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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