Tag Archives: Tunisia

Tunisia – Sliding back towards presidential authoritarianism?

From its independence to the January 2011 uprising, presidentialism in Tunisia was synonymous with dictatorship. Indeed, former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali had both concentrated power in their own hands, with the legislative and judiciary branches acting as extensions of this power. In the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution, the interim government and later the elected constitutional assembly opted for a semi-presidential system. Indeed, nearly all political parties agreed that such a system was essential to decentralize executive power in order to prevent the return of an authoritarian presidentialism. However, in the last few years, the current President, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, has been arguing that a lack of centralized executive power is preventing Tunisia from progressing both in its political reforms and its economic development. Could this be an early sign that Tunisia is slipping back into a form of authoritarianism?

Presidential authoritarianism: Bourguiba and Ben Ali

After years of civil unrest and guerilla warfare, Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, a member of the nationalist New Constitutional Liberal Party (commonly known as Neo Destour), became prime minister following elections held in the last days of the French protectorate. Bourguiba quickly enacted measures to solidify his position. After setting up special courts to prosecute former collaborationists and his enemies in the nationalist movement, Bourguiba maneuvered to oust the Bey and head of state, Muhammad VIII al-Amin by pressuring the national assembly into declaring a republic and then assumed the title of president. During Bourguiba’s rule, dissent was stifled. Bourguiba stressed that Tunisian democracy was to be an expression of national unity. Opposition parties were barely tolerated and Tunisia’s bicameral legislative body, comprised only of Neo Destour members, was but a rubber stamp parliament. Indeed, after serving three five-year terms as president, Bourguiba was named “president for life” by this parliament in 1975. Bourguiba’s presidency ceased only when, in 1987, prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali summoned a group of medical professionals who officially declared the ailing president mentally and physically incapable of exercising his duties

As the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the prime minister would succeed the president in the case of the latter’s death or severe illness, Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba as president of Tunisia following what was to be called the 1987 “medical coup”. Initially, Ben Ali cultivated the image of a political reformer keen on introducing a more representative democracy in the nation. Indeed, his political rhetoric relied on terms such as democracy, further economic integration with Europe, as well as individual freedoms and rights. Seemingly in order to prove his good will in these matters, in 1988 Ben Ali introduced a constitutional amendment abolishing the lifelong presidency and capping term limits to two five year mandates. However, as the years went by, it became clear that Ben Ali was only interested in democracy as a façade. Indeed, while a few seats were set aside for opposition parties in parliament, Neo Destour members constituted its vast majority. Further constitutional amendments only confirmed the authoritarian nature of Ben Ali’s regime: in 1997, a third term was added to the previous two-term presidential limit; and in 2002, term limits were abolished altogether, ushering in a de facto return of the lifelong presidency.

The January 2011 revolution and the Essebsi presidency

In January 2011, Tunisians went to the streets demanding freedom, dignity and equality. Moreover, one of the protesters’ staunchest demands was the departure of Ben Ali from the presidency. After a few weeks of public unrest, Ben Ali fled the country with his family, being granted political asylum in Saudi Arabia. A new interim government was established, with former Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannushi becoming pro tempore president. The neo Destour party was formally dissolved. One day after being appointed president, Ghannushi resigned and was succeeded by Fouad Mebazaa. The interim government quickly announced elections for a constituent assembly, which were held in October. The constituent assembly later announced, in December, that during the transition period, which was to end when Tunisia had a new constitution, Moncef Marzouki was to succeed Mebazaa as president.

