Tunisia and Yemen Recent Politics

Tunisia Background

A strong man had ruled Tunisia since it gained independence from France in 1956. The first president after liberation, Bourguiba was a progressive secularist who established the most advanced women’s rights in the Arab world, abolished polygamy, and established compulsory free education. The 1957 Code of Personal Status established gender equality, outlawed polygamy, required mutual consent for marriage and established minimum age requirements, plus a judicial way to divorce. The Code said spouses should treat each other with kindness rather than mandating that the wife obey her husband. Bourguiba invested in the people rather than the military, educating an illiterate populace with schools and radio instruction. He prohibiting Islamic political activity and jailed many opponents but didn’t kill them.

President Ben Ali replaced him in a “soft coup” in 1987, stating that Bourguiba was too sick to lead. Continuing the anti-political Islam policy, he jailed over 25,000 Islamic Ennahda party activists in 1991 and banned its newspaper. Women could divorce on equal terms with men and have access to contraceptives and abortions. His ruling family was certainly corrupt and greedy, with a corruption level of 4.2 (with 1 being the most corrupt and 10 the least corrupt), according to Transparency International. WikiLeaks published cables revealing the extent of Ben Ali’s corruption, spread further by Al Jazeera TV. In contrast, when Bourguiba died, he was poor. When he found out his only son bought an expensive villa, Bourguiba made him rescind the purchase, Khammassi reported

She observed the protests that overthrew Ben Ali but didn’t get in the midst of the action of more than a million people on the streets at the height of the protests because she didn’t want to worry her sick mother. She moved in and out of interest in politics, outraged by what she refers to as the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Khammassi said protesters were inspired by the tradition of demonstrating in the streets when government wouldn’t listen to the people, a defacto practice in the Arab world because it was the only way to be heard. I read that some rebels were inspired by the Palestinian Intifadas (“shaking off”) of 1987 and 1983, but Khammassi told me it’s “too ambitious to assume that.” Two major uprisings occurred in 1979 and 1984, called the bread riots, when the government opened fire on the people. In 1979 more were killed than in the recent revolution. In 1984, President Bourguiba put down protests against lifting bread subsidies by rolling back price increases. He was a good communicator with the people, reported Khammassi.

Ennahda was blamed for continued unrest and strikes and demonstrations. Ennahda governed as supposed moderate Islamists but aroused anger for not preventing Muslim extremists from killing two popular opposition politicians and for not reigning in the police and other Ben Ali era institutions. Unemployment was higher than before the uprisings, leading to continuing demonstrations and police violence. Youth blamed Ennahda for not tackling unemployment. Another young vendor set himself on fire in March 2013, saying, “This is Tunisia, this is unemployment.” However, a UN human rights worker, Tarek Cheniti observed that people have the freedom to discuss topics that “were taboo under the Ben Ali regime, which used to project the image of a progressive and modern political regime but it wasn’t the case.”[i]

Rachid Ghannouchi, the moderate leader of the Ennahda, observed in 2013, “We still believe that Tunisia will succeed in establishing the first democratic model that brings together Islam and modernity in the region. Its constitution is among the most liberal in the Arab world. This small country can provide this large benefit to the world.”[ii] He agreed to remove a reference to sharia law from the new constitution. Tunisians like Ghannouchi pride themselves on being a beacon of democracy in the Arab world. An NGO called Al Bawsala (“The Compass”) is staffed by people in their 20s wearing skinny jeans. It tweets summaries of assembly proceedings in French. They also publish results of votes as they occur that are used by national assembly members to keep track of results.

One change after the revolution is more women are choosing to wear the niqab that was forbidden before the revolution and more men are growing beards and wearing skullcaps. More freedom of expression means the hard-liner Salafists also can state their views about women’s place in the home. In April 2013, the electoral commission backed a gender parity law requiring parties to run an equal number of male and female candidates for the assembly. However, the Ennhada government started to roll back women’s rights. For example, the government required women under age 35—but not men, who go to Syria, Egypt and Turkey to have permission from a male relative, like the Saudis. As a secularist, Ben Ali insured women’s rights and prohibited women in government jobs from wearing hijab. Going backwards, Ennahda proposed a constitution that set back women’s rights, referring to unequal gender “complementarities.” Women’s groups protested and the language was changed to equality between men and women.

Some men in the street make it clear with their comments they think women should wear hajib and be silent. In Islamic kindergarten, girls as young as four and five are made to cover their heads and bodies. Some teenage girls provide sex to jihadis training in Syria. More couples engage in informal short-term “marriages” permitted by Islam to legalize sex that doesn’t grant any rights to women, unlike an official marriage contract. An official from a secular political party in coalition with the Ennahda’s party refused to make a joint public appearance with them because, “You defend the niqab and I defend the mini-skirt.”

