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Tunisia At A Crossroads

Interview with Youssef Chahed

INTERVIEW - 25 May 2021

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution," the precursor of the Arab Spring. It led to the removal of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and set Tunisia on the path to democracy. But today, the Tunisian state must tackle worsening public finances, rising migration issues and a rather one-sided relationship with the European Union. What can we learn from this decade of democracy? Youssef Chahed, Prime Minister of Tunisia between 2016 and 2020, talks about his experience in an extensive interview with Institut Montaigne. 

This is taken from three interviews with Youssef Chahed, conducted between February and March 2021 by Senior fellow at Institut Montaigne, Hakim El Karoui. 

Hakim El Karoui: As someone who was the head of the country for three and a half years, you are well-positioned to comment on how the democratic system in Tunisia is progressing. Ten years after the start of the revolution, how is democracy working out? 

Youssef Chahed: Since we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, now is certainly a good time to review ten years of democracy. To me, democracy is alive and well in Tunisia; we have free elections by universal suffrage, where the results are not contested. We have also made important gains in both societal and individual freedoms, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press. 

However, in some respects, democracy has not lived up to the expectations of the Tunisian public: it has neither brought economic prosperity nor well-being, and it hasn’t fulfilled promises of social equality and a narrowing of regional inequalities. But democratic institution-building continues to strengthen, and Tunisians remain committed to it. 

HEK: Of course, we’ve seen institutions mature and evolve, but we’ve also noticed a significant rise in populism and isolationism: a nostalgia for the old regime and global populism. This is obviously an issue at the national level, but do you consider it a global problem? 

YC: Looking back on the past ten years of Tunisia’s democratic experiment in the wider context of Arab countries that are seeking to democratize, it’s vital that the experiment succeeds not just in Tunisia but in all the other Arab nations. 

During the transition to democracy, the challenges involved in building a democratic system were considerable for us as an Arab country. The civility of the state, freedom of conscience, political Islam and issues related to Islamist terrorism were some of the considerable challenges to be faced. Since 2016, Tunisian democracy has also been heavily affected by an international climate increasingly unfavorable to representative democracies, with adverse winds blowing in Europe and the United States, along with the influence of social media. Consequently, since 2019 Tunisia has seen a rise in populism that pits the rational and realistic approach of the state against the discourse that is trending on social media. 

The global rise in populism has led to declining support for representative democracies, which has had a major impact in Tunisia. While this is less of a risk in developed countries, where the institutions are firmly established, the Tunisian populist movement could wreak havoc on a democracy whose institutions are too young to face such delegitimization. But I am hopeful that this remains a temporary phenomenon. Remember that we witnessed a populist wave in 2011, at the very start of the revolution and against the backdrop of political Islam. Perhaps the situation will improve once again with the international movement and the arrival of Joe Biden, who could set the tone for a new democratic impulse. I can see the populist wave, which already seems to be losing steam, beginning to decline in Tunisia. 

HEK: Political Islam is another challenge facing Tunisian democracy. How much political clout does it have and how was it possible to form a secular-Islamist coalition? 

YC: Indeed, we had to build a democracy in a region that has been characterized by the emergence of political Islam. As political Islam is, by definition, against freedom of conscience and the civility of the state, its increasing popularity has made the process of transforming the Tunisian state more complex. Over the past ten years, Tunisia has gained considerable experience in dealing with political Islam. 

Personally, I am against political Islam. In 2014, President Béji Caïd Essebsi chose to create a coalition with the Islamists. It was certainly not a strategic alliance, and it came about for two reasons. Of course, it was important that the President respect the results of the election. In those 2014 elections, the Islamist party Ennahdha had come second with 69 seats. However, the objective of President Béji’s decision was to protect the civility of the state and its achievements from a latent Islamization of the country.

As political Islam is, by definition, against freedom of conscience and the civility of the state, its increasing popularity has made the process of transforming the Tunisian state more complex.

There are two distinct periods in Tunisia’s experience with the Islamists. There is an important difference between the "troika" period of 2012-2013 and the period spanning 2014 through to the last elections in 2019. The "troika" came after the end of the dictatorship; it marked a genuine Islamization of the country, along with a rise in jihadism, including departures to Syria and the growing popularity of the niqab. In 2014, Béji’s idea was to coexist alongside the Islamists while retaining control and complying with the results of the election. The aim of the coalition was to "dilute" the Islamists into the Tunisian political landscape without undermining the voters’ decision, an approach that might well have taken a bloody turn.

The representation of Islamists in positions of power was mainly symbolic: between 2014 and 2019, Ennahda had only 3 or 4 ministers out of a government of 30. Ultimately, Béji’s idea was to dissolve them into the landscape. 

This strategy preserved the foundations upon which Tunisia was historically built, including secularism and women’s rights. During this period, for example, we passed laws aimed at preventing violence against women as well as a ban on wearing the niqab in government buildings. I myself denied entry to Islamist preachers, including Wajdi Ghnim, in 2019.

