Setting the Scene: Political Re-Configurations in Tunisia

By Mariam Salehi

Bienvenue en Tunisie tout le monde! As we start this week of intellectual engagement with “Re-configuring the (Non-)Political”, we would like to warmly welcome you to Tunisia. Though during the upcoming week there will be discussions of topics spanning over the entire MENA region, today we take a closer look at the country that hosts us here in this beautiful setting, overlooking the Mediterranean shore. Thus, for those of you who are not so familiar with the country and its current political developments, we would like to use this opportunity to offer a small introduction into recent Tunisian political re-configurations.

Assuming that all of you are well familiar with the events of the so-called Arab Spring in 2010/11, we are going to skip this step and focus on developments ever since. In the more than five years after the ouster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has held elections twice, which have generally been perceived as free and fair, and passed a new constitution. However, the path to a stable political system based on representative democracy and the rule of law is tortuous and rocky, prone to the constant struggle between old habits and new rules.

Tunisian Parliament

Tunisian Parliament (Photo: Magharebia, CC BY 2.0)

Tunisia had to suffer setbacks from terrorist attacks, not only raising security concerns in the country, but also further hurting the already suffering economy, which would be in dire need of those tourists to come that now are rather staying away.

Corruption is perceived of having ‘trickled down’ from the ruling elite to the entire country. Hard to tackle, this problem is addressed by a National Instance to Fight Corruption. And also the Truth and Dignity Commission, working on dealing with the country’s authoritarian past, has a mandate to deal with corruption cases. The latter instance has been subject to lots of criticism over the last two years, but the political climate for transitional justice seems to have become more favourable again, as the commission has passed the stage of file collection, focusing on operational work like statement-taking and emergency interventions.

However, given the precarious economic situation, social unrest has not stopped. Prominently, the protests over unemployment rates of january this year, starting in the Western region of Kasserine and spreading to other parts of the country, show that the country has not found a way yet to tackle its socio-economic problems.

Last month, former Prime Minister Habib Essid faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament after only 18 months in office, which he lost clearly, with only three Parliamentarians voting in his favor. Most recently, on Friday night, the ‘unity government’ of the new Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was backed by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, including not only cabinet members from across the political party spectrum, but also with close ties to the powerful labour union. This government with 26 ministers and 14 state secretaries is larger than the previous one, it is younger and includes now eight female members, as compared to three before. Chahed announced a tough stance in approaching economic problems and a “policy of austerity”, signaling cuts in public sector jobs and tax raises.

Thus, during the next week, we will look back and ahead to interesting times here in Tunisia, providing fruitful ground for our look across MENA.


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