Tunisia has received ample coverage as one of the few – if not arguably the only – true success stories of the Arab Spring. Much of substance has been achieved in the last five years, as the country has taken the first steps towards becoming a robust and transparent democracy, showing a propensity towards consensual dialogue and negotiation. While Tunisia may be in a better position than many of its regional peers, the gains it has made cannot disguise the challenges still to be overcome, including stoking higher levels of growth and improving the security environment. However, the country’s economic attributes and size-able diplomatic clout play in its favour.
President Béji Caïd Essebsi currently heads Tunisia’s executive branch. The position of president is held for five years and is decided by an absolute majority of the popular vote. As such, presidential elections are held over two rounds if necessary. The last elections took place on November 23 and December 21, 2014, with the next elections scheduled for 2019. The legislative branch is unicameral, comprised of the 217-seat Chamber of the People’s Deputies. Chamber members are elected to a five-year term through proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies.
Following the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia has experienced a relatively smooth transition to democratic rule. Unlike regional counterparts such as Libya, Syria and even Egypt, the country has avoided much of the chaos and fragmentation that followed protests throughout the Middle East.
The passing of a new constitution by a huge parliamentary majority in January 2014, for example, was a clear sign of the impressive political development of this North African state. The new ruling charter looks to assure basic democratic rights through asserting freedom of belief, gender equality and the right to political opposition. Through the process, a new constitutional court was also established to provide a check on legislative power.
The country has also held two sets of parliamentary elections and one presidential election since the departure of Ben Ali. This has been facilitated by the establishment of a new nine-member election commission, the Independent High Authority for Elections and the passage of an electoral law. In its 2015 Tunisia report, Freedom House upgraded the country’s overall status to “free” from “partly free” and gave it a political rights rating of 1, the highest possible rating. According to Freedom House, this move was the consequence of a number of measures, including “the adoption of a progressive constitution, governance improvements under a consensus-based caretaker administration, and the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, all with a high degree of transparency”.
This reform appears to have energised the political process. Both the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 saw high levels of participation. The former had a turnout of 67%, while the latter had a first round turnout of 64%. This compares to a turnout figure of 53.6% for the 2012 US presidential election, or 66. 1% for the 2015 UK parliamentary elections. Nidaa Tounes, Tunisia’s Call, a secular party, won the most seats (86 of the 217 available), giving it the right to form a coalition and choose a prime minister. Al Nahda (often written Ennahda), the Islamist party, gained the second highest number of seats (69), although this was a loss of 16 seats from the 2011 election when it was the largest party. In the presidential elections, Essebsi, representing Nidaa Tounes, won with 55% of the vote after the second round. The elections largely passed off without incident, although there were scattered protests.
While Tunisia has proven to be up to the task of the regular transfer of power after decades of dictatorship, the new political environment has not been without its teething troubles. For example, Al Nahda struggled to rule during the first post-revolutionary parliamentary term after losing popular support. Consequently, the party conceded power to a non-partisan technocratic cabinet in the lead up to new elections in 2014. Now, in early 2016, Nidaa Tounes is struggling to govern following party political infighting. Indeed, in January, 28 members of parliament representing Nidaa Tounes resigned from the party, largely in protest at the appointment of President Essebsi’s son to the position of party chief.
One major priority for the country is generating inclusive economic growth. With five different administrations taking charge since the revolution of 2011, gathering momentum for consistent growth levels has continued to be a focus for the government (see Economy chapter).
The lack of jobs, which sparked protests in December 2010, is still a problem, particularly in the country’s interior. Overall unemployment, standing at more than 15%, is higher now than it was in 2010. The situation is even worse for the country’s youth. For this large group, unemployment is about double the overall figure, with more than 30% of young people – who comprise roughly 40% of the population – currently without a job. According to the World Bank, 50% of university graduates are still unemployed by the age of 35 and, on average, it takes six years for a graduate to find a job in Tunisia.
The country’s tourism industry, one of the leading contributors to the economy, accounting for 15% of GDP and 14% of employment, has been hit hard, following terrorist attacks in the summer of 2015, with occupancy rates falling to as low as 20% (see Tourism chapter). In February 2016, it was announced that economic growth for 2015 came in at just 0.8%.
To help alleviate the short-term pressures, the government has taken the decision to expand the public sector in order to create more employment opportunities. There are now more than 600,000 government and civil service jobs in the country, with a further 180,000 positions in public companies. This should help ease unemployment in the short term, although it is not clear how long it can be sustained.
Another priority for the government is improving the overall security environment in the country. Tunisia has long had – albeit in part as a result of the Ben Ali administration’s heavy-handedness – a reputation for security and stability, but it has nonetheless suffered from the spillover effects of the post-revolutionary fallout elsewhere in the region. Tunisia managed to avoid the instability that has plagued its neighbour Libya, but several extremist groups have emerged since the 2011 revolution, leading to a number of attacks targeting a variety of institutions and actors. The difficult security situation was brought home in 2015 with the occurrence of two deadly incidents in quick succession.
To address this, Tunisia’s government has responded to the security situation with a number of measures including a greater role for the army in counter-terrorism and border control, the closing of certain mosques, efforts to target funding of organisations promoting radicalism, and the designation of certain mountainous regions as military zones.
The EU, as Tunisia’s largest trading partner, remains vitally important to the country. In 2014, trade between the partners totalled $22.8bn, representing 57% of Tunisia’s total trade volumes. Machinery and transport equipment were the leading goods traded, but textiles, fuels and mining were also significant contributors to commercial flows.
In October 2015, Tunisia’s relationship with the EU took another step forward when the parties announced the commencement of talks on a free trade agreement. In a statement on its website, the EU Commission said the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement would aim “to improve market access opportunities and the investment climate and support ongoing economic reforms in Tunisia”. The agreement, if finalised, would require significant follow-up to ensure Tunisia’s producers in more vulnerable segments are able to compete.
In the main, Tunisia’s revolution and subsequent reforms have engendered significant international goodwill. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the US, which has offered significant rhetorical and financial support to the one success story of the Arab Spring. Following the Tunisian elections in late 2014, the US was effusive in its praise of the process. This followed a visit by John Kerry, US Secretary of State, to Tunis in February 2014.
During the visit, Kerry stressed the US government’s “commitment to stand with Tunisia ... to help move down this road to democracy.” The US has met these words with financial commitments. Although Tunisia may not get quite the attention of its North African counterpart Egypt, the US has allocated significant aid to the country. Between 2011 and the end of 2014, the US allocated $610m in aid to Tunisia.
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