A Pew Global Attitudes survey asked Tunisians if they were better off over a year after Ali was driven out.[iii] Although they were hopeful about the future and the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, most (78%) were dissatisfied with current conditions and 83% said economic conditions were bad. Along with a drop in tourism, the economy deteriorated. In 2013 the interim Ennahda government refused to give up power although it didn’t achieve its tasks to write a constitution and hold elections within a year. Three groups lobbied for power, the more moderate Islamists, the large secular population led by UGTT, and a small Islamic jihadist group that includes suicide bombers. However, Tunisia doesn’t have to struggle with a deep Sunni-Shiite split as most are Sunni.

Khammassi said Ennahda maintains power behind the scenes and has a violent history. In December 2013, fearful of the Egyptian crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood happening to them, Ennahda agreed to step down. The people felt the Islamists were too lenient on extremist groups that assassinated the two liberal politicians. A Tunisian professor said there was a social “rejection of the Islamist agenda.” A caretaker government was put into place until elections in 2014. Brokered by UGTT, Ennahda formed a coalition government in January 2014 and approved a new constitution. Engineer Mehdi Jomaa, former Minister for Industry, headed the caretaker government. A compromise candidate, he wasn’t affiliated with a political party. The peaceful transition to democracy was made possible by the “Quartet,” UGTT, the employers’ union, the Bar Association, and the Human Rights’ League.[iv] In addition, the army stayed out of politics, unlike Egypt.

In early 2013, UGTT proposed a national dialogue in a coalition to solve economic and political instability. The National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, comprised of UGTT; the Tunisian Human Rights League; the Tunisian Order of Lawyers; and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts. President Essebsi commented on Facebook, “Tunisia has no other solution but dialogue. We are facing a war against terrorism, and we can’t win unless we stay together.”[v] Ennahda leader Ghannouchi also commented on Facebook that the award honors Tunisia which, “Thanks to God and the efforts of Tunisia’s children,” succeeded in preventing the killing and fighting for power that are happening in neighboring countries.” However, only 5% of youth voted in the 2014 election that Essebsi won, feeling unrepresented.

The new constitution ratified on October 26, 2014, is said to be one of the most progressive in the region, committing Tunisia to “contribute to the protection of the climate for future generations,” and work to eliminate pollution. Controversial Article 45 commits the state to protect women against violence and ensure equal representation of men and women in elected institutions. It’s probably the first in the region to include specific rights for women, such as the right to work is “a right for every citizen, male and female” and the right to run for offices including the presidency. Ennahda dropped its demand that the constitution should be based on Sharia law. The first democratically elected parliament was selected in November 2014 to serve for five years. The most popular parties were Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis both led by elderly men: the latter was founded two years previously in opposition to Ennahda’s power. A woman police trainer in Tunis observed the biggest change two years after the revolution is people have the freedom to say what they think.

In 2014 the chaos in neighboring Libya bled into Tunisia, with jihadists from Libya and Algeria conducting terrorist attacks on police and soldiers. In response the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa shut down some mosques, websites, a TV channel, two radio stations, and organizations and arrested at least 1,000 people suspected of supporting the terrorists, generating fears of a return to the police state of Ben Ali.[vi] Young people complained that freedom hasn’t created jobs or reigned in the police force–referred to as “the ruler.”

In the November 2014 Tunisian presidential elections, the 87-year-old leader of the secular party Nidaa Tounes got the most votes but only by a 6% lead, followed by Moncef Marzouki in second place, popular with Islamists. A critic, author Salem Labiadh said, “The government no longer represents the revolution and the heroes who gave their lives for it.” A female voter expressed a sentiment I heard in Egypt, “We used to be afraid, but we learned to say ‘Out!’ If [president] Essebsi does not work, we can get him out.” With mediation by UGTT, Ennahda formed a coalition government in January 2014, along with approving a new constitution. Engineer Mehdi Jomaa, former Minister for Industry, headed the caretaker government unaffiliated with a political party. Khammassi said the two leftist coalition parties were silent. The three parties agreed to reject the secular vs. Islamist division and work together for Tunisia. A year later Jomaa said that the government was able to bridge the gap between the security forces and the citizens by dialoguing in the spirit of compromise.[vii] He predicted that Tunisia would be a “leverage in democracy, a leverage of the peace” of the world.

