Three years after the collapse of then president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, Tunisia has adopted a democratic constitution and consensually formed a government of national competencies. Those developments have given hope to the first Arab Spring country, which has been gripped by profound upheavals at a critical juncture in its democratic transition that is fraught with tension and political violence. The Tunisian experience stands in sharp contrast to that of postrevolutionary Egypt, where military force was employed to overthrow the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013. Tunisia, however, opted for a landmark compromise between the government and the opposition and between Islamism and secularism. 

But what has made Tunisia an exception compared to other severely tested Arab Spring countries? In other words, what has allowed Tunisia to avoid replicating the Egyptian scenario and to instead lay down the foundations of consensual legitimacy? 

Mohamed Kerrou
Kerrou was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center specializing in development, gender studies, and political change, with an emphasis on Islam and civil society in Tunisia and the Middle East.
More >

Tunisia’s consensus was only possible thanks to an inclusive national dialogue brokered by the “Quartet”—an alliance between the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the employers’ union, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the country’s Human Rights League. A multitude of factors combined to make this dialogue a success despite Tunisia’s bumpy democratic transition, which, far from being completed, remains to be consolidated. In particular, four key factors explain the historic compromise reached in Tunisia: the army’s professional and apolitical status, the lessons learned from the Egyptian transition, civil society’s rallying behind the UGTT-led Quartet, and the conciliatory and decisive role played by political leaders. 

A Professional and Apolitical Army

Tunisia’s national army differs markedly from the militaries in many neighboring states, and it helped shape the country’s revolution and its eventual compromise. Tunisia and Egypt both have influential political and intellectual elites and hybrid postcolonial regimes that marry economic liberalization with political authoritarianism, but Egypt differs from Tunisia in the role and stature of its national army. While the Egyptian Army is the backbone of the country’s economic, security, and political life, the Tunisian Army is smaller in size and apolitical. 

Tunisia’s army is a professional and technical force engaged in protecting borders and public institutions in emergencies. Only in a few rare instances—such as during the bread riots of 1983–1984—has the Tunisian Army intervened to restore public order and rein in mounting social outrage. Even during the popular uprising against Ben Ali’s regime from December 17, 2010, to January 14, 2011, the army maintained equal distance from the people and the government security services. This detachment has contributed to its popularity and to a deeply entrenched belief among Tunisians that the army is the best bulwark against the police force, which is considered repressive.

The army’s status as a preventive and neutral establishment rather than an interventionist one that meddles in the political game is embedded in Tunisia’s social history, which radically differs from Egypt’s. To use the words of Egyptian sociologist Anouar Abdel Malek, Egypt is a “military society.” By contrast, Tunisia is a civil, trade-oriented country marked by cultural, ethnic, and religious homogeneity and a centralized state structure. Long an urbanized nation, its administrative control apparatus is deeply entrenched in society due to a strong alliance with urban notables and an effective presence in rural and peripheral areas. 

Throughout its history, the Tunisian Army has acted as a buttress to the ruling regime, with the government tightening its grip on the military establishment to keep it neutral and at the service of civil rulers. The army has therefore emerged as a republican body respectful of state institutions. The voluntary retirement in 2013 of General Rachid Ammar attests to this point. Ammar, head of the Tunisian Army under Ben Ali, became a national hero during the revolution for refusing to fire on protesters. After Ben Ali’s fall, demonstrators demanded during a sit-in in Kasbah in February 2011 that Ammar rule Tunisia. Instead, Ammar expressed his support for civilian leaders and remained in charge of the army until 2013. 

Learning Lessons From Egypt

Tunisia has not followed Egypt down the tempting path of military rule, not only because of its professional and apolitical army but also because Tunisians learned from the chain of events that unfolded in Cairo surrounding Morsi’s ouster. Developments in Egypt have made Tunisia acknowledge the dangers of military intervention in politics. 

Before the military-backed public action against Morsi, a group of secular activists in Egypt formed the Tamarod (Rebel) Movement to mobilize popular sentiment against the president. Tamarod won admiration in Tunisia, and a local version of the movement formed among those seeking the ouster of Tunisia’s own government, a coalition of three parties led by the Islamist Ennahda (frequently referred to as the Troika). 

Tunisians, who were increasingly unhappy with Troika rule, initiated a political debate over the “Egyptian scenario.” Some, such as those in Tamarod, argued that removing the government was the appropriate solution to the Islamists’ failure to rule, while others contended that the country was simply experiencing the impasse of a nascent democracy. 

Tunisia’s secular opposition groups first supported Egypt’s coup d’état, seeing it as a response to the threat of Islamist rule, which they perceived to be jeopardizing the assets of the modern state and society, and as a means for the opposition to avenge the Islamists’ rise to and monopoly on power in Egypt. They contended that a coup would serve the same purposes in Tunisia.

But the Egyptian military began a violent crackdown after assuming power, including blatant violations of human rights against pro-Morsi demonstrators at Rabaa Square. This unrest made the Tunisian opposition revert to its long-held position that the army should not intervene in politics. 

For their part, Tunisia’s Islamists united around Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had backed Morsi, and condemned the military coup against the democratically elected president. Eventually, the public debate over the Egyptian scenario helped reconcile these initially divergent views, thus salvaging Tunisia’s political future. 

Civil Society Activism: The General Union of Tunisian Workers

If Tamarod had a different outcome in Tunisia than in Egypt, it is mainly due to Tunisia’s competing and better structured political forces within civil society. In recent years, Tunisia’s deeply rooted civil society has reinvigorated its resistance first to the tyranny of Ben Ali and, after the 2011 revolution, to the ruling Troika government, which tended to reproduce the same system of government as Ben Ali’s without reinstating a moral and political authority. A key pillar of Tunisian civil society is the country’s labor union, the UGTT. 

With a role tantamount to that of the army in Egypt, the UGTT derives its strength from its history and organizational structure. After its inception in the aftermath of World War II, the UGTT joined forces with the national movement and emerged as a political player. 

Shortly after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country’s hegemonic ruling party instituted one-party rule, claiming it was the only guarantee of national unity. Throughout the ensuing decades of partisan and autocratic rule, the UGTT has been a haven for members of the opposition, a platform where they can have their voices heard, claim their rights, and learn democracy. 

Far from being just a workers’ organization, the UGTT is an all-embracing body open to all professionals, be they teachers, doctors, or laborers, among others. It unites the poor segments of society as well as the middle classes, which together make up a significant portion of Tunisia’s population—the UGTT represents 1 million unionists out of a total population of more than 10 million people. A champion of economic and corporatist demands that serve different occupations and professions, the UGTT acts as the link between state and society. It is both a lobbying group and a grassroots organization that is more inclined toward dialogue than confrontation. 

Since the revolution, as Tunisia’s most powerful civil society organization, the UGTT opposed the Troika government without seeking to present itself as an alternative or to fight the ruling power. This opposition continued in spite of attacks on UGTT headquarters and supporters by the pro-Ennahda League for the Protection of the Revolution, which is comprised of groups of Salafists who have engaged in various violent incidents in Tunisia since 2011. 

The union’s leadership remains nonpartisan, but its base brings together people of all political stripes, including Destourians, Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists. The UGTT serves as a unifying organization that speaks on behalf of the masses, seeks to remain independent from political regimes, and champions social justice and freedom—key requirements of the anti-Troika revolution it has spearheaded despite its national leadership’s political alignment with the old regime.

In early 2013, the UGTT proposed a national dialogue as a means to resolve Tunisia’s domestic economic and political crises. On the economic front, the country was experiencing price hikes, inflation, a budget deficit, public debt, and a downturn in investments—all signs of crisis. The political challenges were reflected in the rise of violence and instability and in the people’s lack of confidence in their inexperienced rulers, many of whom made partisan-based public service appointments. 

Motivated by political nepotism and social solidarity, these appointments undermined the authorities’ credibility and saddled the public state budget with additional wage-related expenditures. In addition, instability continued unabated under the Troika. Terrorism became increasingly frequent in Mount Chaambi and in urban peripheral areas following the assassinations of three political opposition leaders—Mohamed Lotfi Nagdh in October 2012, Chokri Belaid in February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013—reportedly by Salafi jihadists. 

Against this backdrop of crises and tension, the UGTT played a decisive role in brokering Tunisia’s historic compromise. It revived dialogue and masterfully combined forces, for the first time in its history, with the employers’ union, forming an influential counterbalance to the Troika government’s attempts to monopolize power. This alliance was dictated by the economic crisis, which was harming workers and employers alike, and by the will of the UGTT’s leaders to salvage the country from looming disaster. 

By allying themselves with two other associations known for their track records and symbolic weight, the Tunisian Bar Association (which had openly supported the uprising) and Tunisia’s Human Rights League, which became the first such body in the Arab world upon its establishment in 1977, the workers’ and employers unions’ established political balance, forcing the Troika government to negotiate. The Quartet managed to narrow differences and wipe out domestic political polarization between the Troika, on the one hand, and the secular opposition—rallying behind the Nidaa Tounes party, the Popular Front, and other groups within the secular opposition alliance known as the National Salvation Front—on the other hand. 

