30. Jan. 2020

Tunisia’s Fragile Democracy

Decentralization, Institution-Building and the Development of Marginalized Regions – Policy Briefs from the Region and Europe

Although Tunisia has made great strides over the past seven years, its democratization process remains fragile. Disillusionment with and distrust in the government, particularly high among the young, also manifest themselves in low voter turnout. Young voters were strikingly absent in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and in the first municipal elections in May 2018, only 33.7 percent of Tunisians cast their votes. To a great extent, this disillusionment stems from the various, persistent socio-economic problems which had led to the uprisings and the ouster of the former autocratic regime in 2011. Especially in Tunisia’s historically marginalized regions, these issues remain a key challenge.



To ensure that Tunisia’s democratic transition succeeds, targeted policies are essential to advance the country’s political, economic and social development and to regain the citizens’ trust in the state. An important step toward this goal would be to establish administrative structures that safeguard a greater division of power through the current decentralization process. Such structures would also strengthen the ability of local and regional administrations to respond to their communities’ needs. Yet, the implementation of the democratization process has been slow, and introducing effective and inclusive participatory tools at the local level has proven difficult. In addition, as the 2014 Tunisian Constitution provides for the foundation for the country’s new political system, it is vital for the credibility of the transition to establish Tunisia’s Constitutional Court. Once installed, the court would represent a crucial institution to guarantee the authority of the constitution.

This edited volume brings together papers written by the participants of the workshop “Promotion of Think Tank Work on the Development of Marginalized Regions and Institution-Building in Tunisia”. The workshop was conducted as part of DGAP’s project on strengthening think tanks and similar institutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Europe. The authors analyze key challenges confronting Tunisia, ranging from decentralization and institution-building to the development of marginalized regions. The volume offers recommendations for the Tunisian government as well as the EU and its member states, who have extended significant support to Tunisia to safeguard the country’s political transformation and support its economic development.

Among the recommendations are the following: Tunisian authorities and state institutions should increase transparency and accountability in order to build public trust in the state. To this end, authorities should revise participatory tools on the local level with the aim to make them more inclusive and to embed effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms within them. At the same time, the Tunisian government should strengthen local authorities by reforming the local tax system and granting them a greater role in the process of tax collection. This would also help ensure the financial autonomy of local authorities and their ability to provide basic services to the people. Offering digital tools and online platforms could improve accessibility and information-sharing in areas such as public services or the health sector.

Additionally, targeted policies to support the socio-economic development of marginalized regions are deemed essential to address existing grievances and build loyalty toward the state. This includes financial and technical support for small-scale agricultural businesses, as well as urban restructuring and territorial rehabilitation programs that go hand in hand with a participatory approach to governance. Launching incentives to establish factories and start-ups in marginalized regions could also be a viable option, and educational curricula should be revised in consultation with the private sector to bridge the current gap between the education system and labor market needs.

Adjusting and improving education is not only essential to increase the employability of young Tunisians. It is also indispensable for addressing issues related to health, political participation and deradicalization policies. For this reason, a comprehensive revision of education and training programs appears necessary, which also includes health education, the expansion of civic education programs, and the training of prison personnel working with radicalized individuals.

Some of the authors argue that the EU could support the development and implementation of such reforms through the transfer of expertise in areas including civic education, prison-run deradicalization programs or tax reform. In addition, continuous support for civil society organizations (CSOs) is considered crucial, as they have been the driving force of the transition. To underpin the EU’s current activities, it is recommended that the EU provide more institutional funding to Tunisian CSOs, increase the number of small grants, and more explicitly target funding at civil society organizations in the interior regions.



Chapter I: Decentralization and State-Citizen Relations

Local Governance in Tunisia – A Holistic Decentralization Strategy”: Mohamed Lamine Bel Haj Amor warns that in light of Tunisia’s economic woes and stifling tax pressure, the additional financial burden that comes with decentralization may exacerbate the existing economic crisis. A local administration governance model could potentially help optimize resource allocation and prevent corruption.

