The revolution in Tunisia in 2011 – the first political upheaval of what became the ‘Arab Spring’ – marked the end of over five decades of authoritarian rule, first by post-colonial leader Habib Bourguiba and then by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The country’s first democratic elections, held in March 2011, produced a coalition government comprising of the dominant Tunisian Islamic party, Ennahda, and two centre-left groups, Ettakatol and the Congrès Pour la République. Despite the degree of stability the coalition has provided the country, there are still obstacles to democratic consolidation and factors that contribute to social, political and violent conflict in the country today, not least the political climate itself which is characterised by deep divisions and antagonisms between the coalition and opposition groups.
This conflict analysis identifies the dynamics, drivers, and international and local responses to conflict in Tunisia, as well as the key actors involved in current instability. There is a limited but growing body of literature which explores post-2011 conflict in Tunisia. Much of the existing literature draws on qualitative empirical research. To supplement evidence gaps, this report at times draws on media reports.
Drivers of conflict in Tunisia are complex and intertwined. Drawing from the available literature, some of the identified factors that contribute to current instability and conflict include:
- Divisions between Islamic and secular communities: The division between Islamic and secular communities is an important feature of modern Tunisian society and one that influences the dynamics of social and political struggles in the country. Experts caution, however, that though such divisions are significant, they should not be overstated and that other issues are at play1.
- Socio-economic factors: Both experts and literature emphasise that socio-economic factors should be central to understanding the current conflict in Tunisia. In particular, high rates of unemployment and a slowdown of the economy have led to economic suffering and contributed to growing antagonism toward the government.
- Islamist radicalisation: The growth of Salafist groups in Tunisia is an important feature of post-revolution society. Salafists have been implicated in a number of violent conflict events and regularly stage protests and demonstrations across the country. In December 2012, the Tunisian government publically admitted they had underestimated the danger posed by Salafist groups. Factors that have contributed to the rise of Salafism include: the release of Islamists imprisoned during Ben Ali’s rule; the presence of ultraconservative preachers influenced by Saudi Wahhabism; and dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition.
- Marginalisation of young people: Despite their central role in the revolution, young people continue to experience socio-political marginalisation. Empirical research has identified that young people feel ‘neglected’ and ‘deceived’ by their political leaders (Marks, 2013) and experience a disproportionately high rate of unemployment.
- Geographic economic disparities: The geography of development in Tunisia has been characterised by stark economic inequalities between the developed coastal regions and the underdeveloped interior regions. This inequality played a key role in fuelling the unrest that led to the revolution and remains an important dynamic of current instability.
International and local efforts to address the drivers of conflict in Tunisia have tended to focus on political and economic stabilisation. Key multi-lateral actors, such as the World Bank, European Union, and the African Development Bank, have provided substantial financial inputs and technical assistance in an attempt to stabilise the Tunisian economy and overcome the challenges of democratic transition. Assistance has also been provided to security sector reform, including enhancing the Tunisian state’s capacity to manage its borders. The US Government and the Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), for example, have provided financing, technical assistance and related training to the security sector.
Drawing from the available literature, some of the recommendations presented for conflict prevention in Tunisia include:
- Develop a targeted socio-economic response that incorporates civil society and provides micro-credit and technical assistance to facilitate the development of local business.
- Advocate de- and counter-radicalisation measures that are tailored to the specific local circumstances, involve a variety of complementary approaches, incorporate an aftercare element, and make use of credible interlocutors.
- Provide targeted assistance to the security and judicial sectors that includes technical assistance, education and exchange programmes, and financial backing for the modernisation and improvement of non-lethal crowd control equipment.