Saint Louis University

Tunisia, the Exception or the Expected? By Paige Cook

Tunisia was the first of all the Arab states to experience popular uprisings and political upheaval in 2011. In fact, it was the initial domino to the Arab uprisings. On December 17, 2010 a young vegetable merchant, Bouazizi was repeatedly harassed by police demanding bribes and had his items seized by the government. As a result, he set himself on fire to protest the government corruption. His action catalyzed the first protests in remote Sidi Bouzid, eventually unrest spread rapidly across the country. Bouazizi’s act of protest eventually led to waves of demonstrations across the Middle East, as people demanded jobs, better living conditions, and greater freedoms. 

Off to a Good Start: Free Elections, Civil Debate and Civic Participation

From there, Tunisia was able to rid itself of its authoritarian-like “president” on January 14, 2011, as Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia eventually handled the crisis it was encountering through democratic means – civil debate, free elections, and constructive negotiations – all key factors in liberal democracy. Once Ben Ali fled, an interim government worked toward reform, where it also recognized new political parties, and eventually disbanded Ben Ali’s party, until October 2011. Protests demanding further reform continued sporadically during this time period. On October 23, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, won the national elections and formed a coalition government with two secular parties. 

In many ways, Tunisia has spent the last years working hard to consolidate it’s democracy. They had parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2014 and presidential elections in 2014. According to the United States Institute on Peace, all of those elections have been free and fair, and the losers accepted their defeat. Freedom House in 2015 rated Tunisia Free for the first time as a result of these free and fair elections. Many political scholars, like Robert Dahl and Joseph Schumpeter would articulate that free, fair, and open elections are simply what it takes to be a democracy. In fact, Schumpeter would argue that clean and fair elections will ultimately lead to consolidation in transitioning democracies. 

Lack of Consolidation: Backsliding and Democratic Erosion

However, in what was the only country in the Middle East to have turned toward freedom, nearly eight years after its revolution toward democratic transition, Tunisia remains far from being the exception. It has not consolidated its new democracy and is showing signs of backsliding. Tunisia’s backsliding is a result of lack of transparency in politics, a lack of freedom of press, lack of electoral participation, lack of proper checks and balances, and a struggling economy. More simply, Lust & Waldner argue that democratic backsliding can be attributed to “changes that negatively affect competitive elections, liberties, and accountability” which is evidently the case for Tunisia.

Last April, democratic erosion showed through when unanswered uprising issues continued to occur, evident in the widespread protests: over 410 different protests were related to administration issues, 265 to education, 164 to social issues, and 117 to the economy, with over 94% of all protests being a collective group compared to individual protests. Lipset argues through his modernization theory that economic development will lead to industrialization, urbanization, and higher education, and ultimately to the consolidation of a democracy. However, he argues the lack of these, or the loss of legitimacy and effectiveness of the government will lead to unstable political systems. Furthermore, he states that due to the “poverty-stricken masses, low levels of education, an elongated pyramid class structure, the prognosis for the perpetuation of political democracy in Africa is bleak.” Moreover, for all the protests that occurred in 2018, the May 2018 election resulted in an all-time low voter turnout, since 2011. It can be argued that the low turnout reflected citizen fatigue in government legitimacy and accountability after years of being disappointed by several governments and an array of parties. 

Tunisia lacks a constitutional court as well. Zakaria warns just how vital and serious a lack of check and balances are, “democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.” In fact, rule of law is one of the requirements for liberal democracy, as argued by Zakaria. Furthermore, the executive branch has too much power, it “presents all new legislation and initiatives leading most coalition-building efforts” and the president’s office controls the majority of the national budget. These issues are evidently leading to the larger portion of the protests that occurred in April 2018.

Possible to Return to a More Democratic Tunisia?

While the world of politics continues to backslide on democracy, as detailed by Freedom House, Tunisia is right alongside them. However, answering the protests and the political unrest of its citizens, Tunisia can change course. The government should start by reforming the laws that have led to the economic disparities – the tax, investment and banking laws. Creating the constitutional court previously mentioned will lead to a better separation of powers and legislative reforms will add legitimacy to their branch. If elections continue to be open, fair, and free in addition to these economic reforms and rule of law additions, democratic consolidation is possible in Tunisia. Ultimately, it’s safe to say that democracy is not just a procedural process of voting people in through free and fair elections; there is an intrinsic value needed in the process of guaranteed outputs to the citizens and not just the elite. The only country from the Arab uprising to not fall completely back to authoritarianism, but declining in democracy nonetheless, Tunisia remains both an exception and an expectation.

Photo: Abaca Press – Fauque Nicolas/Images de Tunisie

1 Comment

  1. John Barrett

    April 4, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    As the only, arguably, “successful” nation to undergo the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s democratic backsliding presents a timely topic that has ramifications for the entire Arab World. However, I wonder if this backsliding is just an increase of road-bumps for a newly-democratizing country. The transition phase, as learned after the fall of the Soviet Union, can take more than a decade for democratic institutions to be establish. Even then, they can lack strong stability and undergo. Croatia, for example, is still considered a semi-consolidated democracy after gaining its independence in 1995. That is not to downgrade the severity of democratic backsliding in Tunisia; any reversal can threaten the entire process, and highlighting them can serve as a way to check progress towards democratization. Also, an increase in public protests may be a sign that progress is truly being made. What is most worrisome, I would argue, is the low turnout for voters, which can effectively reduce democratic outcomes. When people are not invested in voting for candidates, their opinions go unrepresented, which makes the government less responsive to citizen preferences and exacerbate its accountability issues. Protests paired with widespread voting can help alert officials on where true problems lie, even within authoritarian governments, that can help focus attention and provide the necessary remedies. When people neglect their right to vote, those problems get harder to identify and, ultimately, solve. I’m curious to see what actions should be done to increase voter participation and stabilize institutions. Democracies, especially newly-transitioning states, require citizen participation to engrain democratic norms within a state. In doing so, Tunisia may be able to reverse the process of democratic backsliding and create hopeful prospects for the future of democracy in the country.
    Lorentzen, 2013. “Regularizing Rioting: Permitting Public Protest in an Authoritarian Regime”
    Magaloni, 2008. “Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule”

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