The possible collapse of the Tunisian state!

By Hedi Ben Abbes

There is nothing more painful for a lover of Tunisia than to admit the evidence of a possible collapse of the Tunisian state, and this despite all attempts to distract and cling to chimeras. History abounds with examples that testify to the inevitable collapse of states when all conditions are met.

When does a state collapse?

If we refer to William Zartman’s theory, the state collapses when it can no longer fulfill its essential functions, namely security of the people, when it can no longer mobilize sufficient resources to meet the needs, and finally when the only response to demands from said population becomes the use of so-called legitimate power.

The depletion of internal and external resources necessarily generates social dissatisfaction and strengthens resistance. A state that struggles to provide concrete answers to the legitimate demands of its people loses its raison d’être when it can no longer control the geoeconomic and socio-political space.

The collapse of the state is a relatively long process in which one observes what Zartman calls “a degenerative disease” in the state. During this period, which varies from case to case, there are options to avoid this fall, or at least make it slower and less destructive. This would require the intervention of civil society to restore the structures of the state either according to the old model or according to an invented model.

What are the signs that the collapse of the state is imminent?

Still according to W. Zartman[1] and to some extent, according to Samuel Huntington, the warnings of state collapse are five in number, namely:

1- When the central power, which is too busy defending itself against its opponents, leaves the rest of the country in the hands of the local “mafias”, who seize the opportunity to have control of their territory.

2- When power regresses from within and loses its base because it is no longer able to meet the needs of that base. The latter then withdraws its support. The central power then concentrates on its most intimate circle, which it trusts to maintain itself. It then becomes important to satisfy the needs of this inner circle to the detriment of the rest of the population.

3- Governments no longer function properly as they continue to avoid difficult but necessary measures. This results in a worsening of the situation. Inability to take the right measures is due either to the structural inadequacy of the institutions or to a lack of political courage.

4- Power confines itself to a defensive position against the opposition, avoids taking up the challenge, seeks to reduce the threats to its power, either by concession or by repression. What is missing is a political agenda and a socio-economic program.

5- The last sign is the loss of control over state agents including the police and the army. The latter will then operate according to their own logics internally in their business.

When all these signs come together, the state ceases to exist and makes room for a general chaos where only the survival of some against (and not with) others counts.

Funnel logic

One can say without risk of making a mistake that in Tunisia, the logic of the treaty has been well underway for several years and has experienced an acceleration since July 25, 2021. Here it is not a question of placing the responsibility on any stakeholder, but simply to take stock of the situation without passing judgment.

The signs identified by Zartman have gradually emerged over the years as the state lost control of economic life, of national resources, and relinquished its sovereign rights over control and accountability. Mafia systems have taken over the normal function of state institutions, the informal and corruption have done the rest.

The funnel effect has now reached the last bottleneck, and the state is hanging in a thread, the presidential institution, itself still supported by the police and a large section of the population. After Tunisia has now left the rule of law and entered a state of emergency, there is only one more step to take before chaos ensues.

It is still possible to turn the funnel even at this late stage in the degenerative condition disease, what we will see at the end of this article. Meanwhile, the risk of seeing Tunisia being subjected to violence in all its forms is very high.

Between legitimate violence and illegitimate violence

When institutions are weakened and control and balance almost non-existent, the survival of the state depends only on the population. History has shown, however, that humans can in no way guarantee this survival, as they themselves are subject to pressure and internal and external power relations. The fragile question then arises of “trust” in the person who has all the powers to guarantee this survival. However, trust is a subjective and uncertain value because it is not only measured by the scale of rational actions, but very often produced by emotions on the one hand and ignorance on the other. The fragility of this value cannot withstand the test of economic and social reality, in itself dependent on often uncontrollable external and internal circumstances.

The current situation in Tunisia shows that all ingredients are there to lead to violence in one form or another. Diplomatic isolation and political pressure (exogenous factors), economic recession and inflation spiral (exogenous and endogenous factors), institutional stalemate and social tension are all warning signs of a probable outbreak of violence. This violence will test the 5the point in Zartman’s theory, namely the way in which the police will deal with this violence, either by standing on political power or by operating in accordance with their own internal logics towards their companies by distancing themselves from the power on the spot. In the latter case, the result, if not the collapse of the state, is at least the takeover of power by law enforcement itself.

More specifically, if we take the first political deadline in Tunisia, namely the referendum on 25 July, four scenarios are possible. Regardless of the respect or not of the procedures for organizing the referendum, the fact that we are in a state of emergency calls into question the outcome of the referendum and this in all cases. The first of the scenarios: the referendum is a success in terms of participation, and “yes” or “no” wins by a large majority. This ultra-optimistic scenario remains theoretically possible. However, given the current political differences, it is unlikely that such a scenario will become a reality. What happens, on the other hand, if the referendum on 25 July results in massive failure, as was the case with the electronic consultation? What will happen if “yes” wins with a very low turnout? What will happen if “no” wins with a very low turnout? What kind of political and institutional stalemate will Tunisia find itself in? So what is left of the state? These rhetorical questions in themselves carry the beginnings of an announced catastrophe.

And yet there is still a small hope of turning the funnel and imagining a way out of the crisis that would save what is left of the state. Review the political calendar, refrain from organizing the referendum, settle for a technical reform of the electoral law and the parties and their funding, and leave it to the next elected parliament to amend the constitution and to implement in places the institutions that guarantee balance of power.

Such a way out of the crisis requires three essential conditions for its realization, namely to enter into a truly inclusive national dialogue. Work towards “national reconciliation” by adopting a calming and unifying discourse. Participate in diplomatic action aimed at the most influential capitals with the aim of clarifying goals and ensuring the country’s stability. To do this, it is necessary to have a sublime vision, a conquest of personal horizons and an unwavering commitment to work in Tunisia’s highest interest.



[1] W. Zartman, Collapsed State, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995.

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