The new constitution of Tunisia of 2014 limits the mandate of a president to two five-year terms and imposes checks from the legislative, judiciary and part of the executive branches on the office of the presidency. Indeed, under the new system, the direction of the government is explicitly assigned to the Prime Minister, who is responsible before the legislative branch. The first president to be elected under the new constitution is the incumbent, Beji Caid Essebsi (sworn in in December 2014), with Mehdi Jomaa as Prime Minister. It soon became apparent, however, that Essebsi had a view of the presidency that was closer to that of Bourguiba. Nowadays, despite the strong presence of the islamist Ennahdha party in parliament and their apparent commitment to upholding the gains of the 2014 constitution, Essebsi is busy building a personality cult and has repeatedly complained to the press of the inadequacies of the 2014 constitution. Indeed, in a 2016 interview with the national daily La Presse, Essebsi laid out his plan to eventually amend the constitution to disentangle the “interwoven powers” of the executive branch in order to concentrate them in the office of the presidency. A major factor in government inefficiency, he added, was the “independent constitutional bodies”, that is, the independent agencies mandated by the constitution to monitor elections and combat corruption. Moreover, Essebsi, following the example of Bourguiba, has extended the powers of the presidency. On one hand, he has begun acting as an arbitrator in legislative affairs, making the Prime minister a simple instrument through which presidential prescriptions are applied; on the other hand, he has yet to set up the Constitutional Court, which was supposed to have been operational by January 2015.


Tunisia’s new constitution was designed to prevent the return of authoritarian presidentialism. However, “the strength of a constitution depends on the political determination to breathe life into the letter and the spirit of it”1. With the Tunisian economy still weak seven years after the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians understandably feel that further political and economic reforms are urgently needed. If these are not undertaken soon, there is a definite chance that the electorate, in desperation, will agree with president Essebsi that the current constitutionalist regime needs to be overhauled to bolster the powers of the presidency.


  1. Thierry Brésillon (2017). Tunisia: towards the restoration of personal power [online at orientxxi.info]

The author would like to thank Alessandra Bonci for her advice on writing this blog post.

Chiara Loschi – The second round of the Tunisian presidential election

This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis

photo loschi

On 21 December Tunisia elected its first president since the 2011 uprisings. Béji Caid Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes party, won the second round of the presidential election, winning 55.68% of the vote in the run-off poll (1,731,529 votes). His competitor, the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, ex-leader of the Congrès pour la République party, gained 44.32% (1,378,513 votes). The difference between them in the first round was just 6%. Turnout was 60.11%, a bit less than the first round. Northern and coastal areas mostly supported Essebsi, while the rest of the country supported Marzouki, who was unofficially backed by the Islamist movements and Nahdha.

Nidaa now controls both the government and the presidency. However, even though the legislative election was held at the end of October no government has yet been formed, although the Constitution states that after the official proclamation of results a new government has to be appointed. The leaders of Nidaa decided to wait for the results of the presidential election before consolidating alliances in the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (chamber of deputies). There were preliminary discussions and debates, but they ended as soon as the presidential electoral campaign started.

The second round presidential candidates campaigned on similar issues: unifying the country, security, and the need to improve the country’s socioeconomic problems. The election did not see the emergence of new people, but it did see a change in political communication, the relationships between politicians and media, and a general “acceptance of the rules of the game” by all actors.

Both candidates tried to overcome regional differences and win the support of economic and political elites at the national level. Essebsi dwelt upon international relations and the importance of economic restructuring. He relied on unhappiness with the Nahdha transitional government. The appeal to stability and efficiency found a ready ear among the bourgeoisie and the middle class of the northern regions: they are worried about what they see as the chaos and anarchy of the country’s institutions and everyday life. For these electors, the priorities are now the stability of institutions, security, and bureaucratic apparatus. With several members of the former Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique in senior positions within the party, Essebsi is the natural successor to Habib Bourguiba, who is largely considered as the father of the nation.

Marzouki could rely upon the support of Nahdha party. He portrayed himself as someone who could provide real change for the presidency and the country as a whole and campaigned against what was portrayed as the resurgence of the old regime represented by Nidaa Tounes. Marzouki’s supporters shared the belief that Nidaa wants to return to an authoritarian regime. Marzouki could also count on the support of middle class and economic elites in the central and southern regions.