The Conciliatory Role of Political Party Leaders 

The Quartet’s efforts were successful in large part because those holding power in Tunis proved willing to listen and open to compromise. The people’s uprising against Ben Ali’s regime was rightly seen as a revolution without leaders. In Tunisia, as in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, uprisings against police dictatorships were spontaneous movements, lacking political direction. But shortly after—¬during the period of transition, as change and the loss of political references generated feelings of anxiety—¬the need arose for a political leader with whom Tunisians could identify. Political polarization, which intensified following legislative elections in 2011, imposed two key political leaders: Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda, which emerged victorious after the first democratic elections, and Beji Caid Essebsi, former prime minister and founder of Nidaa Tounes, which had quickly become the most important secular opposition party. Alongside these two charismatic leaders, several other influential leaders stood out on both the Islamist and Salafi side of the spectrum and the secular and lay side. 

Ghannouchi and Essebsi are credited with having invested their political weight and individual reputations during this transitional period to convince their supporters and inner circles to accept a negotiated, consensual settlement of the crisis. After much procrastination and resistance, these popular leaders, on the lookout for new political alignment strategies, breathed new life into the national dialogue. Summit meetings held between Ghannouchi and Essebsi in Paris and Algiers at the height of the political crisis marked the real turning point. Their face-to-face meetings shaped the events taking place in the lead-up to the eventual compromise. 

These two leaders were also instrumental in pushing for more flexibility within their respective political parties, thus contributing to a rapprochement among their supporters. For example, Ghannouchi challenged his own party by accepting the removal of a controversial reference to sharia, or Islamic law, in the new constitution, as well as by abandoning an article that had referred to the status of women as “complementary to men.” And even though he is a leader of Ennahda, Ghannouchi signed the road map for a national dialogue that outlined the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh’s Ennahda-led government as a prelude to negotiations on the formation of a government of national competencies, the finalization of the constitution, and an agreement on general elections slated to be held by the end of 2014. Compromise was thus established around an organic link between the governmental, constitutional, and electoral processes. 

For his part, Essebsi used his weight and experience to lure his Nidaa Tounes party into dialogue with Islamists, braving a deeply embedded belief among secularists that has associated Islamism with terrorism since the Ben Ali era. 

In addition to this rapprochement between the two influential leaders, other officials have contributed to the success of national dialogue. The two key union leaders of the Quartet—General Secretary Houcine Abbassi of the UGTT and President Wided Bouchamaoui of the employers’ union—assumed a decisive role in promoting dialogue as the only possible solution to the economic and political crises. Their patience and efficiency helped the marathon-length dialogue pay off, at the expense of painful sacrifices and imperfect but salutary consensus. 

Such was the formula envisaged to create a new government that would find a middle ground between the requirements of the opposition—which demanded new, independent figures—and the ruling Troika, which sought to keep some of its ministers and advisers in power. Mehdi Jomaa, the former minister of industry in Larayedh’s government who is known to be competent and independent, was seen as a compromise figure and named prime minister. 

In order to stop the Constituent Assembly from becoming a spoke in the wheels of the new government, the national dialogue set up a mediation commission between the two institutions. Constituent Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jaafar successfully took up the sensitive role of active mediator. Ben Jaafar was able to do so because he is a secular political ally of Ennahda who is armed with the trust of both the government and the UGTT, the linchpin of national dialogue. 

Two other officials, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and former prime minister Larayedh, also contributed to the eventual compromise. All told, the dialogue was seen as the expression of the will of leaders from across the political spectrum to find a consensual solution to Tunisia’s crises that would help the country’s citizens avoid the uncertainty, military hegemony, and real and potential violence in the public sphere experienced by their Egyptian counterparts. 

Conclusions and Future Challenges 

Several factors and actors have combined to make a success of Tunisia’s national dialogue, widely seen as the backbone of the landmark compromise. The country’s professional and apolitical army, lessons learned from the problems of the Egyptian transition, a civil society united around the workers’ union, and the conciliatory attitudes of political leaders paved the way for consensus. 

But Tunisia’s historic compromise remains fragile despite having successfully instilled a reconciliation process and a genuine culture of dialogue. There will be major challenges in the years ahead related to the country’s security, economy, and culture. Tunisia should isolate the phenomenon of terrorism, reduce social and regional inequalities by reinvigorating national employment and investment policies, and reform education to create a knowledge-based society. 

For Tunisia, the immediate stakes of the historic compromise hinge on the fight against terror and the completion of the road map, which should lead to free elections, a review of partisan-based appointments, and the dissolution of the violence-inclined League for the Protection of the Revolution. The new government’s ultimate objective is to reestablish the people’s trust in their rulers and create a climate of neutrality, transparency, and security to ensure that upcoming legislative and presidential elections are conducted under the most favorable conditions. 

