Tunisia’s new democracy has form but no depth
No one could have predicted that a single desperate act by an unknown Tunisian street trader would resonate with millions across the Arab world exhausted by decades of illiberalism and buried in the cynical decadence of authoritarians.
Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation was not the first time young Tunisians turned to the tragic as a form of protest against woeful circumstances and meager existences, nor will it be the last. However, 10 years later, the same flames that have engulfed these young Tunisian martyrs, rage on, incinerating what little progress was made in the wake of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s removal.
Calls for “work and dignity” are now drowned out by derisive and dismissive laughter, sparked by regret at having come so far only to achieve so little. In fact, Tunisians, like Libyan, Syrians and others, have come to the startling realization that any progress achieved since 2011 is measurable by what they have lost rather than gained.
At one point, myths and lavish praise turned Tunisia into a blind spot of unbridled optimism, launchpad for the unstoppable rise of the Arab world's pro-democracy movements. A single act of fatal defiance sparked revolutionary fervor in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and the world could be forgiven for taking a leap of faith on the Arab Spring. However, the conflict and misery that followed made it abundantly clear that just removing a despot from power was not enough.
Measuring the success of political transitions requires metrics other than simply avoiding internal turmoil or paving the path for another authoritarian. Tunisia may have managed to escape the fate of similar protest movements elsewhere in the region but achieving a democracy of form but no depth has only doomed the country to more chaos.
What Tunisia has done, between January 2011 and now, is simply survive an endless stream of woe, with barely any room to consolidate gains and make its nascent democracy more resilient.
A prolonged economic slump, worsened now by the pandemic, continues to suffocate efforts toward much-needed reforms and investments — particularly in the southern half, where 3 out of 5 are out of work. Repeated clashes between civilians and security forces cripple economic activity, while Ben Ali-era corruption still runs rampant in some parts of the country.
Overall, unemployment remains a pervasive issue, which mostly affects youths and young adults who make up about 85 percent of the jobless. With COVID-19 expected to shrink Tunisia's economy by 7 percent and double the budget deficit this year, it is unsurprising to come across whispers, mostly from older Tunisians, of nostalgia for the “stability” of the Ben Ali days.
It is not all bad news.
Tunisians do have “new” freedom to freely criticize political leadership, and honest, peaceful elections allow them to choose who governs them. Political processes have continued to function despite the wide ideological rifts between secular politicians and their religion-inspired counterparts. Even the untimely death of President Beji Caid Essebsi last year was followed by an orderly transition, and new elections led to the ascendancy of the political independent, Kais Saied, to the presidency.
Tunisia may have managed to escape the fate of similar protest movements elsewhere in the region but achieving a democracy of form but no depth has only doomed the country to more chaos.
These gains are not without costs, however.
Aside from the suffocating economic turmoil, political assassinations and terrorism remain an ever-present threat. Civilians and security personnel in border regions with Algeria grapple with insurgency groups that claim to be affiliated with Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The army may have been a force of stability in a decade of volatility but the continued presence of insurgents and off-shoots of dangerous terrorist groups does not instill confidence in their safeguarding of Tunisia's safety.
Elsewhere, disillusioned and miserable youths increasingly fall prey to radicalizing messaging by jihadist groups while others have succumbed to drugs or headed for Europe-bound boats — seeking to escape an ailing democracy that no longer gives them a say over what shapes their lives.
Additionally, what is making Tunisians irate is that national dialogue is preoccupied with out-of-touch deliberations rather than what protesters demanded 10 years ago. Indeed, active political discourse and engagement is crucial. However, debates on whether women should have access to inheritance or if Tunisia should try for a Lebanese-style confessional democracy, reserving the presidency for Muslims, are irrelevant to those still waiting on the delivery of the revolution’s promises of work and dignity.
A series of short-lived, ineffective governments coupled with bitter disagreements in a fragmented and mostly discredited National Assembly have stalled work on much-needed political and economic reforms. It is unlikely the calls to dissolve the parliament will be heeded by the constitutionalist president, however. Even if that did happen, it is not just the lack of consensus in parliament that is hampering reform progress — it is the double-edged sword of democracy.
Tunisian politicians object to making decisions painful to the electorate, such as austerity, currency flotation or public sector rationalization, for fear of losses at the polls. Thus, as long as the endless debates continue and occasional physical fights break out in parliament, the political elite can sit idly by, do nothing and let stagnation exhaust the citizenry.
This is not unique to Tunisia, as advanced democracies in the West have this same issue. Incidentally, in these deplorable circumstances, others see opportunity — like Abir Moussi, a lawyer and MP who has turned to populism built on nostalgia for the old and failed, rather than for the new.
Already, the failure to rise to the occasion and build on foundations laid by protesters or the pillars of consensus-driven dialogue engineered by civil society has driven voter turnout to dismal lows. Most Tunisians have simply tuned out, no longer interested in even expressing the lowest expectations of their bickering representatives.
A cancer has infected Tunisia's quest for democracy and it is not because of the usual dismissives used in Western media, such as the incompatibility of Arab democracy with political Islam or the fixation Arab world politics have with authoritarianism. Instead, Tunisians are coming to grips with a reality not lost in other capitals around the world — that democracy often works only for an exclusive few, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in the widening gap between the electorate and the elected.
Should the future remain this bleak, Tunisians will remain trapped by the same forces their protests sought to dispel — weighed down by repeated failures to scale an impenetrable wall.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell