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Tunisia’s democratic transition has some achievements but still faces obstacles

March 24, 2017 at 12:03 pm

People come together during the Tunisian Revolution that took place in January 2011 [Chris Belsten/Flickr]

Despite the intoxicating excitement of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it turned to winter very quickly in many countries. Today, only Tunisia seems to be a success story in terms of maintaining its democratic transition, even if there are many obstacles in the way, especially on the economic side of the process.

On 28 January, Washington-centred Freedom House released a report stating that Tunisia has become the first “free” Arab country for decades with regard to its improvement in political rights: “Tunisia has transitioned to a functioning democracy in which citizens enjoy unprecedented political rights and civil liberties.” However, the report also raises concerns about corruption, economic challenges and security threats that are the main obstacles for the transition.

How did Tunisia become a success story in political transition? What are the threats to it being finalised?

Image of the former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali [file photo]

Image of the former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali [file photo]

Tunisia suffered from a political crisis that led to violent clashes and social unrest after the assassination of two opposition leaders in 2013. Unlike other Arab countries, though, this confrontation did not lead to a civil war. When the secular Nida Tounes Party won the elections held in October 2014, society feared that Tunisia might go back to the ways of ousted dictator Ben Ali’s era due to some elements in the party who were linked to the former regime. However, just four months after the compromise and the coalition with Ennahda Movement, one of the chairmen from Nida Tounes stated that the main issue is not Ennahda-Nida confrontation; close relations may be established between the two parties in the future; and the main enemies of Tunisia are poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment. Ennahda is on the same path for cooperation. On 20-22 May last year, Ennahda ratified this vision for a change in the party’s orientation and separated its politics from its ideology. Party officials explained the situation as a need for a common target with political cooperation and that target is a successful democratic transition regardless of ideological conflicts. Despite the intra-party conflicts or divisions, an ideologically separated two-party solution has somehow worked in Tunisia so far.

Civil society and the transitional justice

Tunisian politics is now based on the instruments leading the country to choosing compromise over conflict. However, Tunisian success is not only limited to the political compromise. In 2013, the conflict was halted by the launch of the National Dialogue and the signing of the Social Pact between the Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Trade, Industry and Handicrafts Union (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LADH) and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. The National Dialogue works together with the government, opposition parties and other civil society organisations for the peaceful transformation in the country; it led to the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Civil society played a significant role in drafting the Tunisian constitution which is a crucial part in the democratic transition of the country. Over 300 civil society organisations and 320 university representatives participated and provided input to the new constitution which has been built with a broad consensus.

The transition period cannot be truly successful, though, if it is only limited to the political aspect, ignoring transitional justice mechanisms, even if civil society is part of it. Recognising this, Tunisia has established the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), which is an independent and publicly-financed state body activated after the adoption of the Law on Transitional Justice by parliament in 2013. The TDC, with a victim-centred approach, investigates and submits details of state crimes such as human rights abuses, discrimination and corruption in the period before the revolution going back as far as the rule of Habib Bourgiba. In November, the TDC held public hearings, which were broadcast on national television and radio, and gave the victims of the former regimes a chance to share their stories. For a peaceful transition, the atrocities are being investigated through the restoration of honour to its victims.

Security and economy: the nightmare of Tunisia’s democratic transition

Despite all of these improvements during the transition period, it is not difficult to see the people’s dissatisfaction with the Tunisian revolution. In January, the country marked its anniversary with many protests against high prices, corruption and unemployment instead of celebrations. Security issues and economic problems are the main drivers behind this discontent. The brutal attacks in two tourist destinations, Bardo Museum and Sousse, in 2014 led to a massive decline in tourism, which constitutes one of the most important revenue streams for the state. Not only tourists, but also investors have deserted Tunisia for other countries in the region, mainly Morocco. More than 500 foreign companies have left Tunisia since the revolution leading to a rise in unemployment, especially among the youth. Another important revenue and export resource for the country, phosphate production, has also fallen dramatically since 2011.

It is obvious that the economic reforms in the country have lagged behind the political reforms. Corruption is still a huge problem; the evidence is not only anecdotal but also research-based. In World Bank figures, corruption costs the Tunisian economy two per cent of its GDP per year, which means around $1 billion. Moreover, while unemployment spreads to all segments of Tunisian society, the wage bill rose to around 14 per cent of GDP, which is one of the highest in the world and the funds are mainly invested to generate short-term job opportunities. The state is now paying salaries of 800,000 public sector employees, which accounts for 38 per cent of the budget. Finance Minister Lamia Zbirni said in January that the government aims to cut this before 2020 with a voluntary layoff programme for state employees through early retirement.

Interdependency between security and economic well-being

Security problems have usually been a dilemma for the democratisation process due to the possibility of instability and public disorder. There is some interdependency between the security issue and economic problems. In an analysis by the Institute of Peace and Economy in 2015, higher industrial economic growth is associated with lower levels of international and domestic terrorist violence. Unemployment is leading Tunisian youth to fall into the grip of terrorist groups. Tunisians fighting overseas return to the country and organise attacks that lead to instability and an economic crisis which results in an increase in the number of recruits for such groups. There are more Tunisians fighting with Daesh than any other nationality. To break this cycle, the government is making a huge effort to cope with the returning fighters, with around 20 per cent of the public budget devoted to security in 2016, twice as much as in 2011 when the former leader fled the country.

To find a solution to its economic woes, Tunisia held an investment conference last November attended by more than 1,500 economic partners from around the world in order to generate support and job opportunities for Tunisians. The conference garnered $14 billion in aid and direct investment. It was recognised that the government is aware of the economic demands of the revolution. As such, it is important for the younger generation to believe in economic revival and understand that they did not make the revolution for nothing. As the suicide rate rises in Tunisia, especially among the highly educated youth, this new opportunity is intended not only to stop their marginalisation within society, but also to save the future of the country.

“Where is the revolution?” asked one taxi driver on the anniversary of the revolution this year. “Can we talk about the revolution with these high prices, unemployment and corruption? Thank Allah, Ben Ali has gone, thank Allah we have freedom, but I should say the economy was better in Ben Ali’s time and we were feeling much more secure.” Despite the current attempts to reinvigorate the economy, many Tunisians are now saying that the economic decline is the price to be paid for the revolution, which appears as a lack of stability. A public survey of 3,500 young people across 16 countries in the MENA region last year determined that, “Bringing stability is a greater priority than promoting democracy.”

It is obvious that the democratisation process is going to take time; this is natural, and the way ahead will be full of ups and downs. Compared to other Arab countries — Libya, Syria and Yemen, for example — Tunisia’s revolution is definitely a success story. However, it is almost at an end, at least in the eyes of the people, if the economic demands of the revolution are not met and the transition is limited solely to the political aspect.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.