In June 2014 Khammassi provided a much less rosy view of the current state of democracy in Tunisia than news analysis proclaiming that the country is the most advanced democracy in MENA. She said Ennahda only pretends to be moderate. The Islamist organization has a bloody history, such as throwing acid at civilians. She thinks Western countries secretly back Islamic governments because they provide stability in an oil rich region. Her reading of Arab history reveals that they don’t have a culture of democracy, so she is not optimistic that a truly secular democratic government can succeed in Tunisia. The main goal of the revolution was to ensure dignity for the people, but this goal is undermined by the economic situation. Taxes, prices and unemployment are up three years after the revolution, while security is down and terrorist attacks are up. Some of the terrorists come from Libya and Algeria. People

A new coalition government of the four major parties was formed in May 2015 with the secular Nida Tounes party having the most seats in parliament. In contrast to a “prettified western picture of a successful civic revolution,“[viii] problems facing Tunisia in 2015 were ISIS aroused fear when two of its soldiers killed 21 people, mostly tourists, at the National Bardo Museum in an effort to hurt the already suffering economy. Tunisians wrapped in flags demonstrated with signs saying “I am Bardo,” just as the French chanted “Je suis Charlie,” after terrorists slaughtered Charlie magazine staff for printing a cartoon image of Mohammed. Two ISIS terrorists attacked another tourist spot in June, again aiming to harm the tourist industry.

As well as facing terrorist threats and sending more recruits to the so-called Islamic State than any other nation, economic problems persisted. About 60% of the population is under 35; the 33% youth employment in 2013 was twice as high as the national overall rate; almost half of university graduates don’t have jobs and the country is compared to Greece in its debt problem.[ix] Youth unemployment included 40% of university graduates.[x] Unemployed young adults staged a new round of protests in 2016 with clashes with police and nightly curfews ordered by the government when one in three young people were jobless. In Kasserine, the home of Bouazizi, hundreds of unemployed youth occupied part of the governor’s office for weeks and some went on a hunger strike. One of then explained, “People don’t have money. We are sick with worry about food and electricity.”[xi] One young man was electrocuted as he climbed a transmission tower to protest losing out on a government job. Protests spread throughout the country. Economic troubles threatened the success of the “Tunisian experiment,” leading to calls for foreign assistance.[xii] Mouheb Garoui, the co-founder of I Watch, blamed the UGTT for striking for higher wages for civil servants when the economy was collapsing and public sector debt increasing.[xiii] He blamed the UGTT for increasing strikes to almost a daily occurrence in 2016. Young people organized sit-ins, protests, and occupations around the country to demand jobs and protest no improvement in corruption and environmental degradation by industries since the revolution.[xiv]

They’re also worried about Islamist camps in the mountains near Kasserine but unsympathetic President Essebsi compared the leftist students to terrorists. The protesters want the government to hire at least one person from disadvantaged families, help fund entrepreneurs, and eliminate corruption in government funding. A major change was liberation from the old practice of “walking in the shadow of the wall” for fear of being jailed for speaking out. Tunisia’s strong civil society differentiated it from other Arab Spring countries, with its strong UGTT trade union and groups like The Human Rights League and Women’s Lobby, political parties willing to compromise, and a well-educated population. Ghannouchi was re-elected head of Ennahda, vowing to continue separation of Islam and politics and the new constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. He said that Islam is never in conflict with Islam. These strengths will allow it to continue to be the star of the Arab Spring if they can control terrorists and employ youth.

Karman’s role-models are revealed in framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Hillary Clinton sit on the mantel in Karman’s sitting room. She told a journalist that Clinton is her role model and she was inspired by Mandela’s memoir and Gandhi’s autobiography.[xv] She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize on October 7, 2011, along with two other African women, the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist. At that time she was the youngest recipient of the award. She found out about the award where she spent most days for eight months, in a protest tent in Change Square in central Sanaa. She commented, “I am so happy, and I give this award to all of the youth and all of the women across the Arab world, in Egypt, in Tunisia.” Karman said when her husband and father tell her to stop her activism, worried for her safety, “I ignore them, of course.”

Karman believes women’s involvement is essential to reduce terrorist extremism: “If the policy of excluding women from public life and preventing her from effectively taking part in developing this country and challenging terrorism along with men continues, the culture of extremism will flourish and the ramifications will be disastrous.”[xvi] “Yemen’s Iron Woman” was the only woman selected to serve on the transitional council after Saleh’s ouster, but she was turned away at the Cairo airport when she arrived to support the pro-Morsi demonstrators in August 2013.

On the third anniversary of the revolution, President Mansour approved the creation of a six-region federation, resolving a debate on whether to split into two or six regions. Three years after the revolution, living conditions deteriorated, fuel prices rose, power cuts increased, tribal conflicts continued, and the government struggled with al-Qaeda in the southern provinces and the Zaisdi Shia Houthis in the north—about a third of the 26 million Yemenis. Yemen was unified for a short time, only since 1990. Despite these problems, a group of young men and women created their version of dancing to the song “Happy” in different parts of Sanaa, similar to the Iranian video that got the dancers in trouble with the government.[xvii] It quickly got a half million views. Some of the women don’t cover their hair and one wears a Gap sweatshirt. Their video ends with “Despite the difficulties, our happiness will never cease.”

