The fragile democracy of Tunisia

Dr Mohamed Chtatou

Tunisia emerged as the only success story, so far, of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. While Libya, Yemen and Syria sunk deeply into civil war and Egypt became a military dictatorship, Tunisia opted instead for a transition and the maintenance of its democracy. As a matter of fact, Its transition has benefited from several structural advantages including ; a homogenous population, a politically weak army, a strong civil society and a relative power relationship between Islamists and seculars. The Tunisian transition, however, remains very fragile, to say the least. In recent years, the Tunisian public has been bitterly disappointed with democracy for its failure to improve the economy and, consequently, their living condition.

The Essebsi case

Essebsi helped to unite an unstable political environment. He was a die-hard secularist but tried, nonetheless, to govern on behalf of all Tunisians. He, also, sailed raging seas, in a delicate coalition, with the moderate Islamist political movement Ennahda.

After the dismissal of Ben Ali, complaints about the state of democracy in Tunisia continued relentlessly. In response, Essebsi founded the Committee for Individual Freedoms and Equality (Comité des libertés individuelles et de l’égalité) in 2017. The Committee was tasked with identifying unconstitutional laws and proposing possible reforms.

In collaboration with human rights and civil society organizations, the committee has recommended major changes to laws that limit gender equality. These include equal inheritance rights and the right to marry non-Muslims. At the time of Essebsi’s death, new inheritance laws were about to come into effect and were considered by the Islamists as a crude act of adversity to the precepts of Islam.

The former president has, also, taken steps to improve the freedom of the press. According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual assessments, Tunisia’s press freedom rankings moved from 164 out of 180 countries to 72 under Essebsi’s regime.

Essebsi’s mandate, however, was not flawless, in the least. Tunisia has experienced severe economic hardships since 2014. The country is, also, still facing, to date, a serious security crisis in the form of a violent jihadist insurgency. Tourism, a cornerstone of economic growth, has declined due to terrorism and the instability that has resulted, as a consequence.

As a matter of fact, the reforms that have earned Essebsi much praise in the West have often provoked a strong reaction from conservative forces in Tunisia, especially Islamists. And despite giving more freedom to the press, journalists and other, Tunisians continued to live under government surveillance. Their freedom of expression is always restricted today by Big Brother.

A pivotal vote

Voters have shown little confidence in current political parties and growing disenchantment with the actual format of the country’s democracy. Thus, the elections of September and October 2019 will, undoubtedly, be a big test for the young Tunisian democracy.

While the risk of military intervention and wider instability in the pre-election period is likely to be extremely low, yet it will be important to focus on post-election events. It is very important that relations between conservative religious parties and secular and progressive parties remain civilized and peaceful.

Even so, the rise of populist candidates and the relative decline of support for the dominant traditional political parties like Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes could put the political standards created under Essebsi’s mandate to a harsh test.

In the end, It will be a long road to democratic stability : sinuous and strewn with obstacles. But, all in all, Tunisia has resisted the trends observed in the region and Tunisians are ready to take up the challenge of continuing their long march towards freedom, rule of law and democracy.

Perplexing poll results

More than eight years later, Tunisia remains beset with many problems: the economy is sluggish, the standard of living has not improved and terrorist attacks have seriously affected the tourism sector and, as a result, the economy. But two events this past September – the first round of the presidential election and the death in Saudi Arabia of former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – provided useful information on the progress made by the nascent democracy.

Late President Beji Caid Essebsi

Twenty-six candidates stood for election to succeed President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July. No candidate won more than 50% of the vote in the first round, including two poll leaders – Kais Saied, a little-known militant law professor, and Nabil Karoui, a media magnate imprisoned for tax evasion and money laundering – will compete for a second round in October. The ruling parties have been sharply criticized by voters and thus ignored at the polls, not to say, of course, completely rejected for their poor imagination as to what concerns the real expectations of ordinary Tunisians of today.

However, none of the finalists inspires confidence. Kais Saied, who is independent and has conducted a discreet campaign, supports the reintroduction of death penalty and believes that homosexuality is a foreign conspiracy. His opponent in the second round, Nabil Karoui, used his own TV channel Nesma to announce, with great pomp, his charity activities. He has been campaigning from a prison cell, after being jailed in August in what his supporters called a political machination against him and his promising political career.

The fact that the Tunisians have turned to two populists will consternate a lot, but it is important not to lose sight of the significance of the election. The presidency is largely a symbolic one and the stakes will be higher for the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. What is remarkable, in fact, is that Tunisians have chosen to make their verdict through the ballot box, and this, after a dynamic and hard-fought election, that, as shown by the results of the first round, was truly open, free and competitive. This never happened under Ben Ali, the despot who ruled the country for 23 years and made it a corrupt and brutal kleptocracy, until he was forced to go into exile with his family when protesters invaded the streets of Tunis in January 2011 kickstarting the Arab Spring, in the process. Tunisia may be an imperfect democracy, but its resilience is a huge national and regional success story and a cultural pride for all Arabs.


