“Civil Society” in Tunisia: the Ambivalence of a New Seat of Power

In 2015 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian national dialogue in recognition of the example set by civil society in that country. But there is no avoiding the fact that being regarded as a model of democracy has not enabled Tunisia to satisfy the social and economic demands of its people. An examination of how the notion of “civil society” originally made its way into the political debate will help us to understand why.

The Tunisian national dialogue, piloted by a foursome of organisations, the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), the Union tunisienne de l’industrie, du commerce et de l’artisanat (Utica, an employer’s organisation), the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme (LTDH) and the bar association, was honoured by the Nobels in 2015 for “its contribution to the democratic transition in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution.” More particularly, it was its exemplary nature which the prize was meant to distinguish. However, more than a year later and six years after the outbreak of the popular uprising, it must be recognised that being thus stamped as a model of democracy (after being seen as a model of economic rigour under Ben Ali) has not always made it possible to satisfy the social and economic demands of the inland regions and the unemployed.

Faced with the alarming erosion of Tunisian State institutions, local political leaders as well as their international counterparts keep clinging to the notion of “civil society,” claimed to be the only instance capable “saving” Tunisia from the danger of general chaos. But what are the political implications of this enthusiastic support for civil society? How do we evaluate the impact of the increasing importance of Tunisian civil society? To answer these questions we must go back and examine both the changing relations between the State and the organisations of the civil society and what exactly was at stake when it was deemed necessary to bring the notion “civil society” into the political debate.

From Party-State to advocacy Organisation

Following the independence of Tunisia on March 20, 1956, the UGTT formed with the Neo-Destour party, Utica and l’Union nationale des agriculteurs tunisiens (UNAT) a “national front” which took part in the election of the Constituent Assembly in 1956 and the parliamentary election of 1959. The Constituent Assembly abolished the beylical monarchy and established a republican regime of the presidential type. Thus Habib Bourguiba’s government may be seen from 1956 as a kind of alliance between his Neo-Destour party and the leaders of the main organisations of the civil society. The rhetoric of national unity to build up the country replaced that of national unity to achieve independence and strengthened the organic ties between the State and the principal unions. This was a time when the State was considered the chief agent of social change (as in other newly independent countries).

The successive waves of deregulation and privatisation in the seventies and eighties produced a series of economic and social crises and called into question the single-party system. The Party-State could no longer base its legitimacy on its leadership role during the struggle for independence, or on a record of economic development. The rising protests of large sectors of the country’s educated youth with its left-wing ideals acquired in the student movement of the seventies, exacerbated a tense situation. Organisations like the UGTT, the national bar association and l’Union générale des étudiants tunisiens (UGET) became major forums of resistance to State control.

During that same period two other associations were born that played an important role in the resistance to the authoritarian regime: LTDH and the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates. Both were primarily aimed at defending individual and collective liberties. On the international scene, this was the time of the 1973 oil crisis, of the increasing popularity of neoliberal ideology, but it was also marked by the disappointing results of two decades of public aid, all of which prompted a reconsideration of the dominant paradigms. Whereas the State was previously regarded as the principal driving force for development, it was now increasingly seen as an impediment to development. The dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the struggles for democracy in Latin America, but also the crisis affecting the State throughout Africa and the Arab world, all contributed to a renewed interest in the notion of “civil society.”

A liberal concept

Historically, this notion originates in the thinking of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. For these men (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, etc.), civil society was foremost a negation of the state of nature and the war of all against all. Two key authors contributed to the modern concept of civil society: Antonio Gramsci and Alexis de Tocqueville. Gramsci saw civil society as the totality of social institutions wherein cultural and political hegemony is achieved, and for this reason must become an area of militant activity. Tocqueville on the other hand, by civil society meant all those autonomous associations which acted as a rampart against the tyranny of the majority, contributed to the civic education of citizens and restrained the actions of the State. It is this second, “liberal” conception of civil society which has been adopted by today’s financial backers of developing countries.

As a consequence of this tocquevillian understanding of civil society, the international efforts to encourage the democratisation of developing countries target a particular category within organised civil societies. Indeed, since the nineties, it is the advocacy groups militating in favour of human rights, women’s emancipation, civic rights and the environment, or else trade unions and umbrella organisations of the business community which benefit from international support. These important issues have nonetheless overshadowed urgent social and economic questions. So that in fact the international support for a given society is far from neutral, it is aimed primarily at extending the logic of neo-liberalism in every country.

In this context, while human rights activists have managed to publicise the violations of individual and collective rights under the Ben Ali regime and obtain international support, social issues have long been off the table. It was not until 2008 that a social revolt came along (in the Gafsa coal-mining area) that could not be overlooked by the associations, for it highlighted the drama of unemployment and the gulf between organised civil society and the other social dynamics which are transforming Tunisian society in depth.

New process of decision-making

The Nobel prize awarded to Tunisian civil society is a kind of recognition of its increasing power. The appointment in January 2015 of a minister in charge of relations with the constitutional institutions and civil society illustrates perfectly the fact that the latter has become a key actor on the political stage. It is no longer a mere countervailing force but an inescapable partner in the process of political decision-making. This civil society has been relatively successful in stabilising the political climate and brokering a power-sharing arrangement between the newly elected leaders, Ennahda, and those from the former regime, partly reunited in the Nidaa Tunes party. However the mutation of Tunisian politics is still in full swing and there are many disagreements as to the limits of civil society’s role. Those who approve of this role feel that the importance of civil society is indeed to find grounds for compromise between the government and the social movements, thereby ensuring political stability. Those most hostile are critical of the exclusive priority granted issues of individual freedom, the co-option of social movements and the fact that the new social and economic dynamics are not represented in the organised civil society.

Furthermore, the tasks of the historic organisations of civil society are increasingly called into question by a massive influx of international NGOs, most of them based in the US or in Europe and which intervene directly or indirectly through their financing of the local associative sector. These NGOs are richly endowed and are professionalising the work of activists. Their arrival has helped impose a neoliberal logic destined to transform the relationship between the State and the citizen into a supplier customer one, and at turning Tunisia into a free market for commodities and identities with little room left for the notions of general welfare or national sovereignty. These new international NGOs are competing not only with the social movements but also with elected bodies such as the Assembly of the People’s Representatives.

Regaining control

The historical associations were originally created to resist the stranglehold of the Party-State and to campaign for a democratic society built on new foundations. The new civil society, financed by the international NGOs aims on the contrary to create spaces of autonomy outside the State, or to replace it completely for certain undertakings, such as the vital task of decentralisation. The lack of any specific deliberations on the role of the State, the competition between the old political leadership embodied in Nidaa Tunes and the new elite associated with Ennahda, as well as the general weakness of political parties as such has enabled these NGOs to acquire more and more power. They have managed this by becoming the privileged intermediaries between the financial donors and their demands for increased liberalisation and local players in search of a place in the sun. And lastly, this international support for the new civil society has also resulted in a de facto exclusion of informal associations and those deemed not to be civic bodies, such as religious or political associations. This has created a defective vision of civil society as it actually exists, blind to the various forms of opposition to the power of the State or the economic and political elites, as well as non-conventional forms of political activism (the Salafist movement, small employers’ associations or football clubs, for example).

Thus the role of the State in post-January 14 Tunisia, but also the allocation of roles between the State, elected officials, political parties and civil society, the representativeness of the new social and political dynamics, and resistance to the neo-liberal agenda imposed by the international NGOs . . . These are all issues which the historic organisations of Tunisian civil society must deal with if they wish to recover their emancipatory mission and neutralise the tendencies of financial backers to do away with what remains of Tunisian national sovereignty.