Ten years later, we can see that despite the high economic cost, the Islamists’ clout has declined significantly. The Islamists garnered 1.5 million votes in 2011 and 1 million votes in 2014. In the 2019 elections, the numbers dropped to 500,000 votes and polls for the 2024 elections project around 300,000 votes. That would represent 10-15% of the vote, which is probably their actual proportion in the population. The primary reason the Islamists exist today depends upon their ability to join forces when there is a lack of representation from the rest of the political family, which often lacks cohesion and discipline. 

In the end, history will be the judge. But the coalition that followed the first free legislative elections of 2014 - in one of the few democracies in the Arab-Muslim world - was likely a necessary stage of development, not only to prevent bloodshed but to counter the Islamization of society as well. Tunisian democracy today is ready for a genuine alternation of power.

HEK: Let’s turn to migration. In what way has Tunisia become an immigration and transit country? As they are both impacted by the situation, is there cooperation between Europe and Tunisia? What conclusions can be drawn? 

YC: Immigration numbers are highly disputed; the numbers of migrants landing in Italy and the number of those leaving North Africa don’t line up. There is no monitoring agency and, apart from the IOM, few people are looking at the issue. The problem isn’t addressed, whether by Europeans or by the Maghreb countries-such issues only come up during elections in Europe and tragedies in the Maghreb. There is no underlying procedure or agreement for managing migration flows. Europe’s immigration policy can be summarized along four main lines: closing borders, blocking migrants, multiplying repatriation flights and boosting technical support for border control. 

In truth, Europe has not consulted the Maghreb countries on these issues. There has been no involvement of third and sub-Mediterranean countries in the development of European migration policies. They are drafted unilaterally and are often very closely linked to internal European security issues and the electoral agenda. For example, the measures included in the European migration deal that EU members signed in Brussels in June 2018 were a surprise to Maghrebi officials. The idea of building disembarkation platforms in departure countries had been unilaterally conceived!

Europeans have built a security policy without an in-depth analysis of the migratory phenomenon, which is currently undergoing two major transformations. Indeed, we have first observed a change in the migration phenomenon in all North African countries. These countries, which originally provided migrants, have also become transit countries. There are now hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants stationed in Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, all waiting to immigrate to Europe.

A security-based approach is not the solution; it will not push illegal immigrants to stop what they are doing.

Their number could very well exceed 500,000; this poses a major problem at the local level. The second notable transformation is that the profile of the illegal migrant has evolved from the typical small-scale trafficker, to new social categories such as women, families and university graduates. 

North African countries are therefore witnessing a brain drain towards Europe and the accumulation of thousands of illegal immigrants without papers in transit, whose management at the local level has become increasingly difficult. Although faced with two monumental shifts in the migration phenomenon, the southern Mediterranean countries have not come together to discuss it. This is especially true as migration issues are not the top priority of the Maghreb countries, whose unemployment rates remain high.

A security-based approach is not the solution; it will not push illegal immigrants to stop what they are doing. The Barcelona Treaty was drawn up unilaterally, between Europe and each country on the southern shore. This framework should be reinvented today, acknowledging migration as a crucial issue. 

HEK: From the perspective of the Maghreb, what should immigration policies look like? 

YC: A global and concerted approach - divorced from electoral concerns - must be established to identify labor needs in Europe, which are significant but often unspecified. If properly managed, circular and seasonal migration could be beneficial for Europe and the Maghreb. Illegal immigration and brain drain should be linked. While Europe gives a warm welcome to the doctors and engineers from North Africa, low-skilled laborers are denied access. For example, Tunisia is a great country for training ICT (information and communications technologies) engineers. But it is losing its skill capacity while Europe shuts the door on the low-skilled workforce that is abundant in North Africa and scarce in the European economy.

We must also develop Tunisia’s network of associations to support those citizens who are directly affected by these issues. Many families have lost people. We have also noted a sharp increase in departures last year, in connection with Covid-19. Activities hit hard by national lockdowns, such as construction, textiles and export, have led to more and more people leaving the country. The unemployment rate in Tunisia has risen by 3 or 4 points. We must expand our network of support organizations in order to develop a genuine framework. Despite the importance of issues such as terrorism and unemployment, government actions fail to devote the required time and resources. The last axis that needs strengthening is the development of coastal areas, along with economic activities such as fishing, which will make the region more viable and profitable. 

If properly managed, circular and seasonal migration could be beneficial for Europe and the Maghreb.

The issue of illegal immigration for Europe is primarily security. However, when it comes to terrorism, the Maghreb countries have superior expertise because our intelligence services are more familiar with the language and the problems posed by Islamism. Moreover, since several attacks in Europe were planned in North Africa - the Manchester attack in Libya, for example - we are sometimes used as a local "rear base" A global framework should be established to tackle these issues. 

Economics also plays a clear role; the interests of these countries of the Maghreb have shifted towards Europe. Even while trying to diversify our markets, especially towards the Gulf, our exports remain deeply focused on Europe, as our connection is strong. And we would need to invent a status of "country in democratic transition" so that certain economic mechanisms could be set up. Even if economic cooperation between Europe and Tunisia has increased, there is a lack of qualitative contribution: no commitment on foreign direct investment, no help with visa facilitation or circulation of human capital. This makes it more difficult for a country in a period of democratic transition to make the difficult decisions that need to be made.





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