The triumph of secularism in Tunisia and the democratic challenges ahead

By Beatrice Tesconi:

Photo: Gwenael Piaser
Photo: Gwenael Piaser

Against the backdrop of dispiriting headlines about the rise of Islamism in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, recent political developments in Tunisia have been hailed as a beacon of hope for a region wracked by extremism and civil war.

On Sunday October 26, Tunisia held its second parliamentary elections since the ousting of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Securing 85 of the 217 seats in parliament, the main secular party Nidaa Tounes swept aside the once dominant Islamist party of Ennahda.[1]

Hailed as a regional success story and an “important milestone in Tunisia’s historic political transition” by US President Obama, the triumph of laïcité in Tunisia has gained the praise of governments worldwide.[2]

Bravo Tunisia. Well done.

Once again, this small olive-eyed North African country has set itself as an example to its Arab neighbours and restored some of the credibility behind the revolutionary aspirations of the Arab uprisings. The apparent triumph of secularism in Tunisia has also challenged the widely held perception that the Arab uprisings served as a mere gateway to Islamic fundamentalism. A season of change seems to be underway. Perhaps we can still talk about a genuine ‘Arab Spring’.

But we should not be too hasty in declaring Tunisia’s transition to democracy an unbridled success. Free and fair elections are only one of the indicators of democracy. The long queues of Tunisians outside polling stations and the flood of pictures on social networks of voters’ ink-stained fingers are in stark contrast to an allegedly growing disillusionment with democracy as a system of government. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 59% of the Tunisian public expressed its preference for a “leader with a strong hand” over a democratic government, up from the 37% of two years ago.[3] In this context, the familiar faces of Ben Ali-era politicians in the ranks of Nidaa Tounes raises the question of whether the electoral results reflect the genuine democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people, or a form of nostalgia for the certainty of authoritarianism.

Since the fall of Ben Ali many of the practices of the ancien regime have been revived. This is particularly evident in the context of the security forces’ attempt to re-establish the impunity they enjoyed under Ali. The death of Mohamed Ali Snoussi in October of this year seems to suggest that police brutality has become prevalent once again. Human Rights Watch launched an investigation into the case based on serious allegations that police officers tortured and abused Snoussi in broad daylight.[4] But the arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers and activists on account of the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression are also reminiscent of the old regime’s tactics. That was the case for the politically motivated arrest of the revolutionary blogger and human rights activist Azyz Amami in May 2014 . After openly criticising the police, Amami was arrested on trumped-up charges of drug possession under the provisions of the infamous Law 52, a legal penal code tool often used to silence dissenting voices under Ben Ali’s regime.[5]

The deteriorating security situation in the country has played into the ‘anti-Islamist’ rhetoric used by the main secular party to garner support in the elections. But if the country is to avoid slipping back into authoritarianism, Nidaa Tounes must restrict the powers of the security forces and reorient the party’s focus towards the socio-economic issues that originally sparked the 2011 uprisings. These problems remain unresolved: Tunisians have seen their economy worsen, inequalities persist and frustrations mount since Ben Ali fled the country.

A waning economy combined with high unemployment rates amongst college graduates is ripping apart the hopes of the Tunisian youth and creating the perfect audience for jihadist propaganda. So far, more than 3,000 Tunisians have allegedly travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the fight of the Islamic State (IS), making Tunisia the world’s biggest exporter of jihadist fighters.[6] In the radical alternative preached by groups like IS, Tunisia’s disillusioned and marginalised youth find the economic security and the political recognition they are denied back home.

One of the biggest challenges for Nidaa Tounes will be forming a government. Despite winning the most votes in the elections, the party still fell short of an outright majority to govern and must therefore enter the fraught process of forging a coalition. The decisions Nidaa Tounes will take in the next few weeks will act as a litmus test for the party’s commitment to inclusive politics and democratic governance. The anti-Islamist rhetoric seems to suggest that the secularists will be reluctant to engage in any form of political dialogue with the defeated Ennahda party. But closing the door on what is still the second-largest party in parliament would jeopardize the new government’s ability to make the structural reforms the country desperately needs. If excluded from government, Ennahda will not shy away from mobilising its strong support base to oppose any reform measures introduced by a Nidaa Tounes-led coalition. A weak and divided government under threat of further social unrest seems unlikely to be able to effectively tackle the socio-economic issues plaguing the country.

Reconciling the Islamist and secular political forces in the government will therefore have to be a priority for the new government. Although the elections’ results have been framed in terms of a mere referendum on Islamism, they should be interpreted as an opportunity to form the national unity government necessary for the country’s stability. An inclusive and unified government will also be essential in helping to restore some faith in the institution of the state and eventually dampen the jihadist appeal. However, this can only be achieved if Tunisia’s vibrant youth is incorporated into the political process. Only a government that truly represents the Tunisian people will be able to tackle the country’s social and economic problems. If Nidaa Tounes succeeds in forming such a government, then we can genuinely start talking about a successful transition to democracy in Tunisia.

Despite the challenging path ahead, Tunisia has already proved itself to be a powerful catalyst for change in the region. The recent political developments suggest that Tunisia has the capacity to lead such a positive change again, shattering once and for all those popular misconceptions that portray Arab constituencies and democratic governments as two worlds too far apart.



Beatrice studied Politics and International Relations at the University of York, and is currently undertaking an MA in International Peace and Security at King’s College, London. Her research interests are in the field of radicalisation, International Human Rights Law and the Middle East and North Africa Region.



[1] “Tunisia elction results: Nida Tunis wins most seats, sidelining Islamists”, TheGuardian, October 30, 2014.
[2] “Tunisia counts votes after historic poll”, Aljazeera, October 26, 2014.
[3] “Tunisian Confidence in Democracy Wanes”, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, October 15, 2014
[4] “Tunisia: Suspicious Death in Custody”, Human Rights Watch, October 13, 2014.
[5] Amna Guellali, “Tunisia:The human cost of the drug law”, Human Rights Watch News, May 19, 2014
[6] David D. Kirkpatrick, “New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS”, The New York Times, October 21, 2014.

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