Populism in Tunisia or the Syndrome of the Tunisian Experience: The Emergence of Partisan Civil Society

30 July 2019 1207 Views

Populism in Tunisia or the Syndrome of the Tunisian Experience: The Emergence of Partisan Civil Society



A wave of inexperienced candidates has occupied the top spots in recent opinion polls for the Tunisian presidential elections. Unlike traditional strategies used to mobilize the public, populists resort to different tactics to build trust. In Tunisia, they rely on popular discourse, charitable work, and the use of satellite channels as a platform for party propaganda and political advertising. This article analyses the odd combination of philanthropy and politics that lies behind this new form of populism, which is targeting mainly marginalized and vulnerable groups. This paper seeks also to explore the phenomenon of populism and investigate whether it seriously seeks alternatives in order to liberate people from the rotten ruling elite or whether they  are simply a new form of exploitation seeking to capitalize on economic and political crises.


The closer Tunisia gets to its legislative and presidential elections, the more populist rhetoric takes over political discourse, overshadowing real program and economic facts. The use of this discourse has not only prevailed among traditional party structures but also dominates among independents and civil society. This work article seeks to define populism, identify the push factors that trigger populism, unveil their hidden agendas, and explore the popularity of the phenomenon.

Populism and the Return of Soft Political Radicalism

Muller (2017) defines populism as a tool used to manipulate people’s sets of beliefs. He adds that it is “a doctrine in politics whose owners see that wicked, rotten and cynical elites try to block out a homogeneous, unified, and pure society. Thus, there is no common ground between the elites and the masses”.

Populism, as a term, applies to counter-establishment politics, regardless of its ideological orientations. The term ‘populism’ refers to very diverse political movements across the world  from the Freedom Party in Austria, Marine Le Pen in France, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, to Bernie Sanders in the US,  Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Such movements, according to Muller, seek to spark feelings of outrage among ordinary people with regards to the current political and/or economic elite. With respect to left-wing activists, Ernest Laclau (2005) asserts that populism is a “multi-class movement’’ that generates in an atmosphere of discontent.

Populism: Overt Strategies

Populism draws on different strategies of influence and manipulation. Populists seek to demonize their ‘enemies’ usually using emotive language. Such a strategy has been employed with success in different contexts.  For instance, during the 2014 presidential elections in Tunisia, one of the contenders for the presidency delivered a speech at a rally in which he repeatedly burst into tears when recalling the story of a woman who had not eaten meat for about three months during the rule of the Troika government  (2011-2013). Such wordings and representations are intensified when elections approach. Another feature of populism is that it seeks to  mobilize marginalized groups and those who are generally outside political parties or do not usually participate in politics or elections. The populist discourse presents itself as representing the masses and creates a dichotomous view of the world as divided between ‘pure’ masses versus corrupt elites. In addition to demonizing their rivals, populists use victim-blaming as a strategy to attain their goals. This can be seen in US President Trump’s many verbal attacks on women and ethnic minorities. Lastly, they try to scapegoat the poor and vulnerable groups. Lastly, they tend to intimidate their opponents, creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in society.

Populist Associations Undermining Democratization

Populism is not limited to political parties. A number of civil society organizations in Tunisia have engaged in overt partisan activities such as Ich tounsi (Live as Tunisian), Khalil Tunis, (the Guardian of Tunisia) or Houmet Tunis. These groups tend to use social or philanthropic activities targeting the poor in rural and interior regions to build a political base, such as they donating food and offering free health care, which is a violation of basic principles in a democracy, in which those competing for political office are not permitted to use such tactics to gain votes. What has occupied much discussion of these groups in Tunisian public debate is their opaque funding, with many said to be  funded by unknown foreign sources.

 Because of the government’s silence or reluctance to crack down on this phenomenon, these associations have become strong political machines employed by populists to counter ruling elites. Thus, the absence of strong institutions and regulations has opened the space for political clientelism.

Populist Channels and Suspicion of Political Advertising

In addition to charitable associations, partisan media also prevailed in heavily influencing the elections. Indeed, this phenomenon dates back to the outbreak of the revolution when prominent figures owning satellite channels ran in the presidential contest. These include Slim Riahi and Nabil Karoui (owner of Nessma Channel), Tahar Ben Hassine (owner of Al-Hiwar Attounsi), Arbi Nasra (owner of Hannibal Channel), and Mohamed Ajroudi (owner of Al-Janoubia Channel). Those channels have become a tool of political advertising accordingly and opened the space for populists to address the public directly and to fabricate stories unchallenged. The conflict between the government and owners of television channels over political partisanship has aggravated the situation. The absence of regulations banning owners of TV channels from running for political office has left a loophole that has been exploited by opportunistic business figures. Surprisingly, recent opinion polls have placed populist candidates at the forefront, demonstrating the huge following that populists can gain in a short space of time, particularly when able to exploit philanthropic and media resources without any restriction.


The recent wave of populism in Tunisia has seen the boundaries blurred between philanthropy and politics. It has also raised questions over the role of media and how to regulate the relationship between media and politics. Recent polls showing the popularity of the populist candidates may indicate that we live in a post-truth era where objective facts have no value and where traditional political parties have become less influential.

However, these questions are not a matter of mere intellectual curiosity in the Tunisian context, where nascent democratic institutions are still fragile and the weak economy threatens to destabilize the democratic transition. Policy-makers should introduce a clear regulatory framework for the role of philanthropy and media ownership in politics, to protect the building of democratic institutions. Political parties also need to work to present -persuasive, transparent political programs armed with a future-oriented vision and promising economic options that provide stability and security and combat unemployment and social and regional inequalities, as advocated by populists. Populist discourse, far from offering real solutions to complex problems, threatens to trigger fundamentalism and hinder progress, growth and unity.



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