Both candidates also emphasized the importance of younger voters. Essebsi decided to start his campaign at l’Etoile du Nord, an internet café close to Avenue Bourguiba, which was largely attended by young activists and bloggers. A debate arose around the drugs issue, as Tunisian law on drugs consumption specify a one-year minimum jail sentence and a $600 fine. Opponents claimed the law is an excuse to round-up activists and that it disproportionately affects poor and working class people and leads to overcrowding in prison. Although he did not support the legalization of drugs, Essebsi tried to ride on the wave of this liberal debate by emphasizing the need to defeat drug dealers. Marzouki was more cautious, calling for a deep analysis of the “problem” and a rationalization of the law.

The candidates also exploited the 17 December anniversary of the jasmine revolution. Marzouki attended a campaign meeting in Sidi Bou Zid, the place where the Revolution began. Essebsi went to pay homage to the family of a Lieutenant of the Army, Socrate Cherni, who died in October 2013 during a conflict against Ansar al Sharia militants. These choices are linked to the issue of the Revolution’s martyrs: everyone has his own martyrs and his own revolution.

The Nahdha party, as mentioned above, unofficially supported Marzouki. After a long delay, the communist Front Populaire declared that it was necessary “to bar the way to Moncef Marzouki”, and to religious extremist movements as a whole, implicitly calling for people to vote either for Essebsi or to issue a blank vote.

Nidaa still needs to forge a coalition in order to form a government, and the party has just two options: it can try to form a grand coalition with Nahdha, or form a coalition with small secular parties such as UPL and Afek Tounes, probably excluding the Front Populaire. Now that the presidential election campaign is over, everything is possible, including the grand coalition with Nahdha. The second round results showed that the electoral map is split in two. The World Bank and the IMF are still pressing Tunisia to implement urgent economic restructuring, while ordinary citizens are feeling the effect of price increases. A grand coalition is feasible in the context of national unity and economic reform. However, the religious cleavage is still strong and captures problems that date back to 2011 and before.

Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).

Chiara Loschi – The 2014 presidential election in Tunisia

This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis

photo loschi


Tunisia held its first presidential elections after the 2011 uprising on the 23 November 2014. They followed the adoption of the new Constitution in January 2014 and the first legislative elections on 26 October 2014. As set out by the Constitution, presidential elections are held on the basis of a two-round majority runoff system.

ISIE (The Independent High Authority for Elections, Instance supérieure indépendante pour les élections) released the following official results: former Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi (Nidaa Tounes, Call for Tunisia) 39.46% (1,289,384 votes); interim President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki (Congrès pour la République) 33.43% (1,092,418 votes); Hamma Hammami (Front Populaire) 7.82% (255,529 votes); Hechmi Hamdi (Current of Love) 5.75% (187,923 votes); Slim Riahi (Union Patriotique Libre) 5.55% (181,407 votes). The ISIE approved 27 candidates, however 5 of them decided to retire from the contest in the weeks before the election.

Turnout was 64.6%, which is higher than the 2011 elections. The second round of the presidential election will take place on the 14 December 2014, unless the candidates decide to appeal the results, in which case the election will take place on 21 or 28 December.

International observers such as the European Observation Mission and the Carter Center state that Tunisian legal framework was aligned with international standards, and they agree that voters were able to make an informed choice. After three years of transition, the parliamentary and presidential elections indicate that political and civil society actors have successfully internalized democratic procedures and mechanisms.

Many problems have arisen during the transition, such as the emergence of radical jihadi Salafism and a new wave of political murders. In 2013 the assassination of the opposition activist and communist, Chokri Belaid (in February) and Mohamed Brahmi (in July), marked the beginning of the end of the Troika government and demonstrated the weakness of Ennahdha in the face of secularist opposition. Within the party, figures such as Ali Laarayedh and Hamadi Jebali on the one hand, and Rachid Ghannouchi on the other, held very differing positions. Ideological divergences about the Islamist political project and different political strategies led to a lack of clarity following the 2013 crisis and ambiguity in relation to national domestic security policy, until Laarayedh resigned as PM in January 2014[1].

After Brahmi’s death in July 2013, opposition members withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly and forced preeminent political forces to organize a “National Dialogue” under the leadership of Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)[2]. The 2014 Jomaa technocratic government signalled stability and reassured international actors and moneylenders, especially the IMF. At the same time, there was a reconstitution of secular political forces in the context of worsening socio-economic issues, for which Ennahdha was widely held responsible.

Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012. It brings together leftist and secularist political actors such as Taïeb Baccouche, former secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, and now the party’s secretary-general. It includes Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA) members, who mainly come from the northern and coastal areas of the country. Economic stabilization and PPP are unsurprisingly the main themes of its political and presidential programs. It is worth noting that many ex-RCD members joined the party as well, a fact that is widely known among its militants. As a consequence, the party has important links to the national and local bureaucracy and public employees as well as a strong electoral constituency.

In his campaign Essebsi linked himself with Habib Bourguiba. This is unsurprising as Essebsi had worked with the first Tunisian president for 35 years (as Interior Minister and Foreign Minister) and he began his campaign in Monastir were Bourguiba was born. His public speeches were built around the need for “prestige de l’Etat” (State standing) and were filled with nostalgic declarations about the past and, of course, the need for domestic security and economic consolidation.

The 2014 elections also showed that Ennahdha was still able to win considerable support. Moreover, voting is no longer a matter of religious versus secular supporters. For many new Ennahdha voters, the party «represents the south», and also «represents something new, not only in terms of religious affiliation but also as a modern and challenging political force in the national landscape»[3].

Officially Ennahdha chose not to support any particular presidential candidate, arguing that the country might be faced with an important social and political split if it were to do so. All the same, the party left militants and party members in no doubt that interim president Moncef Marzouki (ex-CPR) was the only viable choice among the set of presidential candidates. He was able to campaign on the idea that voting for Nidaa Tounes was vote to put the “RCD back at power”.

More generally, the political situation is still ongoing. After the October legislative elections, Nidaa Tounes chose to wait for the result of the presidential elections before building a government. Coalition building will not be easy. At the election Nidaa Tounes won 86 seats, in the 217-seat Assemblée des représentants du Peuple (the Chamber of Deputies), while Ennahda won 69 seats. Nidaa has to choose between Ennahdha and the remaining secular forces. They are: the modernist Free Patriotic Union (UPL) with 16 seats, the leftist Popular Front with 15, the liberal Afek Tounes with 8, The Congress for the Republic with 4 seats. However, Nidaa Tounes is unlikely to be able to count on the support of the Popular Front (an alliance of Communist and environmental parties) due to deep ideological cleavages and different political histories.

The second round of the presidential election will see Essebsi and Marzouki confront each other. They are separated by just 6% of the vote and the unsuccessful candidates will start announcing who they support in the next few days. In the meantime, Marzouki has written to Essebsi in his capacity as interim president to push him into forming a new government in seven days, invoking Art. 89 of the constitution. This led to criticism of Marzouki, ensuring that the period before the runoff will be politically charged.

[1] F. Merone, F. Cavatorta, 2013, Ennahda: A Party in Transition, Jadaliyya,


[2] National Dialogue is led by four actors: the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) and the National lawyers Forum (INA).

[3]Interviews with the author in Djerba, October 2014.

Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).

Francesco Cavatorta – The 2014 legislative election in Tunisia

This is a guest post by Professor Francesco Cavatorta from Université Laval, Canada


In a 2013 Journal of Democracy article, Steven Heydemann argued quite convincingly that Tunisia was the last remaining hope of a successful transition to democracy after the Arab uprisings. The enthusiasm for the Arab Spring of the early days has all but vanished both across the region and the globe, with high-intensity civil wars in Iraq and Syria, low intensity conflicts in Libya and Yemen and with Egypt reverting back to strong authoritarianism. The apparent authoritarian immobility of the Gulf countries is further evidence of the pessimism surrounding the prospect of democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa. In this context it is not a surprise that the legislative elections of October 26, 2014 in Tunisia had become so important not only for ordinary Tunisians but for scholars and policy-makers alike. They provided the opportunity to demonstrate that an Arab country could indeed transit to democracy and while it would be a mistake to conflate democracy with elections only, it should be recognized that they nevertheless represent a foundational moment.