When Will Local Taxation Reform in Tunisia Commence?”: Zied Boussen writes on the importance of local tax reform within the framework of Tunisia’s decentralization process. Local taxes are a crucial source of revenue for local authorities. However, since 2011, the majority of Tunisians have not paid their local taxes, and the central government has not been able to collect them. As a result, local authorities have been incapable of providing basic services such as waste management and infrastructure development. The author emphasizes the need to strengthen local authorities by reforming the local tax system which would equip local authorities with sufficient financial autonomy to collect and manage local taxes. The EU and other international partners could play an important role in supporting such a reform.

The Lack of Effective Participation in Tunisia’s Decentralization and Democratization Process”: Ahmed Ben Nejma argues that the tools municipalities currently use to design and decide on local development plans are not inclusive, and lack an adequate monitoring and evaluation framework. This flies in the face of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution, which obliges local authorities to implement participatory approaches for such plans. The author suggests that in order to build trust between the state and its citizens, municipalities need to establish mechanisms which ensure citizen participation, transparency, and accountability.

Effective Youth Participation in the Improvement of Public Administration”: The paper by Jihene Ferchichi focuses on the obstacles to citizen participation in the reform and improvement of public services in Tunisia. The author argues that citizens – and the youth in particular – have very limited means to make their voices heard as there is no adequate communication channels between citizens and the state bureaucracy. This absence also leads to a lack of administration accountability. She emphasizes that it is key to establish a legal framework to regulate communication and interaction between citizens and administrations, as this will ultimately facilitate effective citizen participation.

Fostering Democratic Participation through Civic Education Initiatives”: Tahar Kechrid stresses the need to strengthen and expand civic education programs in Tunisia. Engaging the country’s youth in the political process is essential to ensure Tunisia’s democratic transition. Yet, surveys indicate a substantial lack of trust in the central government among young Tunisians, and voter turnout among this age group has been strikingly low in national and local elections. The author argues that civic education programs can be an important instrument to increase youth engagement in the political process, to improve their understanding of the new political system, and to foster democratic participation.

Bridging the Gap between Center and Cross-Border Regions in Tunisia – Inclusive Strategies to Cope with Marginalization”: The paper by Giulia Cimini argues that a comprehensive strategy is necessary to restore state legitimacy in the historically marginalized border regions of Tunisia. This strategy should address both material claims and the people’s perception of abandonment to build a more inclusive and trustful government-citizen relationship. Doing so would also contribute to reducing cross-border factors of insecurity.

Radicalization in the Marginalized Regions of Tunisia – Addressing the Root Causes”: Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi analyzes the root causes of radicalization in Tunisia and critically assesses the government’s response to the problem. Tunisia ranks among the highest in the region in terms of youth radicalization, and more than 3,000 Tunisian fighters have traveled abroad to join extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The author argues that rather than focusing on a security-centered approach, the Tunisian government must develop a comprehensive, long-term strategy that addresses the drivers of radicalization.

Prison and Rehabilitation Officials and the Return of Islamic State Fighters to Tunisia”: The paper by Arwa Ben Ahmed deals with the issue of deradicalization and rehabilitation of Tunisian foreign fighters in prisons. The author argues that while the government has adopted a national strategy to develop a roadmap to respond to the challenge and has announced the implementation of a deradicalization program, a clear strategy toward deradicalization in prisons is still lacking. She emphasizes that it is vital to adequately train and equip those prison and rehabilitation officials who work with radicalized inmates.

Chapter II: Socio-Economic Challenges and the Development of Marginalized Regions

Towards Sustainable Water Resource Management and Food Sovereignty in Tunisia”: The paper by ­Darius Görgen focuses on the issue of water availability and access to water in Tunisia. Rural areas and small-scale farms are particularly affected by ­Tunisia’s declining water resources. The author emphasizes that the impact of decreasing water availability on the rural economy may exacerbate rural-urban migration, and also affect Tunisia’s food sovereignty.

Equitable and Sustainable Development in the ­Tunisian Livestock and Smallholder Sectors”: In her paper, Elhem Ben Aicha discusses economic, environmental and social challenges confronting Tunisian smallholders (farmers with an agricultural land smaller than 50 acres). They are under increasing pressure from intensive production farms, animal diseases, livestock smuggling into Libya, and the impact of climate change. As livestock is central to the livelihoods of the country’s rural population, the author underlines the need for targeted policies to enhance the sustainability and resilience of livestock breeders.

