Tunisian Politics: Background to Revolution

7 Feb

Tunisia’s economy was not the only factor in its 2010 revolution.  Corruption within the government and political oppression were also concerns of its citizens.

Please find below information about:

  1. Tunisia’s political parties
  2. Human rights violations
  3. Elections of 2009
  4. Corruption in Ben Ali’s regime
  5. Other protests (those occurring before Dec. 2010)

Political Parties in Tunisia

Although there were nine nationally recognized political parties in Tunisia, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) led by former Presidents Habib Bourgiba and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali always won elections with overwhelming support since Tunisian independence.

1) Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL) or Ettakatol: Ettakatol is a social democratic political party in Tunisia. It was founded by Mustapha Ben Jafar in 1994 and was officially recognized in 2002. During Ben Ali’s presidency, the party could not win any seats in the Tunisian parliament. Ettakatol’s secretary-general Ben Jafar attempted to run for the 2009 presidential election, but was barred from the race.   The official website for FDTL can be read in Arabic or French (sorry no English version available!).

2) Ettajdid Movement (Renewal Movement) : The Ettajdid Movement is a center-left secularist political party in Tunisia led by Ahmed Ibrahim. Ettajdid evolved out of the old Tunisian Communist Party in 1993, adopting a social economic program. During the Ben Ali rule, it was the smallest of the seven parties represented in the parliament. Ahmed Brahim, the Secretary-General of the Ettajdid Movement, ran for president in 2009.  He sought to being about tax reform to benefit workers, improve unemployment rates, and reform education. Like many of the oppositional political parties, they sponsor a publication, Attariq Aljadid. Their official website is also available in Arabic or French.

3) Green Party for Progress : The Green Party for Progress was founded in 2005 by Mongi Khamassi and was officially recognized in 2006.  It’s goal is to strengthen the environmental conscious of Tunisia.  In 2009, when the party was first represented in national elections, its members won a total of 6 seats in parliament.  They also publish a weekly paper, the Ettounisi. Please visit their official website for more information (available in Arabic or French).

4) Movement of Socialist Democrats : The Movement of Social was the largest opposition political party in Tunisia.  It was founded in 1978 by Ahmed Mestiri and was officially recognized in 1983 (after being a part of the first multi-party elections in Tunisia in 1981). The leadership of the party was often criticized by its own members (many of whom left the movement) because it supported Ben Ali’s presidency.

5) Party of People’s Unity : The Party of People’s Unity is an opposition political party in Tunisia. It is socialist and was founded in 1981 by Ahmed Ben Salah.  Members of the party also promote the idea of Arab nationalism.  The party’s Secretary-General, Mohamed Bouchiha, ran for president in 2009 and proposed a parliament-focused system for Tunisia instead of the president-focused system.

6) Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) : The Progressive Democratic Party is a secular liberal political party in Tunisia. It was founded in 1983 and gained legal recognition in 1988. During the Ben Ali rule, its founder, Najib Chebbi, and the PDP were often the targets of verbal and physical harassment by the police force and state-run media.  Because of this treatment and lack of success in the 1999 election,s the party boycotted the elections of 2004 and 2009 (it, therefore, held no seats in parliament).  It leaders are also known for engaging in a successful 20-day hunger strike when the Ben Ali administration demanded that the party move its headquarters out of Tunis.  You can visit their official website in English.

7) Social Liberal Party (PSL) : The Social Liberal Party is an opposition liberal political party in Tunisia, advocating liberal social and political reforms as well as economic liberalization. The party was founded in September 1988.  In 2005, Mongi Khamassi, one of the party’s founders, split to form the Green Party for Progress. Its official website is only available in Arabic.

8) Unionist Democratic Union: The Unionist Democratic Union is an opposition political party in Tunisia. It has a pan-Arabist ideology and was founded in 1988 by Abderrahmane Tlili.  The party nominated candidates for president in both 2004 and 2009.  Their candidate in 2009 was Ahmed Innoubli who pledged to develop Tunisia’s media expand political plurality, defend the private sector, and improve working conditions, health care, and education.

9) Constitutional Democratic Rally: The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was the official party of Tunisia’s presidents.  It was first formed n in 1920 by Tunisian nationalists who were in opposition to French rule (then called the Destour Party).  Habib Bourguiba became the leader of the Neo Destour Party (a party which split from the original Destour Party) in 1934 and, through this party, he worked to gain Tunisian independence. In 1964, the party was then renamed the Destourian Socialist Party (PSD) and was the only legal political party in Tunisis until 1981.

