Ten years of Tunisia’s democratic experiment

It all started in Tunisia in December of 2010, when street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest of the government after being harassed by local police. Ten years later, one often hears that the Arab Spring has become the ‘Arab Winter’. Egypt went from dictatorship to holding democratic elections and back to dictatorship again. Libyan dictator Gadaffi was overthrown in 2011, but the country is still crippled by armed conflict, and the Syrian civil war has now gone on for over ten years without any change in leadership. There is, however, one bright example: the country where it all started. Two years ago, Tunisia held its third parliamentary election without a return to autocracy. What began as a victory for islamist forces just might constitute solid steps in a more democratic direction, contradicting the forecasts of many commentators. However, under the surface of democratic progress lie many challenges that threaten the young democracy. Thus, we ask ourselves the question: how are things looking after a decade of democracy in Tunisia?

After the fall of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisians went to the polls to elect a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. Elections held in October in the same year became a major success for the islamist Ennahda party. The party, which is a member of the muslim brootherhood, recieved 37% of the votes. This was more than the next four parties combined, and with this came an influential role in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution. Disappointment about the fact that an islamist party had won the first democratic election in Tunisia was heard in western media. The Ennahda victory strengthened the notion that the Arab world is doomed to be ruled in either secular or religious autocracy. Such a claim however conceales the fact that political Islam often is the only form of a somewhat organized political opposition to autocratic rule in the Arab world. This fact has given Islamist parties across the region a major advantage in the immediate aftermath of a transfer of power from secular autocracy.

At this point Tunisia could have gonedown the same road as Iran, Egypt or Algeria, where Islamist forces to varying degrees monopolized a popular uprising in order to come to power and challenge democracy. Iran is still ruled by the same Islamists who took power after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. In Egypt, Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was thrown out by the military after a mere year in power, while in Algeria, armed forces cancelled schedueled elections when an Islamist victory seemed immenent. Tunisia seems to have broken this pattern and has so far been spared both Islamist and military autocracy. When the new constitution was completed in 2014 it was fully secular, with the only demand from Ennahda being that Islam was to retain its status as state religion.

Members of Ennahda working in Tunisia’s newly elected constituent assembly. (Picture: Moumou82, Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY 2.0.)

The causes behind this surprisingly positive development are many, but the central takeaway is that the Islamists of Tunisia were allowed to exercise influence over the country’s political scene, and voters did not approve. In other Arab countries, the fear of political Islam has been so great that Islamist parties never have been allowed a seat at the table. This has allowed Islamist movements to enjoy a certain legitimacy as the opposition to autocratic rule, without having to bear the burden of being in government. There has, contrary to Western stereotypes, in fact only ever been one Islamist head of state in an Arab country: Mohammed Morsi, who served as the president of Egypt from 2011-2012. The Tunisian situation at first looked similar to the Egyptian one, however it was resolved politically. In other words, military intervention against power-hungry Islamists never became a serious issue. After only a short time at the helm, political Islam lost its legitimacy as the universal solution to the country’s problems, and the catch-all secular party Nidaa Tounes became the largest party in the next round of elections.

Following the elections, no policy of vengeance against Ennahda was pursued, with Nidaa Tounes instead inviting the party into a broad governing coalition. After a mere four years, the young Tunisian democracy had come further than any other Arab country. Tunisia has shown that the election of an Islamist government does not automatically spell a death sentance for democracy. Elections in the long run might be a better tool against political Islam than military intervention. The Tunisian case also disproves the notion of Arab ‘immunity to democracy’, as  the country has now held a third democratic election with peaceful transfers of power. Behind the success of three democratic elections, however, lie major challenges that risk undermining Tunisia’s democratic progress.

Tunisia has been struggling economically ever since the revolution of 2011 (photo: Ali Kokab, Unsplash)

The uprisings that became the Arab Spring were largely caused by anger over economic conditions, as well as corruption and unemployment. One fundamental challenge for Tunisian democracy is thus to present a solution to the economic issues that lead to the dictator Ben Ali being ousted in the first place. In this area, things are not looking quite as good. Tunisia’s economic situation has essentially not improved much in the last ten years, the economy is stagnant and unemployment remains high. A devastating 88% of Tunisians describe the country’s economic situation as either somewhat bad or very bad, and a clear majority are of the opinion that the country is heading in the wrong direction. In addition to economic challenges, the covid-19 crisis has hit Tunisia hard, with the country suffering the worst death rates on the African continent. This has in turn led to increasing anger with the government and several violent protests.

The fact that the country’s politics have been centered around broad coalitions since the introduction of democracy has been a mixed blessing. The emphasis on reconciliation and consensus between secular and Islamist parties may have been good for political harmony, but it  has also been criticised for helping to build an apathetic government incapable of taking decisive action on issues. Tunisia has many structural problems in need of solving, but the country’s parliament displays a clear lack of initiative. The path which has made Tunisia the one democratic success story of the Arab spring has also become a constraint for further development.

In light of recent events, things are looking dark for Tunisia after a decade of democracy. Several polls show the authoritarian and Ben Ali-nostalgic party PDL with a big lead over established parties. An even more direct challenge to the democratic order comes from within the government, with president Kais Said recently suspending the country’s parliament indefinitely and concentrating more power around the presidency. The country is now at a crossroads, and Tunisia’s democratic institutions might prove to be strong enough to weather the storm. However there is the risk that the economic development during the country’s experiment with democracy will have been so traumatic that it consumes all legitimacy for democracy as a concept, as appears to have happened in a country like Russia. There is some support for this conclusion, as president Said’s measures against the parliament are widely popular with Tunisians. There is also the possibility that the moves by the country’s president are well-intended, aiming only to end the era of political apathy. However the Arab world contains too many examples of autocratic backlashes to give president Said the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the Tunisian case has shown that democratic elections are indeed possible in the Arab world, although consolidation of democratic gains proves to be far from straightforward.

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