Challenging Authority in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia

“After the revolution, young people in Tunisia stopped paying attention to traffic lights,” a Tunisian academic sighed. “They know it’s dangerous, but they refuse to stop on a red simply because they don’t think they have to anymore.”

After decades of authoritarian rule under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia experienced significant changes as a result of its 2011 revolution. Interviewees for a recent CSIS report, Ties that Bind, described how it not only ushered in new political freedoms but also prompted Tunisians to challenge authority and question their obligations and expectations in all parts of their lives.

Changing economic conditions, increasing mobility, new technologies, and shifting gender roles over the last several decades contributed to a gradual rise of individualism in Tunisia. The revolution accelerated these trends and added a political dimension. Interviewees noted that as well as spurring an unprecedented and ongoing protest movement, the revolution has also prompted debates about authority within families, in schools, and in the workplace. One Tunisian NGO director said that people now express a rejection of power and politics through individualism. Whereas people used to fall in line, now “everyone has an opinion,” he said.

A stark generational divide in attitudes in the debates about authority emerged. Younger Tunisian interviewees said their generation takes credit for toppling Ben Ali’s regime, accusing their elders of having enabled the dictatorship. They said the revolution was a rejection of the past and now feel empowered to challenge figures of authority in various areas of their lives as they strive to redefine a post-authoritarian Tunisia.

In contrast, older Tunisians criticized the younger generations for their lack of responsibility and sense of civic obligation, believing young people gave up too quickly and did not demonstrate the necessary patience and perseverance to make a success of Tunisia’s new political environment. The older generation had a fundamentally different relationship with power, having largely submitted under Ben Ali and maneuvered within the system to gain advantages where possible. Older interviewees were quick to censure younger Tunisians for rejecting authority. They said that increasing instances of traffic violations are just one part of a general trend of increasing crime.

Tunisians of all ages expressed a broad discontentment with traditional social systems that no longer provide for them. Nearly a decade after the revolution, citizens’ relationship with the state remains contested and ill-defined. Interviewees described the relationship as being centered around what they expect from the government and less about their obligations to the state. Older generations said government benefits connected them to the state, but the government now lacks the resources to provide the same opportunities and benefits to citizens. As a result, younger Tunisians expressed a weak sense of belonging to the state, and some expressed a desire to rebel against all those who represent power. Some said that young people are trying to find ways of contributing to Tunisia without having to interact with the state, such as through start-ups and entrepreneurship.

Authority within the family is also being challenged. The notion of the family has shifted and increasingly come to denote the nuclear family. This shift is, in part, the product of Tunisia’s family planning policies in the 1960s and women’s increasing access to education and the labor market. But even within the nuclear family, notions of authority and obligation are changing. A worker in his 30s said that the father used to be the head of the household, and his authority came from his role in providing for the family. But now, the economic situation has forced “his excellency the father” to take from his sons, undermining this status. A woman in Kairouan linked changing family dynamics with the rise of individualism, saying that parents are “resigning from the task of parenting” as children have grown more independent.

The Tunisian state no longer has the authority and resources to be able to shape and manipulate political networks as it did in the past. New forms of political association have emerged, but levels of participation in political life are low. Interviewees argued that the main parties, still in their relative infancy, have failed to coalesce the loyal support of a broad base of voters in Tunisian society. Multiple interviewees cited examples of people defecting from parties to support independent candidates after failing to receive the benefits they had expected. The election of independent candidate Kais Saied in the October 2019 presidential elections is the latest manifestation of this trend. A Tunisian analyst estimated that only 1 percent of young Tunisians have any link to a political party or a civil society organization. Many young people are so pessimistic about Tunisia’s future that they are trying to do whatever they can to leave the country in pursuit of opportunities abroad.

Although corruption was a principal motive for the mass protests of 2011, interviewees agreed that it has worsened since the revolution. While it was “regulated” before, it is now a free-for-all, a former government adviser said. An Islamist politician argued that the dire economic situation has forced people to do whatever they can to survive and rejected the notion that using connections equates to corruption. But younger people saw wasta differently. One young woman described how she sought her father’s advice after waiting for her passport to be renewed for months. He had a connection in the passport office and encouraged her to use it. She initially refused, arguing that it was unfair and not appropriate in the new Tunisia. But as her travel date approached, she gave up and mentioned the family connection in the office. Her passport was issued the following day.

A Tunisian historian argued that it takes time to transition from fearing a state to respecting it. He said Tunisians are living through a reactionary phase in their history. People are enjoying their new freedoms by rejecting laws, expressing individualism, and denying any sense of civic responsibility. He expressed hope that with time, Tunisians will move beyond this phase.

This commentary is based on research conducted for the report, “Ties That Bind: Family, Tribe, Nation, and the Rise of Arab Individualism.

Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program