‘The Bird Will Not Return to the Cage:’ An Analysis of Tunisia’s 2019 Elections


On April 9, 1938, French authorities fired on a crowd of protestors who had gathered in Tunis to demand a “Tunisian parliament and the end of privileges,” killing 22 and injuring 150.* To finally achieve a parliament in which their votes mattered, however, Tunisians would have to wait until the Jasmine Revolution that in 2011 toppled the Ben Ali regime. Recently, the country held its third parliamentary elections since the revolution and the second presidential elections since late President Béji Caid Essebssi passed away on July 25, 2019. It remains to be seen if the election’s results will usher in a new era of dignity, for which Tunisians took the streets in 2010 and 2011.

After the 2014 elections, in which Tunisians cast a so-called “useful vote” that brought to power Nidaa Tounes and Béji Caid Essebssi, this time around the electorate cast a “sanction vote” in both the legislative and presidential elections. Of 26 candidates for president, the majority of whom belonged to and represented established political parties, voters chose two political independents to move to the second round. In the parliamentary elections, the “progressive democratic” political parties found themselves simply on the sidelines, ceding the majority of seats to right-wing parties and parties with ties to the former regime. Nidaa Tounes, the party established by Béji Caid Essebssi in 2014 to oppose Ennahdha, and one of the two main blocs in the 2014-2019 parliament, won just three seats.

On October 13, 2019, in free and transparent elections, Tunisians chose the seventh president of the republic, Kais Saied. In a landslide victory against his opponent Mr. Nabil Karoui, Mr. Saied won 72.71 percent of the vote. Ninety percent of those who voted for Mr. Kais Saied were young people between 18 and 25 years of age, and 90 percent of his voters attend or have attended university. Saied, a professor of constitutional law, became a kind of a “national unity candidate” around whom right and left-wing parties rallied to defeat Mr. Karoui, a business man who has been accused of money laundering and tax evasion and was only recently released from jail. Mr. Saied takes office with a strong mandate and sense of legitimacy, backed by three million voters, far more than the 1.75 million voters who cast their ballots for Béji Caid Essebssi in 2014.

Women candidates overall represented only 14.5 percent of the 1,506 candidate lists. Despite all the efforts of civil society to push for gender parity, only 30 women will be deputies in the new parliament, compared with the 80 women deputies in the 2014-2019 parliament. This dismal outcome squares all too well with the World Economic Forum’s 2018 report on the global gender gap, which found that Tunisian political parties had not adopted quota systems on a voluntary basis to promote women’s participation, and that also ranked the country 119th out of 149 countries in overall gender equality.

Young people, in contrast, were the stars of the second round of the presidential elections. Not only were they leaders and instrumental organizers in Mr. Saied’s campaign but they turned out in mass in the second round to vote for him. Their turnout brought the total voter participation rate up to 55 percent — an exceptional number compared with all the previous elections, including the legislative ones of 2019. “The change” that these young people sought entailed a reaffirmation of the values of integrity and independence.

What Do the Elections Results Mean for Tunisia?

In this election cycle, the people of Tunisia punished the political class for disappointing them over and over during five long years. Instead of working on solutions to the country’s painful economic and social crisis and the hard austerity measures that came with it, elected officials focused on their own political survival and party infighting.

The election results demonstrate that, even against the backdrop of high inflation and unemployment, Tunisians do not want their country’s democratic transition to be compromised by politicians trying to cut deals with financial institutions or to evade corruption allegations.

In an election where one of the two presidential candidates was a businessman arrested on corruption charges, a massive youth movement once again countered the country’s growing economic and social disparities — this time by coming out to the polls in unprecedented numbers. The message was clear, and the vote, resounding: Not even Ben Ali, with his huge falsification machine, was able to achieve such an electoral victory.  

However, challenges await the new parliament, with its mosaic of diverse members, as well as President Saied and his unusual political project for the republic. They will certainly face push-back as they assert their legitimacy and move to make good on their campaign promises and enact their agenda. Moreover, Tunisians still have a bitter taste in their mouths about the political class. When describing their expectations after these elections, Tunisians mainly asserted their belief in justice, the supremacy of the rule of law, strong state institutions, and the know-how of professionals who are working despite the difficult economic and social crisis and widespread corruption.

Implications for Tunisia’s Transitional Justice Process

Tunisians have never been against transitional justice, despite portrayals otherwise in the media and political hostility to it. Right after the revolution, two factfinding committees were set up, which were led by prominent activists and academics who worked pro bono for nearly a year and half. Each committee delivered a final report with findings and recommendations that were disseminated widely to the public, and both still enjoy societal ownership. In both elections this year, the candidates who spoke about transitional justice, including the newly elected president, described it as a prerequisite for truth and reconciliation.

The comprehensive transitional justice law, which was passed based on the results of a national consultation, has accomplished a great deal. Yet, Tunisians unfortunately remember much more the shortcomings of the process, such as the partisan appointment of members to the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), the way the TDC was mismanaged, and the intense infighting and the precious time lost because of it.

The new parliament is called on today to learn lessons from these past mistakes.

The whole new incoming political class — the president, the parliament, and the government they will form — is today above all legally and morally obligated to safeguard the rights of the Tunisian citizens who were victims of state violence. These newly elected official must end the ongoing laissez-faire attitude that had reduced a courageous national transitional justice process to one that serves personal and political ends on both sides.

To begin with, the new government should publish the list of persons who were killed or injured in the revolution in the Official Gazette. It should also publish TDC’s final report, and, most importantly, demonstrate the political will enact reforms. The parliament, moreover, should monitor the implementation of such reforms via a parliamentary committee as stipulated in Article 70 of the transitional justice law.

The plan should include the effective implementation of the “Fund for the Dignity and Rehabilitation for Victims of Tyranny” and of the reparations claims of over 20,000 victims.

As the incoming government considers ideas for advancing reconciliation, it might be wise to revisit the expectations that Tunisians expressed in the 2013 national dialogue on transitional justice. They should remember the dire need of the Tunisian people to feel that their country is doing justice for all the violations committed by the dictatorship and that victims are being rehabilitated and their dignity affirmed.

The Specialized Chambers, created by the Transitional Justice law, are not spared from imperfections, but they remain the very last hope for many victims of torture and other violations. Today, there is an opportunity to improve their performance. First, the transitional justice law should be amended to ensure that it is in total compliance with the constitution. Second, a policy of continuity of service should be adopted for the judges appointed to the chambers that protects them from undue external pressures or influence and offers them a clear path forward in their careers. Finally, a brainstorming should be initiated on a possible legislation that would protect victims and witnesses, which the country currently does not have on the books.

A Timely Passing

When Ben Ali died on September 19, 2019, many brought up, again, the relatively comfortable middle class lives that Tunisians enjoyed during his 23-year rule. Only victims were outspoken about the violations they suffered. It is true that the middle class prospered during the dictatorship, but social and economic marginalization at the same time worsened. This vast and painful disparity between Tunisians, who all share the same nationality and live on the same land, brought about the revolution. It began when a desperate man, who sold produce from a cart and who could no longer make ends meet, set himself on fire.

Ben Ali left this world without any apology after two decades of a bloody dictatorship. Not only did victims endure indescribable harm but Tunisia as a whole lost immeasurably in terms of not only the many missed opportunities but the entrenched corruption that is perhaps Ben Ali’s most lasting legacy. Ben Ali also leaves behind a deep and generalized fear. In dictatorships, fear is weaponized in name of security, and it amounts to a human rights violation. Fear forces people to give up on their dreams, leave the country, or simply face torture and death if they choose to defend their ideas. Should Tunisia’s educated society today look back on such dark times longingly just because the economic situation was better? One only has a look around at what is happening in the regional neighborhood to understand the value of the freedom that Tunisians now enjoy.

Priorities for the Incoming Government

One of the most pressing tasks for the new parliament is to hold elections to fill the four vacant judicial seats on the Constitutional Court and ensure the court functions effectively. The parliament so far has failed to do so four consecutive times, which has been a major, albeit temporary, setback for the country. Failing to hold these elections has deprived the democratic transition of a functioning high court that could have provided legal protections when they were needed and has revealed a political class beholden more to political ideology than to the rule of law. For instance, the Administrative Reconciliation Law that was promulgated in September 2017, and that youth movements and civil society fought intensively for three years, could have come before the court, which could have issued a ruling that avoided this major pitfall for the transition.

The incoming government also has a real opportunity today to wisely consider, develop, and implement institutional police reform. It is a thorny issue for all the post-revolutionary or transition governments, one that is made much more complicated when there are ongoing security threats. Meaningful police reform, however, is perhaps the most symbolic one that the Tunisian government could undertake given the history of police violence during the dictatorship. A police force that better understands and respects human rights helps to guarantee that Tunisia will not relapse into violent dictatorship. It also builds social cohesion and public trust in the police, which is especially important in times of terrorist attacks.

Finally, the new government must engage more seriously in a process for asset recovery. It should start to think outside of the box about how to repatriate the millions of dollars in assets outside the country and to use them help rebuild the national economy, free the younger generations from the burden of debt, and support transitional justice processes such as the Dignity Fund and reparations.

The election results should leave no doubt that Tunisians remain as cleareyed as ever in their vision of a Tunisia free of repression, corruption, and marginalization. They should inspire Tunisians to hold firm in their demands for economic growth and development, and to not compromise until there is justice, accountability, and dignity.

* Kais Saied closed his televised debate on October 11, 2019, saying "The bird will not return to the cage, and will never accept crumbs."

PHOTO: Kais Saied in 2013. (AlQalamTV TUNISIA/Creative Commons)