In-Depth Analysis

Civil Society in Tunisia: The Arab Spring Comes Home to Roost

Since the ouster of authoritarian leader, Ben Ali, in January 2011, Tunisia, with its vibrant landscape of civil society organizations (CSOs), continues to distinguish itself from other MENA states affected by the Arab Spring. Indeed, since its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has long been an exception in the region.

The first decades of independence under the stable, albeit single-party leadership of Habib Bourghiba brought profound levels of modernization in public healthcare, education and, for the Arab world, the most far-reaching set of women’s rights. Praised by the World Bank, IMF and UNDP for its rapid, yet sustained development, Tunisia stabilized its future through an expanded tourism and a more diversified economy, coupled with a more efficient and increasingly export-oriented agricultural sector. Bourghiba wisely transitioned economic output, as Tunisia’s limited petroleum resources decreased. After a quiet change of power in 1987, former interior minister, Ben Ali, continued his predecessor’s development legacy and stayed loyal to the country’s secular political culture, which allowed for private expression of religious life, but guaranteed governance that was markedly non-Islamic in its day-to-day business.

Micro-level civil society before the revolution

While more extensive inspection is required, recent field research reveal a small, but unexpectedly vibrant CSO sector before the beginning of the Arab Spring in December 2010. While regimes will often tolerate, contain, control and even co-opt CSOs for their own purposes, exceptions will arise. Pre-Arab Spring Tunisia challenges this assumption: by the mid-2000s, neighborhood-level associations with modest financial development aid from foreign embassies successfully negotiated pockets of “free spaces” outside of the regime-approved, corporatist CSOs. Under Ben Ali, CSO activity and development projects were centralized under the Ministry of the Interior, representative of the “police state” Tunisia had become.

Chema Gargouri, president of the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS), was among the first pioneers of civil society. Initially working through standard channels of application, she directly engaged the much-feared Ministry of the Interior to allow for neighborhood-based educational

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programs for children and gender-based training programs that were not officially sanctioned by the government. Despite regular police surveillance and occasional raids by intelligence officers, Gargouri carved out a space, as she explained to me in an interview this month: “that neither directly challenged Ben Ali’s regime, nor overtly supported the government. We were strictly apolitical; if they asked me to become political or they thought I was becoming political, I would have closed the doors.” Hence, while authority unquestionably rested in regime hands, a tacit agreement based on negotiated response emerged whereby crucial, micro-level civic action, free from direct state co-optation, could be nurtured and nascent ideas and practices of independent social engagement and collective action established.

Civil society during the Arab Spring

In December 2010, the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in the backwater town of Sidi Bouzid tapped into the deep well of Tunisian youth’s frustration with lack of employment, socio-economic marginalization, police repression and petite and grand corruption. In the immediate phases of the Jasmine Revolution, informal civic networks quickly began to collectively organize, even while mass demonstrations and general strikes took place. Since independence under Bourghiba, Tunisians could

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rely on state institutions to maintain day-to-day functions, such as administering schools, hospitals, emergency services, traffic regulation and garbage collection. Ahmed Hamza, program coordinator at the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES) in Tunis, described to me how neighborhood- and even street-level organizations in January 2011 took on the responsibility for issues like transporting children to school, public safety and rubbish removal. Political orientation, religious observance or the absence of religious observation, economic background and level of education were placed aside as neighborhood groups “took on the state’s role, when the state apparatus disappeared.” Hamza recalled the palpable sense of excitement of citizens taking the lead on organizing their society at the most basic level.

In rapid fashion, similar-minded civil society organizations began to bond around common ideas, while simultaneously preventing class, ideological or religious differences from spoiling the common goal of ousting the Ben Ali regime. Under other circumstances, Islamist Tunisians may not have had much in

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common with secular, Western oriented Tunisians, yet a palpable ‘spirit of solidarity enveloped the country.

Civil society after the first elections

The first free elections in Tunisia took place on 23 October 2011. The Islamist party, Ennaddha, won 41% of the vote, thereafter creating a coalition with two smaller secular parties, the Et-Katatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR). In the face a multitude of political, economic and institutional reforms and the creation of the National Constituent Assembly tasked with formulating a new post-revolution constitution, Tunisia’s transition seems to have ground to a hear halt. In some ways similar to its ideological brother in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennaddha has failed to introduce necessary reforms for foreign investment and commerce and trade. Unemployment remains staggeringly high, despite Ennaddha continued promises for improvement, while tourism, Tunisia’s historical cash cow, has suffered from low bookings due to domestic and regional political instability. The assassination of two leading secular, oppositional leaders within six months, the brutal murder of eight members of the military and a porous border with Libya continue to destabilize the country. With increased calls from the secular opposition, led by the multi-party conglomerate entitled Nidaa Tounes, for the dissolution of the government, civil society has lost much of its initial spirit of collective action for a more durable democratic transition.

