabilise the country and oppose the revolution and a stable, easy transition.

Ennahda are not really carrying out any attacks, but there has been a lot of activity by Salafist groups, which are illegal in Tunisia, unlike in Egypt where they are involved in politics.

How are relations with the outside world, a year on from the revolution?

People are complaining about foreign influence. For instance, Qatari involvement is growing here, with a lot of business and investment, but people are afraid that this will come with political influence.

Still, Tunisia is keen to rebuild its relations with its neighbours. There were some tensions with Libya, which are being resolved, and foreign dignitaries including the Algerian president came to Tunis for the anniversary of the revolution.

Looking further afield, Ennahda knows that it needs resources and economic support from the West and that there’s a need to be pragmatic. So the foreign minister of France has visited Tunis twice so far, and American officials and businesses such as Microsoft and Google are also exploring opportunities here.

Tunisia wants to safeguard its sovereignty, but to keep to a policy of positive engagement with the West.