Tarek Megerisi

Tunisia needs assistance to meet this complex set of challenges. The European Union should offer technical and financial support to the country’s government, helping it renew Tunisia’s economy and surmount the obstacles thrown up by domestic or foreign blockers.



  • Tunisia is seeking a major IMF bailout loan – but the risks of securing it are almost as great as the risks of failing to, given the conditionality that would ensue.
  • Democratic reforms in Tunisia have stalled, but post-revolution economic progress has never even begun.
  • Tunisian politicians urgently need to combine receipt of a new loan and its accompanying austerity with economic reform and renewal to grow their way out of the crisis.
  • The Tunisia policy of the EU and its member states is similarly stalled, but they can assist Tunisian leaders by providing new investment – and thereby reboot the democratic transition.
  • Success in this endeavour could provide a model for political and economic reforms elsewhere in North Africa, which is in the EU’s interest as it pursues its goal of strategic autonomy in the face of other powers’ growing influence in the region.


Tunisia is the only country in North Africa whose transition to democracy remains alive after the Arab uprisings of 2011; but the country is facing an economic crisis born of political failure.

After ten years in which its leaders failed to reform Tunisia’s economy or complete the democratisation of the political system, it teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

While half of Tunisia’s political system tries to agree a deal that could convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to save the country from default, the other half is working against it, attempting to use this precarious moment for political advantage.

Tunisia’s prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, is seeking to negotiate a new bailout with the IMF. To achieve this, he is looking to cobble together a coalition from across Tunisia’s fractious political system, including powerful unions and a divided parliament. But Mechichi and the country as a whole are caught in a Catch-22.

Although soft loans from friendly states have kept Tunisia’s economy afloat up to now, failure to secure a bailout would be catastrophic for the country and could lead to rapid currency devaluation or even a broader economic collapse. The resulting chaos and destitution could, in turn, empower those seeking to return Tunisia to authoritarianism.

That being said, if Mechichi does obtain the financing Tunisia needs, the structural reforms demanded by the IMF would place the heaviest burden on those least able to carry it.

Tunisians are already fed up with the lack of progress over the past ten years. There have been recurrent protests about the paucity of economic opportunities, the failure to tackle corruption, and the oppression that persists under a legal system that has not been upgraded to reflect the country’s new democratic character.

If the IMF demands further retrenchment, it could be the final straw for Tunisia’s people, sparking riots and spreading fatalism over democracy’s capacity to deliver. Moreover, given Tunisia’s crippling debt repayment obligations, a bailout on its own would be unlikely to solve Tunisia’s economic problems, but would only buy the country more time.

If Mechichi is to succeed in using the exceptional coalition he is forging under the pressure of the moment to alter Tunisia’s long-term trajectory, he will need two plans: one to secure the IMF bailout, and another to use the time and financing the bailout buys him to foster sustainable economic growth in Tunisia.

To win the support of the Tunisian people and finally begin delivering the change they demanded in 2011, Mechichi needs a programme to develop new, future-proofed industries that can absorb Tunisia’s young and increasingly well-educated workforce, as well as training and financial aid packages to help the people who lose out in a restructuring of the country’s economy.

Tunisia needs assistance to meet this complex set of challenges. The European Union should offer technical and financial support to the country’s government, helping it renew Tunisia’s economy and surmount the obstacles thrown up by domestic or foreign blockers.

By reinvigorating the “privileged partnership” founded in 2012, and identifying incremental but clear steps to harmonise Tunisia’s internal regulations with those of Europe, the EU can help Tunisia escape its downward spiral.

The EU should make its financial support conditional on a new Tunisian initiative to complete the reform of the political system, in the form of a national dialogue to develop plans for appointing judges to the constitutional court, forming the national commissions called for in the country’s post-revolutionary constitution, and upgrading Tunisia’s statute book to reflect the rights enshrined in the constitution.

If the EU and key member states can make their engagement with Tunisia more focused and cohesive, Europe could help Tunisia become a successful democratic model in North Africa, as well a valuable partner for Europe in a geopolitically competitive region.

Democracy in progress

Protests in Tunisia have been a continual feature of the decade since the revolution. Public demonstrations are an expression of the enduring democratic spirit of Tunisia’s people, but also an indication of the country’s failure to complete its political transition and offer improved socio-economic opportunities to its population.

