Tunisia has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its revolution on January 14 that marked the end of 23 years of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime and the beginning of a firm commitment to a process of democratization. The 2011 popular uprising was not doomed to stay as an isolated event as it sparked a series of wide range protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. While these countries undergone a different process and outcomes, it is undeniable that the act of a young Tunisian vendor of fruits who lit himself aflame as a protest to repression and marginalization had an irreversible impact on the whole regional geopolitical dynamics.
Being the epicenter of the Arab spring, The Tunisian experience has been hailed internationally thanks to the democratic steps it has taken throughout this decade that made of it a regional exception. Freedom House’s annual report, assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world indicates in its 2020 report that Tunisia is the only “free” country in the Arab world. Several elections at the national and local level were marked by a peaceful transfer of power and judged free and fair at the national and international level. The rise of a vibrant and functioning civil society has played a significantly positive role in influencing the strength, transparency and functionality of nascent political institutions and process. These efforts were crowned by Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet’s winning the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The Quartet made of a group of civil society groups had a decisive contribution in establishing a roadmap for peaceful political transition at the time when the country was on the brink of civil war.
The transitional justice process launched with the hope to deal with a past of political repression, human rights violations and abuse of public funds constitutes another brighter spot. The Truth and Dignity Commission has completed its work: with 62 thousand complaints for reparation and national reconciliation, it documented and archived numerous cases, and according to the Commission’s own reports, has secured TND 700 million for the state budget and referred 72 cases to the judiciary. While this marks a milestone in Tunisia’s transition, the country still needs to find the best approach to implement a comprehensive national reconciliation strategy while ensuring accountability.
Certainly the steps that been undertaken in the direction of protection and promotion of women’s rights over the last decade were embraced with an equally if not more enthusiasm by international actors. Tunisia has always been way ahead of the other Arab countries when it comes to progressive laws in favor of women rights and the 2014 Constitution came only to maintain the country’s regional status in that regard. The electoral law that has been framing legislative elections ensured the vertical parity on candidates lists. The 2018 Local elections was framed by an even more progressive election law that included a provision for horizontal party added to the vertical one to ensure equal representation of men and women as head of lists. This led to nearly half of elected local officials being women. The holistic law on the eradication of all forms of violence against women adopted in 2017 came also to reflect the constitution’s progressive spirit. For the first time, moral, psychological, economic and even political gender-based violence has been criminalized. The proper implementation of all mechanisms presented by the law especially providing state support to violence survivals remains a challenge.
The notable progress achieved for democracy building and human rights over a decade is nevertheless neither a source of content nor optimism among most Tunisians. According to the International Republican Institute’s national wide survey conducted in the last 2020 trimester, 87 percent believe that Tunisia is heading in the wrong direction. The negative outlook Tunisians seem to have when it comes to the present and the future is fueled mostly by economic woes as Growth faltered after 2011. A combination of high youth unemployment rate, regional socio economic disparities, the erosion of the welfare state and rampant corruption draws a bleak economic reality. Persisting labor strikes and terrorist attacks have affected the production and export of gas, oil and phosphates. It has also damaged the tourism sector, and have led to the rise of military and security spending. Libya’s crisis have also largely contributed to the slowing of the economic activity being the number two trading partner after the European Union.
While there is broad agreement on the need for reforms to surpass stagnation and instability that have prevented progress, political fragmentation has left the parliaments almost deadlocked and have led to more than 12 cabinet reshuffles making the adoption and the proper implementation of reforms a real challenge. Consensus built on “Islamist-secularist rapprochement” has been a defining feature of Tunisia’s post revolution political dynamics and many would consider it as the main reason behind the country’s success to remain on a democratic path while its neighbors fell into military dictatorship or civil war. Yet the formation of coalition and national unity governments was at the detriment of structural and bold social and economic reforms and the rise of a strong opposition. The consensus displayed on the proportional list electoral system that favors small parties has prevented the emergence of a consistent and harmonious majority able to support the government in its reforms and easily pass its bills. The Constitutional Court, a pillar of a healthy functioning democratic system, which was supposed to be created in 2015 according to the constitution, has still not been set up as the four Court members to be appointed by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) being still blocked.
This political deadlock continues to periodically fuel mobilizations of protest against the government and has particularly deepened the confidence gap between citizens and Institutions. IRI’s 2020 national wide survey shows that 85 % believe the government (and 88 percent for the parliament) are doing little or nothing to address the needs of ordinary citizens.
The failure of all succeeding governments to respond to the socio-economic demands that were the revolution’s “raison d'être” has fostered nostalgia for the old regime. Political parties who defend the legacy of the past (whether under Ben Ali or Bouguiba ) have been given more political and electoral weight as the expense of parties who were in the opposition in the pre revolution era. The most extreme of these parties is the Destoruian Free Party (PDL) that presents its self as being counter revolution, openly praising the old regime, and proposing to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential system.
The party has successfully secured 17 seats at the parliament and its woman leader and current MP, Abir Moussi, has been on the top of polls. The party’s particular antagonism towards Ennahdha has contributed to the dysfunction of the newly elected Tunisian parliament since it was sworn in on November 2019. As Moussi’s party considers Ennahdha to be last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood and needs to be eradicated, tensions and disputes aired live on National TV between her and Rached Ghannouhi, Ennahdha’s leader and Parliament’s Speaker has fed the negative perception towards the parliament. The state of affairs that has marked the legislative body, the symbol “par excellence” of the Tunisian democratic sovereignty has led to more discreditation of the democratic process.
The aggravating economic situation due to Covid-19 pandemic will certainly make reforms even more challenging, fueling thus more democratic disillusionment, which calls for more national unity and international support. Actually, the fear of Europe on the presence of Islamism in the government even if moderate, and on the other side the fear from the Gulf countries of similar revolutions inside their regimes, made the Tunisian transition being left mostly on its own.
Transitions can take generations. While Tunisia’s relatively successful model still challenges and defies theories and skepticism around democracy and Islam, its democratic exceptional trajectory is shaky. Still because of its proximity to Libya, the Sahel, and other countries it may well serve as an example to future protests for more Arab Springs and even new African ones.
Chriaz Arbi is a Tunisian political expert and UN consultant on women's affairs. Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.
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