Nevertheless, disillusionment with the present political and economic situation has contributed greatly to the radicalization of young Tunisians. About 30,000 of them attempted or managed to reach the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of Daesh -ISIS-. Many are now looking to come back although such a move will lead them, maybe, to prison given the present jihadist ongoing insurgency in the country. As a matter of fact, Tunis, the capital city, has been rocked by two suicide bombings in June that have been claimed by the Islamic State -ISIS- terrorist group.

All in all, one must point out that Tunisia’s transition to democracy proved more resilient than some expected. The largely peaceful electoral campaign has raised hopes that the country will transfer its presidential office and position from one elected leader to another smoothly, a situation generally seen as a major obstacle to the development of young democracies.

Nevertheless, the race was plagued with plenty of controversy and surprises. The alleged leader, Karoui, a media mogul, was jailed in August in a controversial case of tax evasion, but remains on the ballot. The Conservative party of the late President broke into a rivalry between former leaders, while the country’s main moderate Islamist party Ennahda put forward a candidate for the first time. Two dozen candidates contested the big race, including the remainants of the former autocratic regime in addition to the first Tunisian homosexual candidate, ever.

Women set to play an important role in politics

Many attribute the success of Tunisia to a spirit of compromise of the country’s disparate political factions, which reached a pact in 2013 to avoid the dreadful fate of Egypt. The country had, also, set up a Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité (IVD)), which shed light on past government abuses in a spirit of transitional justice, and the late President, Beji Caid Essebsi, guided the transition of Tunisia towards democracy, while being a senior official of the former regime, he pursued legal reforms and led his party to a government coalition with an Islamist party, Ennahda.

Mr. Essebsi has not left a successor and since his death, several candidates vie for the secular conservative constituency he represented, including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi.

Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party Essebsi was working with, named Mourou as a candidate for presidential elections, after previously avoiding the presidency for fear of pressure that an Islamist government will have to bear from the public at large. Such a candidacy recalls how Tunisia managed to avoid the fate of Egypt, which elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2012 and then saw its brief experience of democracy end in a military coup.

Extremely divergent future visions

The next round of presidential elections will present the citizens of this small North African nation with extremely different future visions. Mr. Saied wants to rewrite the constitution to give more power to local councils. He opposes openly recent proposals for progressive reforms to repeal Shari’a inheritance laws and to abolish laws that severely punish same-sex couples. Mr Karoui, the imprisoned businessman, is temperamentally more authoritarian than socially progressive. If he wins, he would likely consolidate greater powers in the presidency.

Tunisia’s transition to a stable and mature democracy is still possible if voters and leaders of the country subscribe to the idea that democracy is disorderly, unpredictable and sometimes antagonistic. But, the main presidential candidates, who have no previous experience with the previous government, will have to become, definitely, tolerant of uncertainty.

Political outsiders head to Tunisia’s elections runoff ( Left : Karoui and right : Saied)

A future under surveillance

The authoritarian Arab neighbors of Tunisia, who wish to see this fragile and shy democracy, preferably stifled, closely monitor this country, small in space but big in innovation and ideas. After deposing Ben Ali, who died in September 2019 in exile in Saudi Arabia, Tunisians quickly adopted civilian and democratic institutions. This contrasts with Algeria and Sudan, where citizens overthrew aging dictators but not the entrenched military institutions ; and Egypt, ruled by a dictatorship more authoritarian than the one that was overthrown in 2011.

The future of Tunisia’s fragile democracy lies mainly in the hands of Tunisians, alone. But the strong men of the Gulf states will continue to fight for influence over the country, through foreign investment and direct financial support to Tunisia’s present political parties.

The West can, no doubt, help this country by investing in its economy. But this must transcend past practices, in which coastal regions captured most of the funds from the IMF, the World Bank and other institutions. This must change because the citizens of the periphery and the hinterland, deprived of their right to benefit from national economic development, may not be able to resist the attraction for desperate actions and mainly religious extremism. The West should, also, recognize that one of the best educated people in the Arab world are desperate for win-win economic cooperation and partnerships that would create jobs, allow know-how transfer, and exchange of knowledge and expertise with the aim of long-term development and stability. Tunisians want badly democracy and rule of law, but they demand, also, economic progress and development.

Life after the elections

The new president will have to contribute to strenghtening national unity in coordination with the new government and the new parliament, addressing legitimate grievances and overcoming divisions in the country. Democratic consolidation of the country will have a fundamental role to play in protecting freedoms and improving the transitional justice process, stimulating economic growth, promoting collaboration among the parties, addressing national inequities and creating a strategic plan to promote decentralization policy and non-discrimination. Governing institutions should commit to achieving these goals on the basis of a political accountability charter.

A North African saying has it that : « A life full of holes is better than no life at all, » in the case of Tunisia and the whole of the Arab world, it would be that : « A fragile democracy is better than no democracy at all. »

Beautiful Tunisias heads to an uncertain future

You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter : @Ayurinu

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