What political changes would Tunisia improve?

Domestic conflicts

Sarah Mersch

Sarah Mersch works as a freelance journalist and trainer in Tunisia.

With the constitution of 2014, which stipulates a compromise between conservative and progressive forces, the political situation in Tunisia has stabilized slightly. Above all, serious economic problems undermine confidence in the state's ability to act.

Demonstrators who protest against the government's economic policy in front of the parliament are pushed back by the police (January 26, 2018). (& copy picture-alliance, NurPhoto | Chedly Ben Ibrahim)

Current situation

Map of the 2002-2016 attacks and refugee movements in Tunisia
Here you can find the map as a high-resolution PDF file. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie)
After the Islamist terrorist attacks in 2015 on the Bardo Museum, a hotel in Sousse and a bus of the Presidential Guard, in which a total of more than 70 people were killed, the situation in the security area has now stabilized relatively. The security forces usually access suspected terrorists earlier. There are still attacks on the police, the national guard and the military, but the numbers are declining.

After President Beji Caid Essebsi passed away in office on July 25, 2019, the non-party retired law professor Kais Saied was elected as the new president in October 2019 in the second ballot with 72.7% of the votes cast. He was able to prevail against the media mogul Nabil Karoui. Said, who is mainly favored by young voters, continues to enjoy great popular support. He is considered an honest clean man. In the parliamentary elections that took place almost at the same time, however, the result was less clear. There are no clear majorities in the fragmented parliament.

After long negotiations, the new Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh could not be sworn in until the end of February 2020. This belongs to the small social liberal party Ettakatol, which is not represented in parliament itself. He had been proposed for office by President Kais Saied after the candidate of Ennahdha, the strongest force in parliament, failed to form a government. In addition to Ennahdha, several liberal, pan-Arab and social democratic parties and independents are involved in the new, fragile government. The strongest opposition parties are the populist Qalb Tounes ("The Heart of Tunisia") party led by Nabil Karoui, the populist-Islamist "Coalition of Dignity" and the right-wing Free Destour party led by Abir Moussi, a declared supporter of President Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011.

The existing political institutions have been consolidated since the new constitution was passed in 2014. However, several new institutions, such as the Constitutional Court, have not yet been set up five years after the deadline. Other important institutions, such as the election commission (ISIE) and the media supervisory authority (HAICA), are at odds internally or have been weakened by resignations. The filling of vacant posts is regularly delayed by the party dispute in parliament. As a result, the institutions lose credibility and are lacking as a bulwark against the advances of anti-democratic forces.

In spring 2018, for the first time since the political upheaval in 2011, new local councils were elected in state-wide local elections. The associated local and regional reorganization, which was also decided in 2018, has only been partially implemented. It provides for the decentralization of important state competencies at the local level. Taxes paid directly to the municipalities instead of the central government are intended to strengthen their ability to act. In addition, mandatory public participation measures were laid down.

With strict measures, Tunisia successfully contained the first wave of the corona pandemic at an early stage. However, the economic impact of the lockdown imposed in mid-March was massive. As a result, the Tunisian government had to revise its growth forecasts for 2020 downwards and is now assuming a significant recession. In order to limit the effects on the economy, an aid package of 2.5 billion dinars (around 800 million euros) for companies was launched at the beginning of the Corona crisis. This corresponds to around five percent of Tunisia's annual national budget. In the tourism sector that was particularly hard hit, which had recovered somewhat since 2018, the losses at the end of May 2020 were even around 38% compared to the previous year.

Causes and Background

In January 2011, mass protests and a failed coup led by the regime’s security chief Ali Seriati led to the escape of former President Zine El Abidin Ben Alis. As a result, conflicts broke out that had hitherto been largely suppressed. While the main demands of the revolt were aimed at economic and social improvements, debates about the self-image of Tunisian society and the direction of the state came to the fore shortly afterwards.

The debate about state / national identity and the relationship between state and religion was very intense and excited in Tunisian society. In particular, the moderate Islamist forces and parties pushed the topic in the 2011 and 2014 election campaigns in order to achieve the broadest possible social acceptance for their ideas of political order. They were able to rely on targeted financial support from the Arab Gulf States. Especially among young people, the confusion of the upheavals has led to religious and / or political radicalization. The reasons for this are political disorientation and existential social and economic difficulties, including the lack of a "revolutionary return" for those who had made the upheaval possible through their protests.