As much as civil society can influence politics, so too can political instability affect civil society. This has become evident in the restructuring of Tunisia’s current CSO landscape.

My current research points to three distinguishable categories of CSOs that emerged in recent months: religiously affiliated, secular/oppositional and interest-oriented.

Religiously affiliated CSOs are nothing new to the Arab world, and certainly not a phenomenon in Tunisia. When one speaks of religious CSOs in the Tunisian context, then the automatic reference is to Islamic organizations, a clear reflection of Tunisia’s homogenous religious landscape: nearly 99% of Tunisia are Sunni Muslim. Islamic organizations and make up the vast majority of this first category. They seek to fill in the large socioeconomic gaps that have emerged as a result of the revolution and political gridlock. Religiously affiliated CSOs are comparatively more concentrated in the central, port city of Sfax, followed by formidable activity in Tunis and, finally, in the historically poorer, agricultural regions of the interior. Religiously affiliated groups, even those who claimed to me to be politically neutral or confessionally moderate, tacitly or even overtly support Ennaddha and its religious-conservative agenda. Similar to like-minded groups in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon, Tunisian Islamic CSOs are largely engaged in neighborhood-level actions, collecting monetary donations and gathering and distributing school books, shoes and clothes and, in some cases, handing out durable goods like refrigerators.

Secular/oppositional CSOs have emerged on the other side of the spectrum. The secular tradition in Tunisia, long influenced by the French tradition of laicite, demonstrates its adaption to and respect for the country’s deep Islamic tradition: their understanding of establishing an Arab democratic tradition does not necessarily exclude religious actors from participating in CSO activities. Indeed, of the varied secular groups I interviewed during the month of Ramadan, many individuals felt compelled to express their religious observance and their commitment to inclusion and openness. Others in this category exemplify markedly less or even no religious observation. However, there are two closely intertwined, overarching elements of the secular/oppositional CSO category.

Firstly, indifferent of personal religiousness, there is a desire to deepen Tunisia’s tradition of Bourghibian secular governance. Since its independence in 1956, Tunisian politics displayed a marked commitment to keeping religious influence out of day-to-day politics. Bourghiba, himself a moderately observant Muslim, embodied the capacity to govern secularly, but practice his personal faith privately. Secular/oppositional CSOs do not seek to aggressively remove or eradicate Islam’s role in society. Rather, as Dr. Salah Bourjini explained in an interview: their goal is to

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“separate governance from religion. We want complete liberty in religious practice, but let’s keep unnecessary influence out of government.”

In light of Ennaddha’s electoral win and its inability to offer convincing remedies to Tunisia’s growing problems, these CSOs have adopted their current oppositional stance, in part because of perceived threats of a gradual Islamization of society and risks to the rights of women and the small religious minority groups.

Interest-oriented CSOs focus their efforts on achieving specific goals, indifferent of the current political deadlock. This is best exemplified by the increasing number of environmental groups, which see their mission as being located beyond party-based politics. In the southern town of Gabes, the site of a decades-long environmental degradation through the local heavy chemical industry, members of the Association de Sauvegarde de l’Oasis de Chemini (ASOC) demonstratively locate their work outside of party politics. Collaborating with regional Mediterranean and EU member states, ASOC “specifies its focus strictly on improvements in the quality of water and air in and around Gabes.” Improving the state of the regional environment would have positive results for the local economy, local agriculture and tourism, all of which are policy areas still uncontested and, at a minimum, verbally supported by all municipal political parties. In Sfax, similar groups included the Mediterranean Network for the Promotion of Sustainable Development Strategies and the internet-based EcologiePlus organization.

Tunisia’s second post-Arab Spring elections are scheduled for 23 October 2013. The tense political climate will surely become yet more pronounced as Election Day approaches. However, if there is one common element that unites all members of Tunisia’s CSO community, it is an awareness that the success of the Arab Spring has returned to where it began in 2011. While Egypt and Syria are gripped by continued violence and while political stagnation has ground further political development in Yemen, Oman, Bahrain and Libya, Tunisian CSOs realize that the last chance for an Arab democracy rests in their hands.