By Celine Hedin
In the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, on December 10th, 2010, an unlikely actor ignited the spark that would completely transform the country. That day, street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest to having his livelihood confiscated and against the humiliation and harassment he had received from municipal officials. This action led to Bouazizi’s death, but unbeknownst to him it also resulted in governmental protests all over Tunisia – which would later also inspire nearby regions to follow in its footsteps. A pro-democracy movement was born.
People rose up against their governments and the corruption and oppression they had been enduring for so long. The actions were taken in hope of better living standards, aiming to create freer and more democratic societies. Citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and many other Middle Eastern countries, all stood up against their dictators. These events of 2010-2011, now better known under the name of the Arab Spring, shook the Middle East and left no corner of the world unaffected.
While most of the promises of a democratic Middle East have long since withered, Tunisia stands out as the sole country that has successfully transitioned into a democracy. A victory in itself many would say, but Tunisia still faces plenty of challenges and questions left to be answered. Eight years have gone by since the revolution – what has been happening in the country since then?
After president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s escape to Saudi Arabia, which marked the end of the autocratic system, Tunisia quickly underwent several major political reforms. In 2014, a new constitution was taken into practice which has been dubbed progressive even by Western standards. Important aspects of the constitution are the allowance for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the protection of civil rights. Women’s rights, equality and the construction of its democratic institutions are also issues Tunisia is hoping to address with the new constitution.
Indeed, the freedom the Tunisians were yelling for in the beginning of the revolution has in many ways been granted – Tunisia is now ranking as “free” in the Freedom House’s report “Freedom in the world 2019” with a rating of 69/100. However, changes take time and democratization might not have been the “quick-fix” of all the country’s problems that the people were anticipating.
In fact, many of the issues that sparked the revolution in the first place are still present today. Some of them have gotten even worse than they were eight years ago. The country is currently struggling economically with high inflation rates, unemployment (especially youth unemployment) and an overall stagnant economy. International tourism, as the third largest sector of the Tunisian economy, took a big hit as a consequence of the revolution and Tunisia’s economy is worse off today than it was prior to 2011. Moreover, corruption is still a big problem and people have grown more and more distrustful of the new political system’s ability to solve these issues – leading to anger and discontent among the citizens.
These developments can be seen in the decreasing faith in the government and in a shift of attitude towards democracy. According to Afrobarometer, 70% of Tunisians agreed that democracy was preferable to other forms of government in 2013 but as of 2018 the numbers dropped to 46%. A return to an authoritarian rule is also not implausible as 47% of Tunisians agreed with military rule being preferable.
Is Tunisia’s newfound democracy in dire danger? Considering how the Arab Spring has played out in the neighboring countries it is truly remarkable that Tunisia has been able to emerge as a democracy at all. In his analysis “Tunisian democracy at a crossroads”, Sharan Grewal argues that the answers to Tunisia’s success lie in four structural factors that have proven advantageous for the transition. With the country consisting of a relatively homogenous population, 98% being Sunni-Muslims, Tunisia has a politically weak military, an already strong civil society and a relative balance of power between secularists and Islamists.
2019 will be an important year in terms of staking out the future path of Tunisia’s democracy and its legitimacy. Presidential and parliamentary elections are taking place in October and November and worries about how the voting participation will turn out are strongly present. The infighting between parties of the previous ruling coalition – secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahada – and their inability to improve the bad economy has left people with feelings of political apathy. There is also a particular reluctance to vote among the younger generations which has been interpreted as a penalization of the political class for not caring about the demands of the people. In May 2018, only 33% of Tunisians voted in the municipal elections and there are indicators that participation will be similarly low in the upcoming elections given the current situation.
The survival or demise of Tunisia’s democracy will most likely play a significant role in future developments of the Middle Eastern region. If it manages to reach a consolidation, and if the country is able to deal with its economical troubles, perhaps it will further become an important force establishing and spreading democratic values in the Arab world.
Illustration: Sedef Hammarén Catir