Radical Islamist tendencies after the upheavals were neglected for too long by the then coalition government around the Ennahdha party, as even leading party members now admit. Today there is a fragile compromise between the various political forces, which is also enshrined in the new constitution passed in 2014. Religious questions do not play an essential role in daily politics today. However, the attitude towards religion is sometimes used as a pretext and instrumentalized in power-political trenches.

The further democratic transition has been slowed down and undermined to this day by parts of the state administration and the security services, which are still largely dominated by old cadres. The Tunisian police and the judiciary, which under Ben Ali were the extended arm of the regime, have not been adequately reformed since the political upheaval. Innovations are only progressing very slowly.

While the political situation has stabilized overall in recent years, the economic situation is still fragile. Oligopolies and influential networks that control large market shares in various sectors persist ten years after the political upheaval. Attempts have been made to facilitate market access for new companies through a new investment law and a support program for young companies ("Start Up Act"). However, a comprehensive restructuring is still pending. In addition, the excessive bureaucracy discourages potential domestic and foreign investors. Since the Corona crisis, efforts to digitize the administration have increased.

Outside of the relatively rich coastal areas, hopes for noticeable socio-political and economic changes that led to the political upheaval in 2011 remain largely unfulfilled. Economic development in the impoverished interior is stalling. Unemployment is officially around 15%, among young university graduates it is around twice as high. This harbors a considerable potential for conflict. Strikes and protests occur again and again. Illegal poverty and economic migration across the Mediterranean to Italy and Europe has also increased again in recent years.

Processing and solution approaches

After the murders of the opposition activists Chokri Belaid (February 6, 2013) and Mohamed Brahmi (July 25, 2013), who plunged Tunisia into a serious political crisis in 2013, a "quartet" made up of high-ranking representatives from the trade union federation, the employers' association, mediated the Human Rights League and the Bar Association in the "National Dialogue". For this work, the quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. The two murders have not yet been solved seven years after the crimes.

The new, unstable government is also facing major challenges that have hardly changed in recent years. In addition to reducing high unemployment, lowering the (foreign) national debt, consolidating the financial sector and the economy are the most important tasks. Prime Minister Fakhfakh announced that he did not want to increase Tunisia's foreign debt any further. He also wants to digitize public administration and reduce bureaucracy. The latter "kills any form of initiative" in the country, he said in an interview in May 2020.

At the same time, the population is increasingly losing patience. It suffers from the looming recession. The low turnout in the parliamentary elections and the comparatively high number of independent MPs in the current parliament show how high the mistrust of large parts of the population in the established parties, politicians, but also in state institutions in general, is. Strengthening the public infrastructure, e.g. in the education and health sectors, appears to be just as necessary as the creation and strengthening of democratic institutions.

History of the conflict

In the 54 years from independence from France in 1956 to the upheaval in 2011, Tunisia had only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bourguiba, a lawyer who had studied in France, was considered the father of independence and enlightened ruler who wanted to lead the small Mediterranean state into the modern age. Much has been achieved, but there were also massive attacks and human rights violations during his tenure, especially against leftists, student representatives and trade unionists who criticized Bourguiba's sole rule.

In November 1987, Ben Ali took power in a bloodless coup and deposed the decrepit Bourguiba. Ben Ali intensified the repression of political opponents, especially Islamists were sentenced to sometimes long prison terms or even to death. In addition, his family and his wife's family enriched themselves over the years from the state's income and gradually brought large parts of the economy under their control. At the end of Ben Ali's rule, it is estimated that they had a quarter of the economy of the then around 10 million inhabitants in their hands.

During Bourguiba's tenure, the education and health systems had noticeably improved. In terms of the economic situation, however, he was far less successful. His successor, Ben Ali, succeeded, at least in part, in whipping up the economy. For many years, Tunisia was regarded as an Arab and African model country with stable growth. However, in the supposed Tunisian economic miracle, large parts of the population and entire regions fell by the wayside. In addition to massive political repression, this imbalance was one of the main causes and triggers of the 2011 uprising, which heralded the so-called "Arab Spring" in the entire region.


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Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia. Tunis, January 26, 2014. Translation by the language service of the German Bundestag.