Prime Minister Jomaa has already taken some steps in this direction. Adhering to the principles outlined in the road map, which was endorsed by almost all political partners in the national dialogue, he is promoting economic recovery through employment, investment, and national and international borrowing. He is also pledging to reconsider partisan-based appointments, halt recruitment in public service, and dissolve the League for the Protection of the Revolution, which obstructs the law and hinders government attempts to neutralize and reappropriate mosques that disseminate a radical rhetoric beyond the state’s control. 

In addition, the prime minister has vowed to step up the fight against terrorism. The moment is reminiscent of the landmark compromise forged in the 1970s in Italy between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats. At the behest of Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party, these two rivals reached a deal to grant Italy a period of stability. The risk of political assassination hung over the Italian compromise, with the assassination of Christian Democrats leader Aldo Moro in 1978, much as it looms over the key players in Tunisia today. 

For these crucial tasks to come to fruition, the consensual participation of all political players, including civil society, the state, political leaders, the armed forces, and international partners, is a must. The concerted efforts exerted to finalize the country’s constitution and form a government of national competencies testify to the necessity of broad participation. These two decisive achievements need to be consolidated further and shielded from risks, whether local or regional. 

To this end, old political leaders should pursue national dialogue while striving to inject new political blood through increased youth participation, encouraging young politicians to rise to leading positions within political parties and groups. 

For its part, civil society should pursue grassroots mobilization efforts, thus establishing political balance between the ruled and their rulers and reducing instances of power abuse, which has become part of the domestic political culture after decades of dictatorship. For this reason, an initiative put forth by the National Salvation Front to establish a follow-up commission to the road map is commendable. This commission would be expected to submit petitions related to elections, the economy, administration, and political violence to Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly. The opposition also believes that the electoral law, which is currently under discussion, should address technical and financial control to avoid any rigging of electoral results.

In light of the alarming economic situation and in the absence of a real public budget for the current year, the purchasing power of middle and poor classes should be protected. The new prime minister has admitted that the national economy’s vulnerability is linked to an excessive public debt, hovering around 50 percent of GDP, a downturn in investments, and budget, commercial, and fiscal disequilibrium. 

The opposition therefore contends that it is in the government’s interest to restore economic and financial balance, uncover the truth about political assassinations, and address the long-delayed issue of reviewing the political appointment process. The Ministry of Interior has indeed appointed new governors in a merit- and experience-based process, but this step is not convincing for the National Salvation Front, which has called for an in-depth review of all positions affected by appointments (including governors, delegates, directors general, and consular and diplomatic personnel).

In addition to the opposition, the UGTT is playing a key role in attempting to address the country’s issues. The labor union sees pursuing national dialogue as a means to reconsider partisan-based appointments, even if the task appears to be arduous and if priority will eventually be accorded to leading political, economic, and diplomatic positions.

The UGTT has also entered into negotiations with the government to improve the minimum wage and implement collective agreements concluded between authorities and trade unions. The union contends that reviving national dialogue will entrench the spirit of consensus between the government and the opposition, on the one hand, and the employers’ and workers’ unions, on the other hand. Strikes and sit-ins by public agents demanding better working conditions, by the unemployed looking for job opportunities, and by those in the informal sector wavering between survival and illegal activities are jeopardizing the country’s stability and driving away local and international investors.

The UGTT and the government should also pursue and domestically expand their consultations on security matters, especially in light of the still-fragile and tumultuous areas around Tunisia’s borders. There is a flourishing informal sector along the borders with Libya and Algeria that could potentially be resolved if the three countries established free trade zones and concluded agreements. A recent closure by Libyan authorities of the Ras Ajddir border crossing was met—on the Tunisian side—with protest, which evolved into clashes between security services and smugglers, who blocked roads, set fire to vehicles, and attacked police stations. 

When it comes to the global fight against terrorism, Tunisia should attack the root causes of this phenomenon—that is, social exclusion and hatred fomented by jihadi ideology. The government should implement an urban and regional development policy while eradicating terrorist cells on the ground, particularly in Mount Chaambi and in urban neighborhoods. The return of hundreds of Tunisian jihadists from Syria further threatens Tunisia’s stability and must be addressed. 

But Tunisia cannot—and should not—accomplish these aims alone. The future of Tunisia’s historic compromise hinges on improving the country’s economic situation and protecting the Tunisian people and property by reinforcing security through international cooperation, mainly with countries that have experience combatting terrorism. The support of international institutions and foreign countries for Tunisia’s national dialogue should factor into a partnership strategy that encompasses all arenas and various Arab Spring countries wrestling with incomplete transition processes. While there are several Tunisia-specific factors that made the country’s experience so unique, it may still serve as a model of an Arab Spring country well on its way to becoming a democracy.