In 1981, opponents to the PSD became public, including the Islamci Tendency Movement, the Movement for Popular Unity, and the Tunisian Communist Party.  In 1987, when Ben Ali became president, he began instituting a number of economic reforms (privatization) and renamed the party the Constitutional Democratic Rally.  The party always won local, regional, and national elections by large margins and essentially was the single party of Tunisia.

Human Rights Violations

Tunisia under Ben Ali had problems with human rights violations, especially freedom of the press.  Journalists like Taoufik Ben Brik were harassed and imprisoned for criticizing the president.  For more information about Ben Brik’s account, please read this BBC article.

Taoufik Ben Brik after his release from prison, 27 April 2010

Ben Ali often used ‘the war on terror’ as an excuse to clamp down on his opponents, especially those expressing Islamist political views.  He used the bombing of a Djerba synagogue in 2002 by al-Qaeda to support his claims.

A number of political parties, including the FDTL, Progressive Democratic Party, the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers and some Islamists, formed the 18 October Coalition for Rights and Freedoms in 2005.  Although the groups represent a wide range of political ideologies, all agreed that attainment of basic human rights, including the right to resist oppression and arbitrary rule, was necessary for a society to thrive.

Elections of 2009

On 25 October 2009, Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89% of the vote.  Although a team of observers sent from the African Union to cover the election described the election as “free and fair,” the actual fairness of the election was called into question.  The Human Rights Watch revealed that a number of candidates from the opposition parties were prevented from running because of tailor-made laws and that freedom of the press and assembly were constrained to hide Ben Ali’s opponents from the public.  In fact, at least two of Ben Ali’s opponents publically pledged support to him. There were also reports of mistreatment of a spokesperson of the banned Communist Party of Tunisian Workers, Hamma Hammami.  An article from the Human Rights Watch reports.

Because of reports like those from the Human Rights Watch, Ben-Ali’s government was deemed authoritarian and undemocratic by several different international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Protection International. In 2010, The Economist classified Tunisia’s government as an authoritarian regime in its Democracy Watch.  Since 2008, Tunisia had also received very low rankings in terms of freedom of the press.

Corruption in Ben Ali’s Regime

In addition to the political corruption of Ben Ali’s regime, Ben Ali was also accused of nepotism and personal corruptness.  As Ben Ali grew older, rumors circulated that he was grooming his son-in-law, Sakher al-Materi to take his place as president of Tunisia.  In addition, many members of Ben Ali’s family became extremely wealthy and powerful during his tenure as president, including his nephews, Imed Trabelsi and Belhassen Trabelsi, who controlled much of Tunisia’s business sector.  These nephews along with Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, owned a number of monopolies which hindered the free market.  The first lady was not afraid to lead a luxurious life or to bestow protection, power, and wealthy upon her family.  In France, a book entitled La Régente de Carthage written by Nicolas Beau was published in 2009 and described the First Lady’s role in the corruption of the political regime.

As this article from BusinessWeek explains, much of the corruption surrounding the Ben Ali family was not revealed publically until the Fall of 2010.

Other Protests

It is important to remember that the protests which caused the Tunisian revolution in late 2010 were not the first in the country. However, because the government had made many superficial reforms to appear democratic, was largely considered to lead an economically stable country, effectively kept the media silent, and was supported by the United States and France, many of these socio-political protests did not make the news.  For instance, in 2008, unemployed demonstrators protested in Redeyef as reported by an online source.

An article from The Economist in July 2010 explains the relationship between Tunisia and the European Union as Tunisia sought ‘advanced-partner status’ with the EU.  Although many allegations like those described above were made against the Ben Ali regime by Tunisian human-rights activists and international organizations, the EU continued negotiations with Tunisia (especially because of the country’s close relationship with France and Italy).


  1. http://www.bourguiba.com/pages/biography.aspx
  2. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5439.htm#political
  3. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=49226757&site=ehost-live
  4. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=1626673771&Fmt=6&clientId=4347&RQT=309&VName=PQD
  5. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-825X.2009.02612.x/abstract
  6. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-825X.2008.01801.x/abstract

Posted by: Blakeley Brown


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