SE Jens Uwe Plötner: The Tunisian revolution – The path to democracy

At the turn of the year 2010 to 2011, the world was surprised by a wave of nationwide riots and protests in Tunisia, leading to the escape of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali on 14 January, 2011. Tens of thousands of Tunisians protested again­­st high unemployment and for civil liber­­ties and refused to bow down any longer to intimidation by police and intelligence services. After the downfall of the regime, an interim government of non-party ex­­­perts was established, which led the coun­­try until the elections were to be held for a constitutional national assembly on 23 October, 2011. The goal was the adop­­tion of a democratic constitution and the holding of new elections by the end of 2013.

In 2010, Tunisia presented itself as a stable country with a relatively modern economic and social structure. A high standard of education and a high productivity level made the country attract­ive for foreign investors, and tourists from around the world came to see the country. So what led to the political re­­­vo­­­lution which, in turn, consequently trig­­­­gered the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Libya and other countries of the region? As it soon became evident, the Ben Ali regime presented a modern façade to the outside world, but inside the country it pur­­sued a highly repressive policy towards dissenters and oppressed any freedom of expression as well as political opposition activities. The justification was in particular to avoid an impending power grab by the Islamists, which was quite often accepted by the European countries with a tacit agreement.


After the downfall of Ben Ali, a range of representatives of the Tunisian opposition returned from exile or was released from imprisonment, some after many years. These included representatives of the Islamic “Ennahda” party, liberal civil rights activists and left-wing activists. Within a short time, around 100 poli­­­tical parties were formed, competing for 217 seats in the constitutional assembly. Al­­though the Islamic Ennahda clearly won the elections with a 40 per cent margin, the party depended on two secular coali­­tion partners in order to reach the majority. Ennahda’s General Secretary Hamadi Jebali became Prime Minister of the new interim government.
In 2012, the secular parties tried to bundle their fragmented forces in order to be able to provide a stronger alternative against Ennahda in the upcoming elec­tions. Beji Caid Essebsi, Prime Minis­­ter of the interim government of 2011, formed the “Nida Tunis” party, which came close to Ennahda according to opinion polls. Along with that, there still are several smaller parties of the liberal and socialist spectrum. It has become clear that the Tunisian society is split into two nearly equally strong camps with divergent views on the future of shaping the society.

On the one hand, broad conservative classes in the countryside, but also in the cities, strongly orientate themselves to­­­wards traditional Islamic values and ways of life, thus finding themselves politically represented by Ennahda. On the other hand, many Tunisians, particularly the mid­­dle class in big cities, perceive this social Islamisation as a threat to their lifestyle, which is geared towards liberal Euro­­pean patterns, and fear the creeping establish­­ment of theocracy. The previous dictatorship had oppressed any political Islamic movements and thus preserved the li­b­­­­eral lifestyle. Now, radical preachers and Salafist players appear in Tunisia who do not shy away from violent protests and intimidations of artists and journalists. How can the split be described?

Habib Bourguiba, the first President of in­­­dependent Tunisia, implemented a thor­­ough cultural modernisation of his country in the fifties and the sixties – also a­­­gainst conservative Islamic resis­­tance. Since then, Tunisia has preserved, for exam­­­ple, the laws defining the civil status of persons, ensuring a unique pro­­­gressive status for women in the Arab world. How­­ever, after the revolution of 2011 it became clear that these modern lifestyles did not reach the entire Tuni­­sian population. While Bour­­­guiba still wanted to repress Islam as an obstacle for the modernisation by trying to relativise fasting during the month of Ra­­madan, today, an increasing number of Tunisians confidently commit to the Isla­­mic traditions.

After the revolution, the governing Ennah­­da party was able to prove that it is willing to find compromises in the interest of the country’s unity and explicitly renounced the anchoring of an Islamic Sharia law in the constitution. In addition, all poli­­t­ical forces in the national assembly agre­­ed on laying down women’s rights. For the oppositional secular parties, the con­­­stitutive process was not moving fast enough, fearing that Ennahda was deli­­b­­­­erately trying to delay the upcoming new elections in order to anchor the party in important power and administrative positions in the meantime. They also accused the government of not pur­­­suing violent Salafists with sufficient re­­solve and tolerating Islamic militias that tried to intimidate oppositional represen­­tatives.

The murder of the oppositional politician Choukri Belaid on 6 February, 2013 led to mass protests and the demand for the Ennahda government’s resignation. To regain the population’s trust, Prime Minister Jebali attempted to form a new government consisting of non-party ex­­­perts but was not able to carry this out in his own party. After his resignation on 19 February, 2013, Ali Larayedh, who at the time was Minister of the Interior, for­­med a new government with the involve­­­ment of previous coalition partners and occupied key ministries and departments, such as home, justice, foreign, defence, indus­­­try and development cooperation, with non-­­party experts. On 13 March, 2013 this government gained the trust of nearly two thirds of the constitutional assembly.


After this government crisis demanding a lot of time and energy from everyone involved, the members of the constitutional assembly have to quickly agree on the adoption of a new constitution and electoral law so that new elections for a parliament and the president of the state can be held soon. Wider audiences in Tunisia place great hopes on these new elections. For the first time, the election campaign will enable an evaluation of each party according to its performance so far, whether in the government or in the opposition. Along with that, traditional beliefs will play a major role regarding which party voters will ultimately vote for.

Due to the social split, which became ob­­­vious after the Tunisian revolution of 2011, a decisive factor for further peaceful de­­velopment of the country will be that both the religious and the secular side en­­­cour­­­age mutual tolerance. Neither side should outvote the other on the fundamental as­­pects of the social structure, independent from the majority conditions of the future parliament. This mutual respect is an­­chor­­ed in the tradition of the Tunisian people and we can hope that they will find the path to democracy in spite of all ob­­stacles.



DSC_2472-KopieThe author was born in Eutin, Ger­­­many in 1967 and is the Ambassador of the Fe­­­deral Republic of Germany in Tunis. He studied law and political science in Ham­­burg, Bordeaux and Paris, starting his diplomatic career in 1994 at the Ger­­man Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. From 2009 to 2012, he fulfilled his duty as ambassador in Sri Lanka.