Since 2011, successive presidents, prime ministers, and parliaments have failed to complete the process that the revolution started. The emergence of the lauded “politics of consensus” that produced the new constitution in 2014 did nothing to overcome the gulf between Tunisians and their leadership.

The issues that Tunisians feel most keenly remain unaddressed: a deficit of justice in their dealings with the state, widespread unemployment and job insecurity, persistent regional disparities that leave some parts of the country locked in disadvantage, and a stagnant economy that is unable to cater for a younger, more diverse, and better educated Tunisian workforce.

Meanwhile, politicians appear ever more insular and detached, playing out an internal soap opera as they try to dominate the government du jour, but succeeding only in producing a succession of ineffectual governments that are unable to devise, let alone implement, much-needed reforms.

Tunisia has had ten different governments in the past ten years. The regular chopping and changing of political leadership has drained the democratic revolution of the necessary energy to progress further than an electoral process and the new constitution. More than 500 laws still need to be updated to fit the 2014 constitution or modern international standards.

These include Tunisia’s penal code and code of criminal procedure, meaning that constitutional rights and freedoms remain inaccessible – a problem that has become more troubling as the interior ministry responds to unrest in an increasingly heavy-handed way.

Tunisia retains its authoritarian-era administrative red tape and restrictive provisions, which were designed to protect an economic system built on cronyism.

Neither of the two political parties that dominated in the period of consensus after 2014 – the Muslim democratic Ennahda party and the secular nationalist Nidaa Tounes party – showed much interest in reforming the prevailing structures of power.

Even the political system has not completed its democratisation, as the parliament, presidency, and judiciary have found themselves unable to navigate the polarising process of appointing judges to a constitutional court.

The absence of this body has left Tunisia prey to a series of constitutional crises as prominent politicians focus on strengthening their positions rather than advancing the political and economic reforms the country needs.

Tunisia’s gummed-up political system, the strength of its unions, and the economic malaise driving regular protest have pushed successive governments into a default policy of increasing public sector employment.

Far from solving Tunisia’s problems, this has just increased the national debt and the debt of large public sector corporations without addressing the structural flaws in the economy or popular criticisms of the political elite.

Bankrupt politics

Popular frustration at the failure of the political class since 2014 produced a surprise outcome in the 2019 presidential election: the landslide victory of a political outsider, the constitutional law professor Kais Saied, who campaigned on a populist promise to overturn Tunisia’s elite-driven politics.

The low turnout of 41.7 per cent in the subsequent parliamentary election (down from 67 per cent in 2016) further reflected popular fatigue with the political establishment. Unfortunately, the outcome was Tunisia’s most fragmented parliament since the revolution.

The divided parliament made decisive government all but impossible. The new president’s lack of political acumen, and the enduring self-absorption of Tunisia’s political class, have led to a continuing power struggle between the head of state and the parliament.

Although the presidency’s powers are largely confined to foreign and security policy, Saied has pushed against these limits and tried to tilt the country towards a more presidential system. Meanwhile, as popular discontent grows, politicians have turned towards more polarising and nationalist discourses to appeal to the national mood.

Abir Moussi, head of the Free Destourian Party, has spearheaded this as she tries to capitalise on the popular frustration with post-revolutionary politics by offering a return to the nostalgic comfort of the pre-revolutionary era.

Moussi has also sought to revive the sectarian tensions of the immediate post-revolutionary period by attacking the Ennahda party as a terrorist organisation.

These dynamics have been aggravated by the geopolitical competition taking place in the region between powers such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkey has tried to build on the supposed affinity between its ruling Justice and Development party and Ennahda as fellow “Islamic democrats”, aiming to build a support base within Tunisia’s most popular and developed political party.

As conflict flared in Libya in 2019 and 2020, Turkey played on Tunisian concerns about the actions of the renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who Turkey is fighting in Libya, to try to create deeper working partnerships with Tunisia’s security services.

Conversely, the UAE has seemingly given support to Moussi as part of its broader policy to oppose democratisation in the Arab world and combat any expression of Islamist politics. Meanwhile, Nabil Karoui, the media magnate who leads the influential Qalb Tounes party, allegedly has associations with Qatar.


Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked with a range of stakeholders over the past ten years, assisting with state transitions following the Arab uprisings.







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