Tunisia is a lower-middle income hybrid regime, exhibiting a mix of high and mid-range performance across the Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoDI) indicators. Following the 2011 downfall of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime, notable improvements across all GSoDI measures and reforms that included a new, pluralistic Constitution earned the country widespread plaudits as the lone “success story” of the Arab Spring. Overall, Tunisia performs at a high level across Representative Government, Fundamental Rights and Checks on Government. Its performance in Impartial Administration is in the mid-range. Over the last five years, however, performance has either stagnated or trended downwards, with significant declines in Civil Society Participation. Recent moves, widely criticized as authoritarian in nature, threaten performance across all measures going forward. Economically, growth has rapidly decelerated following the 2011 revolution, although it remains one of the wealthiest countries on the African continent. Tunisia’s main economic sectors include information and communication technologies, tourism, manufacturing, and organic farming.
Tunisia’s history has been marked by Roman, Ottoman, Islamic, Arab, and French influences, among others. The country became a French protectorate in 1881 and gained independence in 1956. Between 1956 and 2011, Tunisia was ruled by authoritarian strongmen, Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The 2011 Arab Spring brought the Jasmine Revolution to Tunisia and led to the resignation of Ben Ali and rapid democratization. Nevertheless, the political space has remained hobbled by significant crises and cleavages. A breakdown in the secular-Islamist consensus that existed under Ben Ali has led to significant religious divides and political polarization. Secularists, themselves significantly divided, reflect the legacy of former President Bourguiba and his emphasis on Tunisian nationalism and women’s rights. Conversely, Islamists support socially conservative policies and pan-Arabism.
Issues of economic development and democratic consolidation have also remained front-and-center. Pressing economic reforms have been needed to stabilize the country’s finances, including reducing the size of the public sector and combatting corruption. Economic malaise and poverty have driven public anger, partly evident in street protests. At the same time, Tunisia has struggled to consolidate its democracy, with increasingly autocratic moves such as a new 2022 constitution said to solidify “one-man rule”, the repression political protests and the arrests of rival politicians on terrorism charges raising concerns. A disenchantment with political elites, driven by these recent actions, has led to a sharp decrease in voter turnout. There has also been a decline in public support for democracy over the course of the last decade. The government has explained its moves as attempts to create a new republic that guarantees the state’s unity, stability and Tunisians’ right to a decent life.
Issues of discrimination and social equality are also prominent in Tunisian politics. While Bourguiba prioritized “state feminism,” and women’s social positions are more advanced than elsewhere in the Arab world, President Saied’s administration has quashed activists’ hopes for critical economic inheritance reforms. LGBTQIA+ people face criminalization under an active sodomy law alongside societal repression and harassment. While the country passed a landmark racial discrimination law in 2018, Black Tunisians continue to face widespread bias, as do migrants and refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the next five years, it will be critical to watch the degree to which the country’s nascent democratic institutions are able to withstand pressure from the executive. In this sense, performance in Checks on Government will be telling. For now, increasingly authoritarian tactics appear to have stalled the Tunisian democratization project. The persistence of major economic challenges and enduring social and political divides have further complicated Tunisia’s pathway to democratic consolidation.
April 2023 | Opposition groups banned from meeting after arrests of opposition officials
On 17 and 18 April, Tunisian authorities arrested four prominent opposition leaders, including former Speaker of Parliament and co-founder of the Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi. They also raided and closed Ennahda’s offices in Tunis and other cities. Ghannouchi’s detention follows a series of media statements in which he claimed Tunisia would be threatened by a “civil war” should political Islam be eradicated in the country. After the arrests, the Ministry of Interior banned Ennahda from holding meetings in the country and banned the opposition group National Salvation Front from holding meetings in Tunis. According to Tunisian officials, the measures are a matter of state security. The criminal proceedings against these opposition politicians have been conducted under counter-terrorism laws. The opposition arrests have received international condemnation and generated national protests. These events follow a series of arrests earlier this year.
March 2023 | Tunisian President dissolved municipal councils and new parliament holds inaugural session
President Kais Saied issued a presidential decree on 9 March dissolving municipal councils, a few months ahead of local elections. Saied will appoint ‘special temporary councils’ to replace them until the next local elections, expected to take place no later than late October. The now-dismantled municipal councils were elected during the 2018 vote and a third were under the administration of opposition party Ennahda. According to President Said, the existing councils were ‘not neutral’ and confirmed the new councils will also be elected, although under new voting rules yet to be drafted by the president himself. Also in March, the Parliament of Tunisia convened on 13 March for the first time since it was suspended in July 2021. The new assembly, which has not been recognized by most opposition parties, consists of 154 members (seven seats remain vacant), with 25 female representatives and no members of the main opposition parties. Journalists protested outside the parliamentary building after independent press was banned from covering the event. According to Tunisian officials, the decision to only allow state news and media outlets was to avoid disorder.
February 2023 | Wave of arrests targeted prominent opposition and media figures
The Tunisian authorities carried out a security crackdown over the month of February that included raids and detentions of prominent opposition politicians, activists, judges, media figures, labor union and business leaders. An estimated 20 individuals linked to criticism or efforts to mobilize demonstrations against the president were arrested by the police and several remain in anti-terrorism detention centers. President Kais Saied has denounced the detainees as ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’ accused of alleged ‘conspiracy against internal and external state security.’ Tunisia’s police, Ministry of Interior and Justice Ministry have not provided any comment on the wave of arrests this month, which represent the largest opposition crackdown in recent years. Despite increasing repression in other areas, many media outlets have been able to continue to criticize the government freely.
January 2023 | Continued low turnout in second round of parliamentary elections
Tunisia held the second round of its parliamentary elections on 29 January amid growing calls from the opposition and civil society for the cancellation of the electoral process. The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) announced that the turnout in the second round of the legislative elections amounted to 11.4 per cent, up from 8.8 per cent in the first round. However, this level of electoral participation is a significant decline compared with the 2019 elections which had 41.7 per cent turnout. Opposition leaders attribute the low turnout to public dissatisfaction with recent policy changes, which have been criticized for being authoritarian-leaning.