Tunisia’s revolution runs out of steam

For a lot of people in Tunisia it’s really debatable if the revolution was worth it, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih in Tunis.

It’s been three years since I visited the country so I’m definitely out-of-touch with what’s going on here and won’t pretend to be an expert. But the impression I’ve got having spent the last few days covering the presidential elections is that the mood is generally despondent.

Lots of people have complained to me that nothing has improved since the events of December 2010-January 2011 which unleashed the now discredited and disastrous Arab Spring.

Prices are soaring while salaries remain stagnant. Over one million Libyans fleeing the chaos in their country are placing a strain on services. And a return to Ben Ali-type authoritarianism is feared if the secular, anti-Islamist Nida Tounes party takes control of the presidency as well as the parliament.

In brief, Tunisia faces three main problems:

1. The economy.

As I said, prices are soaring and unemployment is rampant. This particularly affects the young who boycotted the election in their droves. Basically there are no jobs and opportunities for them.

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2. Security.

Securing the Algerian and Libyan borders from “takfiri” terrorists has become a national priority. In Tunis I saw little or no tolerance for Salafi jihadis and the term “takfiri” is in common usage.

There’s a keen awareness across the political spectrum – from secularists to Islamists – that they cannot be reasoned with and will wipe out everyone else given the chance. I’m not talking about all Salafis by the way because Tunisian Salafis are a diverse bunch, I’m just talking about the ones who excel in armed insurrections.

Many people told me that the takfiri threat needs to be eliminated before it takes a stranglehold and warned of the dangers of Saudi and Qatari money flooding into the country. Over 3,000 Tunisians have joined the “jihad” in Syria and the Tunisian state and the people are very aware of the danger the takfiris could pose to the country.

So in a nutshell they have decided to deal with them militarily.

On a side note I should add that 26 out of the 27 presidential candidates have pledged to restore full diplomatic relations with Syria should they win. Identity politics masquerading as the “voice of the people” seems to have had its day here.

3. Co-existence and national unity.

How can Islamists and secularists (who both have major constituencies in this country) learn to live together without inciting against each other?

Like many other Arab countries, Tunisia is dangerously divided between Islamists and secularists. On the one hand, there are areas of the country which look exactly like Europe and have liberal values to match. On the other hand, other parts are very traditional, conservative and Islamic.


The main Islamist force in Tunisia, An Nahdha, has attempted to steer a middle path. It has sought to appease its base by using religious language and making alliances with more conservative religious parties. And it has sought to appease the powerful secular interests by forming coalition governments and accepting to work within secular, democratic parameters.

But the problem for An Nahdha is that in seeking to please all of the people all of the time they’ve probably ended up pleasing none of the people none of the time. Their time in office is widely perceived to have been a failure and they are paying at the ballot box for it.

That said, I must say that I did hear some praise for An Nahdha, even from their opponents. People told me that at least they had the sense to pursue a national reconciliation policy and make compromises rather than attempt to rule the whole country on behalf of a minority who support them.

As for Nida Tounes, they seem like an awkward coalition of Ben Ali “has-beens recast as Arab nationalists” and leftists who have come together simply to stop An Nahdha from governing.

It’s very doubtful if they can manage to stabilise this divided country either.

Small steps

I realise that most of what I’ve said above is negative but unlike other Arab countries there are some positives to take from the Tunisian experience.

Firstly, and most importantly, at least the nation hasn’t descended into a destructive war like its fellow Arab Spring victims – Libya and Syria. Neither does it look like going that way as its secular and Islamic politicians (as well as its fairly passive military) seem to have a good deal more sense than their brethren elsewhere.

And secondly, Tunisia has held several genuinely free and well-run elections in recent years and is perhaps the only Arab country where the electorate genuinely doesn’t know the result in advance.

So in conclusion I would say that after three years of unmitigated disaster I no longer hope for anything majorly positive when it comes to the Arab Spring, so let’s just hope and pray for the minimum – that Tunisians can solve their differences without violence.

And – who knows – if something better than that comes along then, Alhamdulillah.


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