Arab Spring pushes Tunisia into unimaginable sufferings


Once celebrated as the Arab Spring’s lone democratic success story, Tunisia now finds itself mired in regression, gripped by a distressing crackdown on migrants, civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, journalists, and the political opposition. However, this narrative is incomplete without considering the pivotal role of the European Union (EU) in this disheartening trajectory. Europe’s engagement with Tunisia has subtly shifted from championing democratic values to striking transactional bargains that have, intentionally or otherwise, undermined its very ideals during Tunisia’s cycle of repression.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia emerged as a beacon of democratic progress in the region. The EU greeted this transition with enthusiasm and support, aligning itself with the nation’s nascent aspirations for freedom and a rules-based civil society. However, as Tunisia’s economic struggles, fluctuating political landscape, and security dilemmas intersected with the challenges Europe itself faced, particularly the surge in irregular migration, the EU’s priorities began to visibly shift.

Initially, the EU’s engagement with Tunisia was characterized by a strong commitment to promoting democratic values. This approach was reflective of Europe’s broader foreign policy paradigm, which emphasized the promotion of human rights, support for democracy, and the enhancement of human security in challenging contexts overseas. Yet, as Tunisia’s internal struggles deepened and Europe faced its own external pressures, the EU’s policy stance evolved from one of idealism to pragmatism.

The humanitarian and liberal rhetoric that initially defined Europe’s relationship with Tunisia has increasingly taken a back seat to a more realpolitik approach. Migration control, counterterrorism, and energy security have begun to dictate the terms of the relationship with greater assertiveness. This utilitarian shift has come into sharp focus in recent months, highlighted by the manner in which the EU and its member states have engaged with the current Tunisian regime. Amidst domestic and regional turbulence, the EU has found itself entangled in a frustrating paradox.

On one hand, the EU’s policymaking and external engagements are bound by foundational principles, including the promotion of human rights, support for democracy, and the shoring up of human security. On the other, it is compelled to secure its borders by tacitly endorsing, or at least turning a blind eye to, Tunisia’s contentious migrant-expulsion policies and reported alliances with smuggling networks. This dichotomy marks a transactional turn in policy-setting, a move that has been construed as the bloc actively undermining its own fundamental ethos.

The strategic calculus appears to have overridden the EU’s normative considerations. Even as Europe continues to claim to be a champion of democracy and human rights, those values are compromised by the exigencies arising from Tunisia’s complex sociopolitical milieu and Europe’s own self-interest. Brussels’ engagement with a Tunisia enmeshed in internal strife, while the bloc deals with external pressures from migrant flows caused by regional instability, is now a matter of pragmatism versus principle. This conundrum represents a stern test for the EU’s resolve in upholding its foundational values while addressing contemporary geopolitical realities.

This veneer of pragmatism belies an unsettling erosion of Europe’s moral high ground. Once predicated on nurturing fledgling political institutions, European policy on Tunisia has been distilled into more limited and myopic areas of focus: curbing migration and securing borders. Even as the current Tunisian regime sweeps up migrants and vocal critics alike, casting them into the bleak uncertainty of detention, Europe appears at best helpless, at worst complicit. This discreet stance on political repression in Tunisia-exemplified by the harsh response from the current regime to civil society organizations, with verifiable reports of systematic crackdowns including raids, intimidation, and the dissolution of prominent NGOs-underscores a disheartening recalibration.

The EU’s minimal responses to the abuses of power engender a perception of tacit approval, which perhaps serves the broader objective of staunching flows of migrants to European shores, regardless of the moral cost attached to such consequential silence. When cornered on the issue, Europe’s leaders continue to parrot grand-sounding declarations about human rights and freedom of expression, but consistently fail to account for how transactional rhetoric undercuts those ideals and condones the Tunisian regime’s ever-tightening grip.

The currency of human dignity finds little stock in the economics of Europe’s engagement with Tunisia. Critical judgments on the denial of personal liberties yield to short-sighted migration pacts. The seemingly strategic EU silence on the jailing of outspoken critics and the detention of political opponents in Tunisia paints a picture of a bloc less enthralled by the prospects of democratization than by the specters of instability and refugee flows.

Implicit within the EU’s apparent compliance with Tunisia’s undemocratic trajectory is the assumption that Europe can navigate the results of partnering with an illiberal regime without jeopardizing its own values and security interests. Such a bargain, however, flirts dangerously with the notion that the line separating strategic interests and fundamental values can be blurred without consequence. Europe’s silence suggests a belief that it can compartmentalize its relations, addressing shared concerns such as migration while disregarding internal repression. Such a stance not only undermines the transformative promise once heralded by the EU in the wake of the Arab Spring but also signals to other nations that the European commitment to democracy is negotiable in the face of pressing strategic concerns.

The reality is stark. Once upon a time, Europe had at its disposal the diplomatic wherewithal to sway Tunisia’s future and steer President Kais Saied away from the shadow of Ben Ali. Financial aid, trade agreements, and diplomatic relations, all powerful tools in the European arsenal, could have been wielded to enforce a reversal, or at least a slackening, of the tightening noose. However, the prioritization of migration control over democratic values has created a dissonance in EU-Tunisia relations, overshadowing Europe’s once powerful role as a promoter of democracy in its immediate neighborhood.

This strategic misstep is further compounded by the EU’s failure to act decisively against the negative external influences that have induced Tunisia’s retreat from democracy, contrasting sharply with its more resolute stance on the defense of democracy in its immediate neighborhood against external threats. Moreover, the hesitancy of the EU to decisively support Tunisia in times of acute crisis, as seen in its delayed reaction to the collapse of healthcare in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, represents a missed opportunity to reinforce its influence and commitment to the nation’s democratic path.

Despite the considerable aid and support it has allocated to Tunisia since the Arab Spring, the EU has struggled to adapt its approach in the face of the escalating trend toward authoritarianism in the country. Instead, European engagement has quietly waned, paving the way for the ruling administration’s unchecked run toward autocracy, all under the pretext of restoring political stability at any cost and stemming a crisis responsible for a resurgence of the Eurosceptic far-right. For the Tunisians who bravely turned the page in 2011, the difficulties they face now are a painful tragedy and a sobering revelation of how Europe has retreated from its ideals.

Europe’s engagement with Tunisia represents a significant missed opportunity. Once a potential beacon of democracy in North Africa, Tunisia is now witnessing a regression that is compounded by Europe’s shift from promoting democratic values to prioritizing pragmatic, transactional bargains. This strategic pivot undermines the EU’s foundational principles and signals to the world that Europe’s commitment to democracy is negotiable when faced with pressing strategic concerns. If the EU is to reclaim its moral high ground and restore its role as a champion of democracy, it must recalibrate its approach to Tunisia, prioritizing democratic values and human rights over short-term strategic gains.


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