The Pioneer's Progress: From Revolution to Constitutional Government in Tunisia

Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 4:30pm


Hugh Roberts

Edward Keller Professor of North Africa and Middle Eastern History, Tufts University

Listen to this program.

Professor Roberts, Tufts University, began his career teaching politics and political history in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia from 1976 to 1988, followed by work as an independent scholar and free-lance writer following the developing crisis in Algeria. In 1997, he returned to academic life as a Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics. From 2001 to 2012, living in Cairo, Professor Roberts continued his work on Algeria, conducting additional research on Egyptian political history and the history of Islamism in North Africa. He was Director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group from 2002-2007 and again from January to July 2011.  Roberts has also taught at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, the University of California, Berkeley, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Major publications include:

  • Algerian socialism and the Kabyle question (1981)

  • The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002. Studies in a broken polity (2003)

  • Berber Government: the Kabyle polity in pre-colonial Algeria (I.B.Tauris; 2014)

  • Algérie-Kabylie: études et interventions de Hugh Roberts (Éditions Barzakh; 2014)

This program is co-sponsored with the Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar and the Center for International Studies. 

Social and economic issues furnished the spark that ignited the Jasmine Revolution of 2010/2011 but political life since then has been almost entirely dominated by the divisions within Tunisia’s political class, divisions which nearly derailed the constitutional transition in 2013. The gracious acceptance by the Islamist En-Nahda party of its defeat by the secular alliance, Nidaa Tounes, in last October’s legislative elections, followed by its decision not to contest the presidential elections in December, the election of Nidaa Tounes’s leader Beji Caïd Essebsi as Tunisia’s new president and the recent formation of a coalition government including En-Nahda suggest that the Tunisian political class has made considerable progress towards devising an agreed set of ground rules for genuine political pluralism and party competition as central features of the new constitution of the Tunisian republic. This political progress remains fragile, however, for several reasons, the most important of which are the state of the economy and the fact that in the four years since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, nothing has been done to address the social and economic problems that gave rise to the uprising in the first place. Can the new government at last address these effectively? The answer will depend on the evolution of a complex network of relationships: between the members of the coalition government; between En-Nahda and other Islamist currents; between the government and Tunisia’s western partners, and between the government and civil society, especially the main trade union (UGTT) and the employers’ federation (UTICA). The consolidation of constitutional government in Tunisia will itself depend on the government’s success in managing these relationships in a way that enables an effective economic and social policy to emerge and take effect.