The Tunisian turmoil: A domestic crisis with regional implications


By Dr. Michael Milshtein | Auguat, 2021

Tunisian protesters
Amine GHRABI-Tunisian-CC BY-NC 2.0


A decade after it had played the role of trailblazer of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is once again experiencing severe domestic turmoil, demonstrating that the process that erupted ten years ago is far from over, and continues to change the regional profile.


About ten years ago, the people of Tunisia were the first in the Arab World to form a powerful force, promote an unprecedented popular protest in the region, and oust a long-standing authoritarian ruler. Tunisia had also served as a role model for the other Arab states in several fundamental processes later on: it was the first to hold democratic elections in the Arab Spring era (October 2011), and the first in which a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate rose to power (alNahda Movement headed by Rashed al-Ghannoushi, one of the Muslim Brotherhood's key present-day thinkers). Overall, it represented a more open and progressive approach than most Arab states both socially and culturally, particularly to issues such as the status of women.


However, for the past six months, Tunisia is under growing internal tension originating in the combination between the harsh economic reality and government's inadequacy during the COVID-19 crisis. A similar crisis atmosphere is felt in many other centers across the Arab World, reflecting the deep ravine between the expectations created by the eruption of the Arab Spring and the bleak reality, which many in the Arab World feel has even deteriorated compared to the state of affairs that existed ten years ago. This view is shared by the Tunisian public in general, and particularly by the younger generation, who had high hopes for the "Jasmine Revolution" that took place in late 2010.


Public unrest mounted recently, turning into a broad protest against the government, during which some offices of the al-Nahda Movement – the largest party in Tunisian parliament today (occupying 52 of its 217 seats) – were torched, and a demand made to hold elections sooner, instead of in three years' time. The protest constituted a display of public rage against the Muslim Brotherhood, who many in Tunisia feel represents the order established over the past decade, which failed to provide solutions to some of Tunisia's most fundamental issues.


Following these tumultuous events, President Kays Sai`d took some dramatic steps recently, among them: dismissing the government, suspending parliamentary activity, and transferring the authority to address the pandemic to the Tunisian armed forces. The Islamists' responses were severe: Ghannoushi, the speaker of parliament, called the president's steps a coup d'êtat (inquilab) against the constitution, urging citizens to protest. To date there have been no confrontations between protestors from the two opposing camps, or between the Islamists and state security forces, but the atmosphere on the Tunisian street is very tense, and could be ignited fairly quickly.


The events in Tunisia have gained the Arab World's attention, for it views them as an important battle between the Muslim Brotherhood stream – for which Tunisia has been considered a stronghold and key center of success – and opposing political and social forces, some of which are of a liberal nature. President Saied's decisions have led to optimism in the Gulf states that are hostile toward the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by the United Arab Emirates, while also being criticized by all local representatives of the movement, who perceive the recent actions of the Tunisian president as the soft return of the model whereby the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by the military in Egypt in the summer of 2013.


The op-eds published in late July across the Arab World reflect the sharp discourse on the Tunisian turmoil. Some writers side with the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that an illegal power grab had taken place, and others object to this movement, defining President Saied's measures as means of saving Tunisian democracy. On the one hand are journalists such as Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed from Saudi Arabia, who published a column entitled Tunisia: Downfall of the Brotherhood's last bastion[1] , and on the other are publicists such as Hussein Abd al-Aziz, who wrote a column in the Qatari supported daily newspaper al-Araby al-Jadeed in which he argued that the freezing of parliament and dismissing of government undermine the democratic order in Tunisia.[2]


Great interest has been expressed in the developments in Tunisia beyond the Middle East as well. Prominent among these displays of interest in this context were the U.S. administration's issued statement that Saied's steps were not considered a "coup", which may indicate that is has learned its lesson from past incidents when zealous support of democratic values ultimately hurt its allies in the Arab World while they were grappling with domestic challenges, namely the Islamist groups, as well as the European Union's demand that Tunisia cease to suspend its parliamentary activity as soon as possible.


Internally speaking, this Tunisian turmoil shows that the core issues underlying the Arab Spring have not been resolved, and continue to feed chronic unrest in Tunisia, as in most of the Arab World. Public opinion polls conducted over the last 12 months in all Arab countries – including Tunisia – reveal the depth of the crisis experienced by the public there: 85% of respondents said the economic situation in Tunisia was either bad or very bad; 63% defined the political situation as either bad or very bad; 66% of respondents from the younger generation believed the local regime was corrupt; and 52% of them stated their desire to relocate to another country.[3]


At present it is not clear how the internal crisis in Tunisia will end. According to the optimistic scenario that various commentators in the Arab World are painting, early elections will be announced or a new government rapidly formed to achieve political and public calm at least for the foreseeable future. Such a scenario could be a source of concern for the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in the region, primarily Qatar and Turkey, while spreading optimism – albeit cautious and modest – among key players in the Arab World that view the Muslim Brotherhood as their enemy, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


However, it is also plausible that a more severe scenario will develop in Tunisia, consisting of violent outbreaks, particularly between the Islamist stream and state security forces, following which Tunisia may slip into chaos. In the worst-case scenario, such a situation could trigger regional actors' involvement in Tunisia, turning it into a scene of conflict between hawkish forces in the region.




[1] al-sharq al-Awsat, July 27, 2021.

[2] al-Araby al-Jadeed, July 27, 2021.

[3] See al-Muashar al-Araby: 2019–2020 (al-Zaeyan [Qatar]: al-Markaz al-Arabi Lil-Abhath Wa-Dirasat al-Siyasat, 2020 as well as A Voice for Change - Arab Youth Survey (Dubai: ASDA`A - bcw), 2020.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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