Challenges of Developing Tunisia’s Interior – Current Issues and Perspectives in the Tataouine Governorate”: Laroussi Bettaieb discusses youth unemployment in the southern Governorate of Tataouine, which at 27.06 percent is particularly high in Tunisia. The author argues that the two key problems which need to be addressed are firstly, the gap between the skills supply and demand on the labor market, and secondly, the lack of entrepreneurial activity.

Regional Disparities and Health Inequity in Tunisia”: The paper by Anne Martin focuses on Tunisia’s health care system and highlights the persisting regional inequities. Inadequate provision and access in healthcare provision are a country-wide problem. However, the author argues that marginalized regions in the west and the interior of Tunisia are particularly affected by health inequalities, especially in regard to healthcare infrastructure and the health status of the population. She emphasizes that the cross-cutting dimension of health issues makes enhanced coordination among stakeholders paramount to improve Tunisia’s healthcare system.

Informal Marginalized Districts in Tunis – An Urban Development Failure Leading to Rampant Social Inequalities”: The paper by Maha Kouas addresses the phenomenon of informal settlements on the outskirts of Tunisia’s urban centers and the resulting social challenges. The lack of industrial, educational, health, and social infrastructures in these neighborhoods has resulted in high unemployment and high school dropout rates, gender discrimination, and crime. They have also become a fruitful ground for religious fundamentalist groups. In order to address these issues and improve conditions in the informal settlements, the author underscores the need for a participatory approach to governance that goes hand in hand with urban restructuring and territorial rehabilitation programs.

Tax Collection – An Important Lever for Inclusive Growth”: The paper by Oumaima Jegham explores the role of fiscal policy in fostering economic growth and social development. The author critically remarks that the tax reform launched in 2014 by the Tunisian government has caused more burden on consumers, particularly low-income households. She also notes that the corporate tax system does not sufficiently consider small producers. The author concludes that a less burdensome, more progressive and more inclusive fiscal system are an imperative to boost economic activity and ensure social stability.

Chapter III: The Role of the Judiciary

Reinforcing the Judiciary – Tunisia’s Struggle to Establish its Constitutional Court”: Rim Dhaouadi argues that it is crucial to advance the currently stalled process of establishing a constitutional court as foreseen in the 2014 Tunisian Constitution. She assesses the factors which have delayed or blocked the process, and calls on political stakeholders to prioritize and accelerate the nomination of court members.

Chapter IV: The Role of International Actors

The Unintended Impacts of EU Democratic Assistance on Tunisian Civil Society” The support of and consultation with Tunisia’s civil society is a key pillar of the EU’s strategy to further the country’s democratic development. However, Ragnar Weilandt argues that the EU’s mode of operation may at times undermine its own goals, e.g. by inadvertently encouraging a shift within Tunisian civil society away from grass-roots activism toward professional career structures. He emphasizes the need to readjust the EU’s approach to Tunisia’s civil society in order to mitigate such developments.

About the workshop

The following papers were written by participants of the workshop “Promotion of Think Tank Work on the Development of Marginalized Regions and Institution-Building in Tunisia,” organized by the German Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Program in the summer and fall of 2018 in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Tunis. The workshop is part of the program’s project on the promotion of think tank work in the Middle East and North Africa, which aims to strengthen the scientific and technical capacities of civil society actors in the region and the EU who are engaged in research and policy analysis and advice. It is realized with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa e.V.).

The content of the papers does not reflect the opinion of the DGAP. Responsibility for the information and views expressed herein lies entirely with the authors. The editorial closing date was October 28, 2018.


Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Mohamed Lamine Bel Haj Amor, Arwa Ben Ahmed, Elhem Ben Aicha, Ahmed Ben Nejma, Laroussi Bettaieb, Zied Boussen, Giulia Cimini, Rim Dhaouadi, Jihene Ferchichi, Darius Görgen, Oumaima Jegham, Tahar Kechrid, Maha Kouas, Anne Martin, and Ragnar Weilandt

Edited by Dina Fakoussa and Laura Lale Kabis-Kechrid

Bibliografische Angaben

Fakoussa-Behrens, Dina, and Laura Lale Kabis-Kechrid. “Tunisia’s Fragile Democracy .” January 2020.

DGAP Report Nr. 2, January 2020 (first published in December 2018), pp. 84.