Tunisian Democracy: Will it Survive?

Evan Wilson

October, 2017

Celebration of the 5th anniversary of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, image courtesy of  The Atlantic

Celebration of the 5th anniversary of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, image courtesy of The Atlantic


In 2011, the world was taken by storm in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’- or the ‘Tunisian Spring’ as Tunisian President Beji Caïd Essebsi would call it. This period marked five Muslim-majority countries taking to the streets, overthrowing governments, toppling dictators, and showing their displeasure with the systems under which they were ruled.

Proponents of democracy worldwide watched in nervous excitement to see whether the countries would successfully transition to democracy. Other regions of the world, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, and even some might argue the Western States, viewed the events in a lesser fashion; worrying of the disruption to their regional hegemony or the cutting of their beneficial ties with the previous regimes. Upon the end of the uprising, four out of the five countries did not successfully transition to the democratic promised land many of its inhabitants desired.

Proponents of democracy would see the failure to democratize as a major setback to the progression of the world, yet one tiny nation did come out ahead and should be hailed as a model of success that others may follow in their footsteps one day.

That one tiny nation is Tunisia, a region with thousands of years of rich history. It has been part of Carthaginian, Roman, Muslim Caliphate, Byzantine, Ottoman, and French colonial rule among others, and finally became a self-governing territory in 1957.

From 1957, Tunisia had a single party system until the uprising. The country was full of corruption, human rights abuses, and large restrictions on personal and press freedoms, and eventually its population decided to take to the streets to amend these issues. Since then, it has made slow and inconsistent progress towards what those in the west would call a full democracy.

Notable steps include the ‘Truth and Dignity Commission’ – a peace and reconciliation committee that was advocated for due to the incredible lack of human rights, abuse of power, nepotism, and corruption from the previous authoritarian regime. It was set up in 2014 by then President Moncef Marzouki to investigate transgressions by those responsible before the change in system. Most notable however is the Tunisian constitution created in 2014 which has been its most crowning achievement to date.

Both of these institutions have been condemned, either vocally or legislatively, by the current government. Presently, Tunisia is governed by a ruling coalition lead by President Beji Caïd Essebsi. President Essebsi was the first freely elected president by the Tunisian people in 2014, having been Prime Minister from 2011 to 2014 and a Foreign Minister in the previous regime from 1981 to 1986.

In September, the government passed legislation to bypass the Truth and Dignity Commission and grant amnesty to those who committed misdeeds in previous governments and violating legislative rules on the way, something many Tunisians are in uproar about. All of these moves have been seen by many as a severe warning sign of a possible collapse or relapse of Tunisian democracy. However, this is a very negative view on the matter, and one that should not be put forth so lightly.

Tunisia is a country new to democracy and cannot be expected to act a mature democracy does, just as a newborn baby cannot be required to do the math homework of its older sibling. It takes time, social change and effort for democracies to consolidate, and the good news is that Tunisia has all three. Time will come soon enough as it always does, and the effort is present.

The Tunisian people did not stop after the 2011 uprising – they continue to this day to be vocal, show their support and voice their discontent. As for social change, if the uprising itself wasn’t enough, a poll came out in March of 2016 that showed 86 percent of Tunisians thought that democracy was the best form of government – a number that was higher than the 70 percent it was after the uprising in 2011. Support for democracy has increased, and this is a positive sign for any emerging democracy and hopefully an indicator that the people of Tunisia will not stop until their country is fully democratic.

Some may point to the events recently and say that this is a sign of retrenchment, of backtracking. However, some may also point to say, many of Donald Trump’s policies in the United States such as cutting back Obamacare through executive order as retrenchments. All judgement on either policy aside, the point goes to show that democracy is at its best about disagreement.

Furthermore, Tunisia is a country split many ways. The President and his secular party want to take the country down a more ‘modernized’ path. Others however, wish to reinforce the country’s Islamic identity. Disagreement on the subject are inevitable, as they are in any nascent democracy, and it will take time for them to solidify their national identity. It is very important to note that President Beji Caïd Essebsi’s government rules as a coalition, with the other party being the Islamist party Ennahda. As many democratic countries know about coalitions, working together is a two-way street and to keep his power the President must take seriously the wishes of his coalition partner.

Tunisia has shown that it prefers its conflict to be verbal rather than physical, and has so far adhered to free, fair elections and the rule of law. These are two of the greatest assets to any democracy, and hopefully bar any attempted radical changes. The election of 2019 will surely show whether Tunisian peoples support the current government or desire change. The important part is that it will be the Tunisian voters deciding what they want to do with their country. As Joseph Wearing once penned: “The simple act of voting, of marking an ‘X’ on a ballot, repeated twelve million times in one day, can overthrow a government without a single shot being fired.”