An Imperfect Transition: Tunisia’s Revolution 10 Years On


Ten years have passed since Tunisians took the streets to demand “Employment, Freedom, and National Dignity.” The revolution’s loud, courageous voice against corruption, extreme inequality, and repression echoed around the globe and inspired the “Arab Spring.”

Today, Tunisians are still proud of their revolution. However, they continue to strive for goals, yet unattained, that the political class does not even seem to understand. The overall public dissatisfaction with the democratic transition has blinded Tunisians from seeing the real progress being made in various other domains such as justice, social rights, and economic development. This disappointment leads many to choose right-wing political candidates who argue for repressive measures over democracy as a path to economic development.

A democratic transition is indeed underway in Tunisia, and the new constitution, alongside the establishment of the country’s Second Republic, have opened up democratic spaces, which have allowed civil society to operate freely. Unfortunately, the country still lacks a constitutional court, which is an indispensable component of a democratic state that helps society navigate political crises by upholding the values and principles enshrined in the constitutional charter. Such a court could have protected the transition from the setbacks witnessed over the past decade, including the Administrative Reconciliation law granting amnesty to public officials involved in corruption during the dictatorship.

Moreover, any political transition requires energy and resources. Its sustainability depends on government implementing an economic development model that explicitly addresses exclusion and marginalization, among other priorities. It was expected that the inclusion of economic and social rights in the 2014 constitution, the strengthening of local governance, and the adoption of affirmative action and other social policies would markedly decrease socioeconomic inequalities and lead to constructive investment in nationwide human development. Instead, Tunisia found itself hamstrung by the International Monetary Fund’s and World Bank’s compliance and debt repayment requirements, which have in fact entrenched and even worsened economic inequalities at a high cost to society.

The country’s economy thus continues to stagnate. As a result, large numbers of educated and skilled Tunisians have left the country to pursue better opportunities elsewhere, creating a brain drain, while many others have resorted to migrating illegally. Meanwhile at home, extremism is on the rise. The COVID-19 crisis has further exposed the fragility of the Tunisian economy and the urgent need for a viable national plan.

It was thus not surprising to see large protests on the 10th anniversary of the revolution, demanding concrete action and new public policies to advance social justice and better integrate marginalized regions and populations—in other words, the same calls to affirm, uphold, and guarantee the dignity of all Tunisians we heard a decade ago. Regrettably, the police, yet again, attempted to suppress the protests with violence. Incidents of police brutality were met with intense and widespread public outcry, confirming once more that the Tunisian Revolution is at its core a broadly supported, transformative social revolution.

Now more than ever, there is a dire need for Tunisia to review and revise its current development model. It must put in place measures that advance social justice, provide equal opportunities to all Tunisians, and build the public’s trust in the government and economy. Tunisia has an opportunity to redouble its efforts to recover ill-gotten assets from state officials and use these assets for development priorities and to repair the damage of the dictatorship. Equally important, international actors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should actively support these efforts, rather than simply demanding the repayment of government debts, and acknowledge how their conduct helped perpetuate the dictatorship’s economic model, which effectively marginalized entire regions and communities.

PHOTO: Protesters gather at the Government Square in Tunis during the Tunisian Revolution. (Rais67/Wikimedia)