The elections saw a turnout of 61.9%, which is an increase of ten percentage points on the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly. Nida Tounes, a new party that is broadly secular in the tradition of Bourguiba, won the elections, taking 85 seats out of 217 and the Islamist party al-Nahda came in second with 69 seats. The liberal party UPL (Free Patriotic Union) won 16 seats and the left-wing Popular Front took 15 seats. The Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol – both centre left parties that had done well in 2011 and governed in a three-party coalition with al-Nahda until 2013 – did not fare well at all, taking 4 seats and 1 seat respectively.

There are three significant elements that emerge from the 2014 legislative elections in Tunisia and its outcome. First, they highlight the maturity of both political actors and ordinary Tunisians. Despite the difficulties and political conflicts that the country encountered in the post-authoritarian period, parties, trade unions, social movements and citizens ultimately all agreed that differences would be resolved through the ballot box. This was not an inevitable outcome. The emergence of radical jihadi Salafism in the country, the worsening socio-economic situation, the assassination of two prominent leftist politicians and the deepening rifts between seculars and Islamists all threatened at one point or another to derail the constitution-making process and therefore the transition. In the end though, all of these difficulties did not prevent the Constituent Assembly from approving a new constitutional document, which enshrined political pluralism. The maturity and ability of all actors to find a workable compromise speak to the central importance of ‘actorness’ in processes of democratic transition; choices do matter even when structural constraints are powerful.

Second, the election results indicate that Tunisia is very much like most transitional countries, suggesting that there is very little ‘exceptional’ in Arab politics. As in many countries in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s for instance, new parties won the first pluralistic elections to then disappoint in power before being voted out by political actors largely ‘recycled’ from the authoritarian period. In short, opponents of communism won the first round to be the replaced by former communists who now embraced democratic mechanisms. Tunisia has followed a similar path so far. In the 2011 elections, the most committed opponents to Ben Ali’s rule and to his party – the RCD – won a landslide victory and came to power with promises of massive reforms and swift changes in all matters of governance. When rifts within the coalition and the structural difficulties prevented the new government from delivering on its promises, they lost popular support to a party, Nida Tounes, which harks back to the good old days of Bourguibism and is made up to a significant extent of former RCD members and elites belonging to the Ben Ali regime. All now duly converted to democracy. The normality and inevitability of this is both striking and unsurprising. Transitional dynamics have rendered politics in Tunisia normal.

The third significant element to emerge from the elections is the marginalization of the mediatic framework of Islamism versus secularism. As Youssef Ben Ismail makes clear in his analysis of the elections, there is a tendency to read the victory of Nida Tounes as the victory of the forces of secularism against the forces of Islamism. This however would be a rather erroneous reading of the dividing lines of Tunisian politics and the motivations of voters. While there is certainly a division in Tunisia between the secular parties and the al-Nahda on the role of religion in politics, such division is not as deep or as important. It is also a proxy for class and regional divisions, making the contest between the two parties more than the conflict between those who wish to have religious precepts informing policy decisions and those vehemently opposed to it. In fact, religion did not play much of a role in the electoral campaign, which was much more about al-Nahda’s economic failures in government – Nida Tounes insisted on this aspect – and Nida Tounes representing the return of old figures from the Ben Ali era – al-Nahda insisted on this.

Where does this leave Tunisia? The results have been recognized as valid by all political parties and this indicates that democratic procedures and mechanisms are internalized. A return of old authoritarian days seems unlikely as there is a broad consensus that Tunisia can solve its problems only through pluralistic politics. This is something that ordinary Tunisians as well are largely convinced of. The real challenge for the country and its new government – a grand coalition between Nida Tounes and al-Nahda has been talked about – is improving the economy, which is the most important issue for voters. The problem is that that economic policy-making is the field where elected officials seem to have the least amount of capacity to influence, as international financial institutions and the European Union are very much in charge of that.

Francesco Cavatorta is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Université Laval. He is currently working on the different strands of Tunisian Islamism.