A new government was formed in September 2014 in response to military pressure from Houthis who seized most of the capital and other parts of Yemen—some analysts believe they’re supported by Iran although they deny the charge. The Houthi movement began in 1992, called Believing Youth, founded by the Houthi brothers to promote the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam. In a coup, they put President Hadi under house arrest in January 2015. They’re led by 33-year-old Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, who calls his movement is Champions of Allah.             According to the Woman from Yemen newsletter, some felt the Houthis revived a “hijacked revolution” as they claimed to do in an attack on government corruption and oppression, while others worried about their religious reservations about freedom of expression, art, and women’s rights. They also use child soldiers as about a third of their troops, leading to their injuries and deaths.[xviii] The Houthi plastered the capital with flyers with their version of an Iranian slogan chanted by Shiites in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”[xix] However, not all Houthis are Shia, as the name refers to a clan. Their military successes revealed the weakness of the national government and its army and galvanized opposition from Sunni al-Qaeda. More than half the population exists on less than $2 a day. Chaotic civil war ensued with Saudi Arabia bombing the Houthis in the belief they are Iranian surrogates. Suffering resulted for most of the 25 million people, with millions going hungry and without health care and thousands killed. UN leader Ban Ki-moon declared the war a catastrophe with four out of five civilians needing humanitarian aid.

When asked in 2014 about the outcome of the Arab Spring, Saleh remarked, “The Arab Spring was born dead. It came in the shadow of hard circumstances in the Middle East, and it became a weapon in the hands of the Islamic movements.”[xx] After his ouster he aligned himself with the Houthis who deposed President Hadi in 2014 and are similar in their beliefs to the very conservative Saudi Wahhabis. It’s difficult to unite Yemen’s multiple political parties, tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, al Qaeda, revolutionary youth, and North and South. It’s also caught in power plays between Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Civil war killed over 4,500 people by September 2015 and over a million citizens were displaced from their homes.






[i] “Three Faces of the New Tunisia,” BBC News, December 17, 2012.


[ii] Carlotta Gall, “A Political Deal in a Deeply Divided Tunisia as Islamists Agree to Yield Power,” The New York Times, December 16, 2013.

[iii] “Most Muslims Want Democracy, Personal Freedoms, and Islam in Political Life,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 10, 2012.


[iv] Mohamed Kerrou, “Tunisia’s Historic Step Towards Democracy,” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 22, 2014.


[v] Sewell Chan, “Nobel peace Prize is Awarded to National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia,” New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[vi] Omar Belhaj Salah, “Liberty and Security in Tunisia,” Carnegie Endowment, September 16, 2014.


[vii] Luca Schroeder, “Former Tunisian PM Describes Country’s ‘Start-Up Democracy,’” The Crimson, February 27, 2015.


[viii] Renat Kuenzi, Democracy as a Balancing Act,” Direct Democracy, May 22, 2015.


[ix] Ibid

[x] ‘”The Challenge of Youth Unemployment,” World Economic Forum, 2013.


[xi] Carlotta Gall, “Tunisian Town Simmers With Unrest Over Lack of Jobs and Investment,” New York Times, February 8, 2016.

[xii] Omer Karasapan, The Tunisian Economy After the Arab Spring,” Brookings, February 3, 2016.


[xiii] Mischa Benoit-Laelle, “Tunisia’s Celebrated Labor Union is Holding the Country Back,” Foreign Policy, July 20, 2016.

Tunisia’s Celebrated Labor Union Is Holding the Country Back

[xiv] Hamza Hamouchene, “Tunisia: On the Frontlines of the Struggle Against Climate Change,” ROAR Magazine, July 28, 2016.

[xv] Dexter Filkins, “Letter From Yemen,” The New Yorker, April 11, 2011.


[xvi] Letter from Tawakkol Karman to Women Without Borders, February 2, 2010. http://womenwithoutborders-save.blogspot.com/2010/02/letter-from-twakkol-karman-chairwoman.html

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ISArE-H0cY

[xviii] “Yemen: Houthis Send Children Into Battle,” Human Rights Watch, May 12, 2015.


[xix] Hamza Hendawi, “Shiite Rebels are Yemen’s New Masters,” The Big Story, October 4, 2014.


[xx] Robert Worth, “Even Out of Office, a Wielder of Great Power in Yemen,” New York Times, January 31, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/01/world/middleeast/even-out-of-office-a-wielder-of-great-power-in-yemen.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20140201


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