Tunisia: First Arab constitution, birthplace of Arab spring, now a stable Arab democracy?

On Wednesday, two gunmen opened fire on a tourist bus in Tunisia, killing 17 tourists and shattering the image of relative stability in a country which is considered the birthplace of Arab Spring. Tunisia has had a troubled transition from autocracy to democracy and has struggled to control rising Islamic militancy but has avoided the prolonged violence that has crippled some other Arab nations, such as Libya. Here's a brief look at the country's journey thus far:


One of the smallest countries on the African continent, Tunisia has been an influential player in the Mediterranean since ancient times, due to its proximity to vital shipping lanes. In 1861, it was the first Arab country to have a written constitution which gave equal rights to migrants. This was before it became a French protectorate in 1881. Within three decades of independence from France in 1956, the country had became the most prosperous in the region, and embraced socially liberal policies, including broader legal rights for women, prohibition of polygamy and free education. Tourists flocked to Tunisia for its warm weather, its Mediterranean beaches, and its ancient ruins. Under the first two presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was moderately pro-Western, close to its Arab neighbours, and economically strong, but was ruled under virtual dictatorship.


First president Bourguiba followed an anti-Islamic fundamentalist line and was intolerant to dissent. Ben Ali, who took over the economically stable country in 1987, continued a hard line against extremists and opposition parties. His regime was deeply corrupt, with cronies controlling the economy and the security services. Wikileaks files described in some detail the "web of corruption" surrounding Ben Ali, in particular the family of his wife Leila Trabelsi. A World Bank report published in 2014 explained how Ben Ali's regime manipulated the political, economic and judicial system to enrich itself, while continuing systematic repression of its people. Unemployment and marginalisation fed discontent among the populace.


On Dec 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young university graduate who was able to find work only as a fruit seller, set himself ablaze to protest against police harassment and unemployment in the central town of Sidi Bouzid. His death on Jan 4, 2011, unleashed bloody rioting by a public protesting against the cost of living and lack of opportunities in Tunisia. It spread across the country, leading to more than 300 deaths. Mass street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands followed, forcing president Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power. Elections are held in October that year. The Islamist Ennahda Party won power and formed a coalition government.


Inexperienced and dominated by Ennahda Islamists, the new Tunisian government had to face crises including economic weakness, a poorly managed budget, unfulfilled social demands and spiralling inflation. To add to that, Ennahda, despite initially pledging tolerance, put pressure on the state-run media and proposed a constitution that would curtail women's rights, among other things. Rising violence by fundamentalists was met with a weak response from the government. The drafting of a new constitution in 2012 led to considerable tensions between Islamists and Secularists, which was only resolved after Ennahda made broad concessions, such as dropping its goals of establishing Tunisia as an Islamic state and declaring supremacy of Sharia law. But, assassinations of two opposition leaders in 2013 led to a political stalemate and renewed street protests, and forced Ennahda to step down in favour of an independent caretaker government. A national dialogue began which led to the first free presidential elections in the country in November 2014. Beji Caid Essebsi won by a clear margin.


While Tunisia has avoided the widespread and prolonged violence that gripped neighbouring Egypt and Libya during their own transition periods, it has seen an upsurge in Islamist extremism since the 2011 revolution. Dozens of police and military personnel have been killed or wounded in attacks blamed on Islamist militants. An army offensive against the extremists, who are linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been under way since 2012 but the ground and air campaign has failed to eliminate them. The country is also fighting against the radicalisation of Muslim youth. Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and neighbouring Libya to join the ranks of militants, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. Some 500 extremists are believed to have since returned home.

President Essebsi has said the "top priority" for the government is "providing security and the battle against terrorism".

Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, The Africa Report, AFP

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