The ‘Arab Spring’ took the international community by storm in 2011, ushering in a new sense of optimism and hope for the people of the Arab world. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region had been suffering mercilessly under the rule of dictators and theocrats until Mohamed Bouazizi sacrificed himself, protesting the way he and his fellow citizens were treated by the state’s security apparatus.
Four years after the term was first coined, news commentators and international relations experts have described the Arab Spring as a failure, calling it the ‘Islamist Winter’ in reference to the overwhelming support Islamist parties have garnered in Egypt and Tunisia after toppling their juntas.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]While most of us have been preoccupied with the cancer that has swarmed the region known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), we have overlooked the comparatively successful, yet chaotic, transition of Tunisia into a democratic nation-state.[/quote]
I had my own doubts that the transition to democracy in the Arab world would be smooth sailing given centuries of oppressive regimes, colonial rule and divisions based on ethno-centric rivalries that to this day remain unsettled in many parts.
While most of us have been preoccupied with the cancer that has swarmed the region known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), we have overlooked the comparatively successful, yet chaotic, transition of Tunisia into a democratic nation-state.
It’s hard to come up with an explanation as to why Tunisia continues its path to democracy while its Arab neighbouring states continue to fall into deterioration. The fact is we do not understand Tunisia; more importantly, we have failed to examine the nation as a separate operating unit within its own purview of independent customs, culture and tradition.
Both Sides of Democratization Efforts
In an op-ed published by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, some analysis was provided as to explain why the Tunisian and Egyptian experiments with democracy had different outcomes. One of the explanations put forth by commentators that Zakaria cites is that Tunisia’s former governing Islamist Party, Ennahda, was successful at respecting its citizens’ will when it came to women’s rights and installing a technocratic unity government to manage the country’s affairs.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]From this prism, Tunisia’s road to democracy seems theoretically flawless and with minimal ‘bumps’, however, its political reality has painted a different picture.[/quote]
Furthermore the article cites the work of analyst Tarek Masoud who argues that the success of Tunisians so far has little to do with the Islamists and more to do with the country’s more globalized, urban and diverse society. Add to that the strength of its labour unions, civil society groups and non-secular political parties and you have variables that put sufficient checks and balances on the governing parties.
From this prism, Tunisia’s road to democracy seems theoretically flawless and with minimal ‘bumps’, however, its political reality has painted a different picture. Take for example the following series of events that have occurred since the overthrow of former dictator Ben Ali:
- 2011 – Ennahda Party wins the first parliamentary elections held
- 2012 – Radical Islamists attack the U.S. embassy in Tunis and leave two dead and 49 injured
- Protests continue as a result of fears stemming from Ennahda governance agenda i.e. infusing Sharia Law and altering its stance on women’s rights
- 2013 – Two popular opposition figures, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, are assassinated
- Government struggles to finalize a constitution that represents the aspirations of the people, takes four drafts and leads to more protest
- Ennahda decides to cede its powers to a technocratic coalition
- Ennahda loses parliamentary elections in 2014 to the current left-leaning governing party Nidaa Tounes
- 2015 – Terrorist attacks in Tunis’ Bardo Museum leave 23 dead
The above timeline will probably change one’s perspective on Tunisia’s continuing democratic transition, but couple it with a growing unemployment rate among youth and women and the country’s perceived road to prosperity and a ‘better’ future becomes much bleaker.
Yet I ask myself: why do I continue to be optimistic about Tunisia’s fortunes given the security, political and economic challenges that lay ahead? For one, the aforementioned challenges are dwarfed if compared to those faced by a neighbouring country in the region, like say Egypt.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Tunisia currently does not have the threat of sectarian divisions as seen in Iraq and Syria between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, nor does it have an over-reaching military force interested in ruling like Egypt does.[/quote]
Let us compare some statistics between the two countries. For example the size of each country’s population is drastically different: Egypt is home to 80 million in comparison to Tunisia’s 10.9 million. Poverty is far more rampant in Egypt, according to a 2011 World Bank report, 25.2 per cent of Egypt’s population live under the poverty line. Illiteracy rates represent a huge obstacle for Egypt, as 25.9 per cent of its population above the age of 10 is considered illiterate compared to Tunisia’s 97 per cent literacy rate among the same demographics.
Politically speaking, Egypt’s short-lived experiment with democracy has led to the re-emergence of the old military dictatorship similar to the one under Hosni Mubarak with the exception of it being far more ruthless in cracking down on pro-democracy activists and purging any voices of dissent.
Tunisia currently does not have the threat of sectarian divisions as seen in Iraq and Syria between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, nor does it have an over-reaching military force interested in ruling like Egypt does. Additionally, it is backed by a highly educated populace which is politically active and takes its civic responsibility seriously as evident by the strength of civil society and labour unions.
These differences give Tunisia an advantage over its neighbouring Arab countries, but will these be enough to ensure a democratic transition will take place, and more importantly, be sustained? Only time will tell. In the meantime, Tunisians will have to be decisive in dealing with the challenges that lay ahead including the spread of extremism, rise of unchecked forces (groups loyal to Ben Ali) and economic growth.
Imad Al-Sukkari is a commentator on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) affairs. He was the former operations manager of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations and a member at the Middle East Studies Association.