Political Instability and Environmental Politics in Postrevolutionary Tunisia

In October 2023, Tunisia’s minister of the environment set a record for longevity. Leila Chikhaoui became the longest-serving environment minister since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. She had been in office for two years.

Since the revolution, which ended in 2011, Tunisia has had 12 different governments. Amid chronic political instability, institutions had little legitimacy and little ability to implement policies. Environmental policies have taken a particularly hard hit.

Some civil society groups hoped that President Kais Saied’s 2021 coup and the relative stability that ensued would result in a clear political agenda, and some environmental activists were among the optimists. In practice, the government has shown a sustained lack of political will to act on the environment, and implementation of environmental projects and policies continues to be weak. In the meantime, Tunisia’s ecological issues are worsening, ranging from the growing impacts of climate change to industrial pollution and poor waste management.

Several factors contribute to weak environmental policymaking. The political system that emerged after 2011 depended on ever-shifting arrays of coalitions, power-sharing pacts, and consensus-building activities between different parties and political factions. The system was constantly tottering, and governments came and went. Many of the new environment ministers abandoned their predecessors’ policies and programs and embarked on new ones. But with an average time in office of just 389 days per minister, a limited budget, and scant political attention, most environmental policies were never in place long enough to be implemented.

The changing bureaucratic structure of Tunisia’s government also undermined the implementation of consistent environmental policies. Over the years, the environmental portfolio has moved between governmental bureaucracies multiple times. Tunisia has sometimes had a dedicated Ministry of the Environment (2011–13;2015–16; 2019–20; 2021–present), but at other times, it has shifted between the Ministry of Equipment, Spatial Planning, and Sustainable Development (2014–15), the Ministry of Local Affairs (2016-19; 2020), and the Ministry of Equipment, Housing, and Infrastructure (2020–21). With so much bureaucratic turmoil, government officials have had to focus on day-to-day management and short-term solutions, and they’ve been unable to plan—let alone implement—long-term strategies.

During this period of political instability, civil society actors committed to the environment struggled for relevancy. Each time civil society groups began building trust with the relevant minister and the office, the officials would leave, and these same civil society actors would have to rebuild the relationship from scratch with their successors. Successive ministers’ constantly changing environmental strategies also made it difficult for civil society actors to contribute to the government’s ecological agenda.

President Kais Saied gave some activists hope that the government would pursue a more coherent environmental strategy. After overthrowing the government and dissolving parliament, Saied has remade Tunisia’s political system, instituted a new constitution, and established a new framework for political competition. To the disappointment of many civil society associations, the president’s approach to environmental issues has been characterized more by populist rhetoric than policy reform.

One example is the way Saied instrumentalized environmental concerns during the Agareb waste crisis in the Sfax region in 2021. Locals had mobilized to close the overflowing waste dump outside the town of Agareb, which was creating health issues. During a violent confrontation between protestors and the security forces, a young man named Abderrazek Lachahab suffered fatal injuries. Saied seized on the issue and pledged to come up with solutions and pursue justice for Lachahab. Despite Saied’s rhetoric, he has not enacted any new waste management policies, and the garbage crisis in the Sfax region has worsened. 

Under Saied’s leadership, the ministry of the environment has implemented few projects, and decisionmaking has become less inclusive. The initiatives that the ministry has worked on are predominantly small-scale, and it has not enacted any long-term policies.

Environment Minister Leila Chikhaoui’s main priority has been to accelerate the establishment of an environmental code. The Ministry of the Environment first introduced the code in 2005 to consolidate Tunisia’s disparate environmental regulations into a single legislation that fills regulatory gaps and promotes coordination among governmental institutions. Although a text of the code was finally drafted in 2013, the cabinet did not discuss it, and members of parliament did not propose any environmental legislation throughout the following decade. As a result of the continuous delays, the code’s provisions are now outdated as they have not kept up with Tunisia’s developing ecological challenges. Chikhaoui stated in June 2023 that the draft code would soon be presented to the president for consideration, but there have been no updates since.

Authorities increasingly recognize the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, and Tunisian civil society has made tremendous efforts addressing ecological issues. However, there are no institutions around Saied that can help him develop strategies and implementation objectives. It is all up to him. Saied deprioritizes environmental issues partly because of inertia. Such matters have been neglected for years, and they have not been politicized. No parties have championed environmental issues, and they will not be on the agenda in the upcoming presidential elections later this year.

Because Kais Saied has taken a populist approach to rule, he has weakened civic engagement and civil society advocacy. That suggests a worrying future for environmental issues. More than ever before, the government needs to involve citizens and civil society organizations in its decisionmaking processes to implement practical policy solutions to its multi-faceted environmental issues. As long as Saied lacks the political will to create that space, Tunisia’s environmental crises will continue to deteriorate.

Mohamed Omar Kardous

Member, CSIS Environmental Civil Society in the Middle East Working Group