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Tunisia 2018

Published Friday, June 15, 2018

Is Tunisia's democratic development under threat?

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Tunisia is often seen as the single success story since the Arab uprisings of 2011. The democratisation process has indeed been more successful there than in other Arab countries that had upheavals, but it has still been difficult.

The Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People was elected in 2014 and two parties dominated: Nidaa Tounes, a secularlist party, and Ennahda, a miainstream Islamist party. Next elections are due in 2019. Nidaa Tounes has some members with connections to the former regime, including the President Beiji Caid Essebsi, who served as speaker of the Ben Ali-era parliament for many years. Ennahda’s leader describes himself as a “Muslim democrat” rather than an Islamist; Ennahda does not propose sharia law for Tunisia.

Tunisia has a strong record on women’s rights compared with other countries in the region. Women hold almost a third of seats in Assembly of the Representatives of the People.

While Tunisia’s constitutional set-up is democratic, several recent moves have caused concern for Tunisia’s future democratic development:

  • the Truth and Dignity Commission, set up to investigate gross human rights violations since 1955 did not have its mandate renewed by Parliament in April 2018
  • The Constitutional Court has still not been set up
  • a reconciliation law passed in September 2017 provides impunity for acts of corruption by public servants under the Ben Ali administration, according to critics
  • the opposition says a new law on associations risks suppressing public debate

In January 2018, riots spread across the country as people demonstrated against austerity, rising prices and unemployment. Hundreds were arrested. Tunisians are also angry about corruption and nepotism, although Tunisia is not the worst offender in the region by any means.

Many Tunisians have also travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya to fight with jihadi groups. The authorities have been relatively successful at controlling the border with Libya, however, and containing a revolt in the mountainous region to the west of the country. In 2017 the FCO relaxed its warnings about travel to Tunisia, although it still advises against travel to areas in the south and west.

There is undeniably growing frustration that the revolution has not delivered better economic conditions; high unemployment causes much suffering in Tunisia, particularly in the less-developed south and west. Some are calling for the Prime Minister to be sacked, although observers question whether that would help much.

Although there are some signs of a return to authoritarianism, Tunisia is still the most hopeful of the countries that had uprisings in 2011.

The UK has increased its aid to Tunisia and cooperates on security, economic governance and political development.

Dissatisfaction with their standard of living and prospects for improvement have led many Tunisians to emigrate, some taking the dangerous route across the Mediterranean.

A government of national unity was established in 2016, ostensibly to push through reforms, although some worry that it stifles opposition. Youssef Chahed, a member of Nidaa, was appointed head of government. Local elections were held on 6 May, but turnout was disappointingly low, suggesting that enthusiasm for democratisation may be waning.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8342

Author: Ben Smith

Topic: Africa

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