Still springtime in Tunisia

06 November 2014

Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition proves democracy can follow revolution

On the night of 27 October, there was music and dancing in the streets of Tunis as the winners and losers celebrated the results of Tunisia’s first constitutionally-backed democratic parliamentary elections.

Earlier that day, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the moderate Islamist party that had swept to power in the 2011 elections, phoned his secular rival, Beji Caid Essebsi, head of Nidaa Tounes, to congratulate him on his victory.

While the electoral loss was a blow to Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, Tunisian politicians from both sides of the country’s Islamist-secular divide had good reason to celebrate.

High turnout (estimated at 69 per cent), peaceful participation and a system backed by a properly debated constitution have seen Tunisia’s parliamentary election hailed as the first fully democratic political transition in the modern history of the Arab world and an event that could prove key to the region’s future.

Democratic beacon

“The importance of the election to the region is at least as important, if not more important, than for the country itself,” says William Lawrence, director of Middle East and North Africa (Mena) programmes at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID). “The elections play a role as a symbol and as proof that democracy in the Arab world isn’t doomed.”

Tunisia’s success comes at a time when the argument for more democracy in the region looks especially weak. The post-revolutionary transitions in the countries that rose up after Tunisia have been far from smooth.

When Ben Ali was removed, it was like slicing the top off a cake: the top was gone, the rest stayed in place

Richard Cochrane, IHS Economics & Country Risk

In Libya, its June parliamentary elections were billed as a last chance to avoid anarchy, but turnout was low, with only 630,000 people casting a ballot, or about 18 per cent of those eligible to vote. The result has left Libya with a weak, elected parliament based in the small eastern city of Tobruk, while a rival Islamist parliament, supported by a powerful militia coalition, holds sway in the capital. Three years after the brutal killing of Muammar Gaddafi, the prospects for a return to peace and order look as remote as ever.

Egypt saw its first democratically elected leader ousted in a military coup within a year of taking office. Former chief of the armed forces Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was elected president in May, with an impressive 96.1 per cent victory, but observers were critical, saying the army’s crackdown on dissent and opposition groups made a fair vote impossible.

Parliamentary elections were set to follow within six months, but a date has yet to be announced and democracy watchdogs are concerned that if an election is held it will not be free or fair.

Yemen, meanwhile, has been teetering on the brink of civil war ever since its 2011 uprising. The state of affairs in Syria is even worse. There is no end in sight for its bloody war, which has so far claimed 160,000 lives and displaced millions more, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Key reasons why Tunisia’s democratic transition has been so much more successful include factors such as cultural heritage, the role of the military, the country’s location on the doorstep of Europe and a fair amount of luck. Under the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia already had strong institutions as well as a vibrant civil society, and the press was permitted to operate to a limited extent.

Quick transition

“When Ben Ali was removed, it was like slicing the top off a cake: the top was gone, but the rest stayed in place. This allowed for a quick transition,” says Richard Cochrane, a Mena country risk analyst at US consultancy IHS Economics & Country Risk.

Well-established civil society groups including the 700,000-strong labour union, the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), played an important role keeping the political transition on track during both the early days of the revolution and the political crisis of 2013, endeavours that saw it nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.

The nature of the military’s involvement in Tunisia’s uprising also helped to define the path the revolution took. On 13 January 2011, the head of the army, General Rachid Ammar, refused to open fire on protesters and withdrew troops from positions defending Tunis, a key factor that led to Ben Ali fleeing the country.

Ammar was hailed as a national saviour in the press, but unlike Egypt’s generals, he refused to take on political power, instead endorsing the need for democratic elections contested by civilian candidates.

“The army played a radically different role compared with in Egypt,” says Maha Yaya, a senior associate at the Lebanon-based think-tank Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Separation between the army and state is much stronger. They maintained the peace but did not seek power.”

Population makeup

Other factors cited by analysts include the country’s religious homogeneity, its lack of tribalism and its high standards of education. Tunisia ranked second in the Mena region on the Human Development Index education rankings in 2007, beating Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“Since independence [in 1956], there has been a lot of effort invested in education,” says Amna Guellali, a Tunisia researcher for US-headquartered Human Rights Watch. “This has led to the creation of a large, well-educated middle class and makes Tunisia better equipped to adopt the democratic system, which requires informed voters.”

The fact that Europe is Tunisia’s main trading partner (accounting for more than 60 per cent of total trade) has also played to its advantage. It has benefited from institutional support from various European nations keen to help the country on its journey to democracy. Dozens of advisers have been working closely with Tunisian politicians over the four years leading up to the most recent vote.

“Germany was closely involved in advising parties during the constitution negotiations. It made economic promises and helped on the counter terrorism side of things,” says CSID’s Lawrence. CSID itself conducted 82 workshops with Tunisia’s political leaders in the run-up to the approval of the constitution.

Consensus culture

Tunisia-watchers also cite a culture of consensus as a key factor in the country’s success. Since the 2011 uprising, its politicians have repeatedly shown a willingness to make political sacrifices for stability and have chosen compromise over disruptive political standoffs at crucial stages in the democratisation project. When they have needed to hand over power, they have willingly done so.

“Tunisia is a small country,” says Guellali. “It has nothing: no big military, no natural resources. This means the political elite historically have had to rely on dialogue.”

Tunisia’s journey has given hope to those who want to build pluralistic democratic systems in other countries across the Mena region, but the message of hope could easily turn to despair if the country stumbles.

The challenges it faces remain significant. Nidaa Tounes’ win in the elections was not big enough to give the party an outright majority in the 217-seat parliament and analysts warn that the coalition government (expected to be formed after the presidential poll on 24 November in which the octogenarian Essebsi is considered the favourite to win) is likely to be fragile.

“Whichever way Nidaa Tounes turns, there is going to be ideological differences, either on economic or religious grounds, and this could lead to future problems,” says Cochrane. “Compounding the problem, Nidaa Tounes itself is far from a cohesive party.”

The party was founded by Essebsi in 2012 and comprises mainly leftists and remnants connected to Ben Ali’s disbanded Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, all of which are united in opposition to Ghannouchi’s Islamist, Ennahda party.

Enormous challenges

However the coalition is constructed, it will face enormous social and economic challenges. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high in Tunisia and public debt has ballooned since the revolution.

At the same time, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) and its destructive brand of militant Islam is likely to lead to an escalating threat of terror attacks in the country. According to the interim government, some 2,400 Tunisians have travelled to join Isis, more than any other country.

On top of this, Ansar al-Sharia, Tunisia’s homegrown jihadist group, has pledged allegiance to Isis and the country is embroiled in an ongoing struggle to defeat militants based in the Chaambi mountains.

The successful parliamentary election has sent a powerful message to investors and is likely to boost confidence in the country and help revive its battered economy. But when the celebrations finish and the election drama subsides, Tunisia’s new government will be left facing a challenge of unenviable complexity.

If officials rise to the occasion and successfully implement measures that increase economic growth, reduce unemployment and prevent political violence while protecting civil liberties, the benefits could be felt far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

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