Tunisia, home to the first and arguably most successful of the 2011 Arab uprisings, appears to be backsliding in its transition to democracy. In mid-2021, President Kaïs Saïed consolidated powers in the executive through a series of steps widely regarded as unconstitutional. Opposition is growing though the president retains a strong social base. The polarisation could threaten stability, particularly as it intersects with persistent budgetary woes and popular discontent over economic and other inequality. Crisis Group works to help resolve these tensions in a country that remains critical for security in North Africa as a whole.
Political tensions fuelled by President Saïed’s power grab and subsequent policies risk sending a crisis-ridden Tunisia over the edge. Saïed should organise a national dialogue and return to a negotiated constitutional order. In response, international partners should offer new economic perspectives for the country.
Authorities continued to silence dissent, and European Union (EU) proposed financial assistance while urging Tunis to tighten border control.
Opposition protested continued harassment of govt critics. Islamist-inspired An-Nahda party 12 June confirmed three imprisoned party leaders on hunger strike to protest “detention conditions and non-respect of fundamental rights”; one of them, Sahbi Atig, early June reportedly spent several days in intensive care due to deteriorating health. Hundreds of main opposition coalition National Salvation Front supporters 18 June protested in capital Tunis to demand release of President Saïed’s opponents, including coalition’s co-founder Jaouhar Ben Mbarek and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. Authorities 20 June detained prominent journalist Zied Heni near Tunis for allegedly “insulting the head of state”, released him on bail two days later.
EU offered financial aid to Tunis to boost economy, tighten border control. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen 11 June visited Tunis along with Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and Dutch PM Mark Rutte, said EU may loan over €1bn to help Tunisia boost its battered economy and tighten border control. Ahead of meeting, Saïed 10 June said Tunisia would not accept to act as other countries’ border guard. German and French Interior Ministers Nancy Faeser and Gérald Darmanin 19 June met with Saïed in Tunis to discuss migration and security issues; France announced nearly €26mn in aid to combat irregular migration. Families of jailed judges and politicians late June accused EU of whitewashing Saïed’s authoritarianism in hope he can stem migration to Europe.
Anti-migrant sentiment persisted, notably in Sfax. In joint statement, human rights and other organisations 2 June condemned violence against sub-Saharan migrants and urged authorities to protect migrants and combat discrimination. Tensions continued to run high in coastal city of Sfax, a hub for migrant crossings to Europe. Notably, clashes 17-18 June reportedly broke out between Sfax residents and migrants, causing property damage, while hundreds 25 June demonstrated in Sfax against presence of irregular migrants.
The Europeans feel that they are on the front line of instability in North Africa and in the Mediterranean.
Tunisia faces multiple economic and social challenges following the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of the prime minister. This current state of emergency could fuel political turmoil and violence in the country. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to maintain bilateral cooperation with Tunisia and offer further economic incentives.
On 25 July, Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed invoked the constitution to seize emergency powers after months of crisis. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Riccardo Fabiani says compromise between Saïed and his parliamentary opponents remains possible, but so does grave violence.
Despite a marked decline in jihadist attacks in Tunisia since 2016, the government persists with repressive and unfocused counter-terrorism measures. The Tunisian authorities should make criminal justice and security reforms to prevent an upsurge in violence.
Tunisia’s new government and president represent political forces that emerged in late 2019’s elections, stirring up populism, polarisation and tensions. With judicious support from the EU, the new political class should focus on the economy and choose a path of dialogue and administrative reform.
Tunisia’s new president risks heightened tensions and instability as he aims to tackle worsening socio-economic conditions. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU, as Tunisia’s main trading partner, to prevent strife by accommodating Tunisia’s will for greater economic self-determination.
Le premier tour de l’élection présidentielle anticipée tunisienne aura lieu ce dimanche 15 septembre. Selon l’analyste principal de Crisis Group sur la Tunisie, Michael Ayari, les risques de déraillement du processus électoral et de violences sont réels.
The decentralisation process is polarising Tunisia and risks fueling social and political tensions. In order to fulfill its promise – to reduce socio-regional inequalities and improve public services – all sides must compromise on a new understanding of decentralisation that includes strengthening state services nationwide.
Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.
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