Tunisia's democratic tightrope act

As Tunisia’s Nobel laureates collect their award in Oslo, their country fights terrorism at home. FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor, Douglas Herbert, sees daunting challenges ahead for the Arab Spring's rogue success story.


When the Nobel committee bestowed its most prestigious prize on Tunisia’s "National Dialogue Quartet" in October, it was betting that the coalition of civic activists who piloted the country’s democratic transition could serve as a regional beacon of hope.

That’s proving more wishful thinking, than viable prescription.

As many observers will attest, Tunisia presented a slew of favorable circumstances that created a “perfect storm” for Peace Prize-contention.

It was an "outlier" among its problematic neighbours in so far as it not only ousted a long-time dictator, but it did so without ushering in another strongman regime.

It also boasts a strong middle class among its 11 million population – an educated constituency that lives mostly on the country’s cosmopolitan coastal fringe, and is well-versed in making itself heard.

Tunisia’s lack of oil also works in its favour since, as one report noted, governments that draw on lucrative oil revenues are generally in a position to be less accountable to their taxpayers.

It has fewer ethnic or sectarian tensions tearing at its social fabric than in places such as Syria or Yemen, to name just a couple.

No strong army tradition

And just as significantly, unlike the situation in Egypt, or Algeria, Tunisia has never had a strong military able to usurp power at any time – often in the name of the “people’s will”.

This leaves a lot more breathing space for civil society to not only exist, but even thrive, and foster a spirit of compromise and reconciliation.

It is notable as well, that Tunisia has been, relatively speaking, far more progressive on women’s rights than anywhere else in the immediate region.

Unfortunately, none of these Tunisian exceptions is an insurance policy against destabilisation.

A self-immolating street vendor touched off the wave of revolts that became known as the Arab Spring in 2011. And it was a street vendor of another kind – this one a self-radicalised suicide bomber – who stepped aboard a bus carrying the presidential security guard and blew himself up, killing 12.

These suicidal street vendors, separated four years in time, offer an allegory as to just how volatile a place Tunisia was then – and remain today.

Hotbed of extreme jihadist recruits

Three terrorist attacks in the past year have claimed more than 70 lives in a country where the threat from self-radicalised extremists remains an ever-present danger.

Tunisia is the launching point for an estimated 3,000 foreign jihadists in Syria and Iraq – more than any other country, by a long shot.

The UN’s tally is almost double that figure: some 5,500 Tunisians fighting under the jihadist banner across the region, most from the interior regions, far from the prosperous coastal strip, that have been a breeding ground for marginalisation and discontent.

Tunisian officials are acutely aware that their democratic strides have heightened the country’s vulnerability, making it a ripe target for those bent on undermining any progress.

Looming economic transition

At the same time, they realise that better intelligence gathering will be critical to tracking the hundreds of jihadists that are expected to return to Tunisia – or may have already returned.

Tunisia’s civic activists say the emphasis ahead will be on addressing "root causes", adding that while they have succeeded in pulling off a democratic transition, the equally tough work of economic transition lies ahead.

But on this day, at least, Tunisia can hold its head high as a beacon for others in more dire straits.

“Arms can never be a solution, not in Syria nor in Libya. There is a need for dialogue,” Abdessatar Ben Moussa, the head of Tunisia’s Human Rights League, told reporters in Oslo this week.

“No blood and no fighters.”

This article was originally published on December 10, 2015.

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