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Founded in 2010, Kapitalis is a French-language news website that cover Tunisia and other countries in North Africa, with a focus on business, politics and culture.
Image of a demonstrator holding a Tunisian flag
Moktar Lamari

Tunisia, Between Arab Spring Nostalgia And An Age-Old Dilemma Of Democracy

The arrest this week of top opposition leaders shows Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed is drifting ever farther away from basic democratic practices. Yet there's no mass uprising, unlike in 2011, perhaps because economic factors are foremost on people's minds.


TUNIS — When officials in Washington' look at the Tunisian experiment in democracy, it appears to be a distressed ship, listing and heading straight for an iceberg where the invisible part is always far bigger than what's visible. The damage from a collapse of Tunisia can spill over into neighboring countries. The problem, in other words, is not only Tunisian.

Without explicitly saying so, experts and observers present in Washington for the IMF Spring Meetings are convinced that the crew at the helm in Tunisia is rather emotional, without a roadmap, and above all, carrying out projects that often lack basic rationality.

Certainly, it is a harsh judgment, but not for nothing! And for good reason, the democratic model, established since Day One of the birth of the Arab Spring in 2011, confronts Tunisians (expatriates and locals alike) with an uncomfortable and divisive dilemma.

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Vote counting for the referendum on a new Constitution in Tunisia​
Johannes Jauhiainen

Tunisia’s New Constitution And Risks Of A Return To “Presidential Dictatorship”

In the cradle of the Arab Spring, democracy is once again at stake.

Modern Tunisia has adopted three different constitutions. The first two were linked to proud moments in the nation’s history: independence from France in 1956, and the fruit of the 2011 Arab Spring pro-democracy movement that ousted strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for almost 24 years.

The adoption of a third constitution, which Tunisians were called to vote on in a referendum on Monday, has been a very different story. Though exit polls report that more than 90% of those voting approved the new constitution, the referendum saw a low turnout of just above 30% after the major political parties boycotted the vote.

Still, with no minimum turnout required or expected legal challenges to the referendum results, by Saturday Tunisia is set to be governed by the new constitution when the final results of the referendum are announced.

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Zarkoun Street in Tunis
Julie Boulet

Ramadan Crackdown: Islam Weighs On Post-Revolution Tunisia

The pro-democracy Jasmine Revolution of 2011 has been followed by more, not less, religious policing in the North African country once known as a bastion of secularism.

Since the start of Ramadan, at least five people have been sentenced to prison terms in Tunisia for eating or smoking in public. Meanwhile, owners of cafes that chose to discreetly stay open during the fasting period are being publicly shamed by religious preachers. Once a beacon of religious tolerance in the region, the North African country's crackdown during this year's holy month is just the latest sign of a growing Islamic conservatism since the momentous days of the Arab Spring.

Of course, the most dramatic sign of Islamic fundamentalism's spread were the two major terrorist attacks in 2015, which left a total of 59 people dead in prime Tunisian tourist locations. The country has also sent more jihadists than any other country in the region to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. According to UN estimates, more than 5,500 Tunisians have gone abroad and are seeking targets at home and in Europe after being trained by ISIS.

But as Le Monde reports, religious intolerance has also expanded in less violent ways, including both public and private policing of Ramadan, which is a shift from more than a half-century of relative religious freedom following Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. Though the 1959 Constitution states that "Islam is the religion of Tunisia," other faiths could be practiced freely and Tunisian women had more rights than their counterparts in most Muslim countries

But the mix of new freedoms and political instability in the aftermath of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution has created space for religious movements to flourish. Ennahdha, Tunisia"s moderate Islamic party, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, was a key power-broker in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, winning the largest share of votes — but vowing to respect the Personal Status Code, which guarantees the principle of equality between men and women.

But despite the promises made by religious parties, the country is becoming more and more pious. Through much of the 20th century, a person wearing a hijab in public was likely to draw stares on the streets of Tunis. Since the revolution, however, female university professors and students have been complaining of assault and intimidation by Islamists for not wearing hijabs, according to Egyptian-born Mona Eltahawy, author of the book Headscarves and Hymens.

Where should the line be drawn?

And now, the recent prison sentences for "indecent behavior" and "harm to good morals' for not fasting in public have relaunched a debate that surfaces every year in the country. Where, people want to know, should the line be drawn between individual freedoms and respect for religious traditions?

Tunisian law does not prohibit drinking, eating or smoking in public during Ramadan. But it seems like in Bizerte, a medium-sized city in the far north of the country, religious morals are above the law of the land, as citizens are sent to jail for not fasting during Ramadan.

In Tunis, meanwhile, people took to the streets this past weekend to demand that their individual freedoms and freedom of religion be respected, according to Tunis-based website Kapitalis.

"The government should arrest terrorists and stop bothering those who choose not to fast," one demonstrator exclaimed.