When a twenty-six-year old Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself on fire in front of a government building after being slapped by a police officer for not having his cart authorised by the authorities, nobody could have expected that nationwide protests would follow his desperate act. Nor could anyone have expected the result of those protests and the regional impact they had.
When the Arab Spring – or the Arab Winter, as many realists have put it – swept throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, one of the world’s last remaining bastions of direct authoritarian rule and dictatorship was shaken to its core. Some of those countries toppled their long-term rulers – Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – while others grasped the reins of power even more firmly, the Gulf Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular. Still others were left in a state of limbo and civil war, Syria and Yemen among them.
Whatever the individual fate of each country, they were changed forever by a small country at the northern tip of the Maghreb region. Eight years after the toppling of Ben Ali, Tunisia is a blossoming democracy which, despite its flaws and ongoing struggles, is working to rid itself of its authoritarian past and build a new future.
Reasons for revolt
Mariem Masmoudi, a member of the constitution-building team of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), told MEMO of her memories of Tunisia which she visited with her family in the years prior to the revolution while it was tarnished with suffocating suppression. Speaking from her office in the country, she told me that, compared with the US where she was raised, “Tunisia was a totally different place; we were raised very political and we had to leave all that aside and almost become entirely different people… It was a very apolitical place, or so it seemed. There was a lot going on under the surface that was not given air to breathe.”
Despite the political repression, Masmoudi admitted that it would not have had much of an impact as long as the people had what they most craved for: comfort and economic stability. However, even that was not provided by the regime, making the economy the primary cause of the uprising: “It was an extremely closed economic society; there were no international franchises and the ruling family wanted a cut of every major business for a certain profit margin. They would require a cut, so these international businesses refused, with the exception of the French companies, which did not mind paying bribes. So economically it was difficult for people.”
It was also difficult to start businesses. “Even if you were able to start a small business and become successful over the years, you were definitely going to run into trouble, which they did. Many peoples’ livelihoods were stolen from them, many peoples’ lands were stolen from them, including my grandfather’s… So I would say the number one reason was economic; people were struggling to find a way to live, but that spiralled into other things once the winds of change started to pick up.”
The dictator’s myth
Much of the narrative surrounding the post-Arab Spring process and Tunisia’s relative success compared to the other Arab states references the country’s apparently vibrant civil society prior to 2011, including labour unions, NGOs and rights organisations. This, the literature puts forward, is the reason why Tunisia was able to recover so rapidly from the toppling of the regime and the change in power structures, instead of descending into military brutality against the civilian population as in Syria; civil war with rival governments as in Libya; and the complete undermining of democracy as in Egypt.
According to Masmoudi, however, this narrative was largely a myth created by Ben Ali during his rule in order to present the country as one living by democratic principles and possessing an active civil society. “The old regime was interested in creating a certain narrative about itself,” she explained, “so the narrative about Tunisia was that it was a modern, progressive, liberal, even a democratic society. This was just completely false. It was a very carefully crafted and very delicate reality that the old regime created and promoted abroad.”
There were some traces of a fledgling civil society, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women as well as the oldest labour and workers’ union in the Arab world — the Tunisian General Labour Union — which is “arguably the most powerful institution in the country, maybe even more powerful than the state.” They were of a liberal and anti-religious leaning, however, and despite their anti-regime advocacy “they still served a purpose for the regime, so they were puppets.”
Furthermore, the vast majority of the organisations were created in 2011 or the years following the revolution, and the entire concept of joining an organisation with a common political goal, participating in campaigns and attending events is completely new to the vast majority of Tunisians, in Masmoudi’s opinion.
The most prominent reason for Tunisia’s post-revolution success is its homogeneity. “We’re almost 100 per cent Maliki Sunni Muslim, so that sort of precludes a lot of potential sources of conflicts,” she pointed out. “We also don’t have huge ethnic minorities; we’re all sort of this general mix. There aren’t these huge constituencies of minorities which we see in other countries that are big enough to be spoilers. Another thing is our relatively high literacy rate; we’re generally an educated population, and many people have university degrees or at least high school degrees.”
The most recent incident displaying the miracle of democratic development in Tunisia is that of the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in late July, which was a pivotal moment for the nation. At a time when the President’s rule ended and there was a political void, there were no protests or uprisings. “It could have been a cause of violence and the vacuum could have very easily been exploited, but in a matter of a couple of hours we went through the succession process and it was almost automatic.” Masmoudi is really proud of how it all went smoothly. “Look at how people carried themselves, how well it was organised and how, well, normal and ordinary it all was. In other places it might not have been like that. That was definitely a source of pride.”
The Arab democratic beacon
Following the emergence of a stable form of democratic governance in Tunisia, the real challenge will be to ensure that the system is maintained while being cautious about the obstacles which could impede progress. This depends a lot on the role that Masmoudi herself plays in the process: building and implementing the new constitution that the people will live by. Much of the constitution, she noted, contains ambiguous terminology which creates inconsistencies and even further challenges. “Vague parts of the constitution might sound nice, but when practiced they will be difficult to define and can themselves, ironically, become a cause of conflict.”
One thing that the constitution does do well, though, is to enshrine individual and group rights and liberties. “One that I work on a lot comes in article 49 of the constitution which is the limitations clause, which says that the state can limit individual rights, but there are limits to the state’s limitation.” For example, the right of citizens to protest, which the government must accept, while simultaneously having the power to limit the time or location of the protest due to public safety considerations.
As for the potential obstacles to Tunisia’s democratic future, there are two which could pose a real threat to the progress made so far: the first — “which could cause serious challenges to stability” — is not terrorism, it’s the economy. While the state has developed its security apparatus and responded appropriately to terrorist attacks in recent years, the economy was what triggered the revolution and its stability is vital for the prevention of further public discontent.
The second major obstacle is the divide in the country between the religious and secular factions, which the old regime exploited to its benefit. The level of repression in Ben Ali’s Tunisia was like Turkey under Ataturk, reaching mosque pulpits and women’s hair. Masmoudi recalls the time when for women to wear the hijab and men to grow a beard was illegal; her mother and aunt, for example, were arrested and sent to prison for wearing hijab. “Mosques were closed except for a ten minute window at prayer time, and sometimes not even that, because they wanted to prevent people from gathering and meeting and talking.”
Tunisia was a country where people were followed and arrested for going to the morning prayer too often, so the population lives with the memory of religious repression, and this remains in the political worldview of the secularists. This, according to Masmoudi, is something that Tunisian society is dealing with. “We are all unlearning the propaganda and messages that we heard for three decades or longer.” If post-revolution Tunisia is indeed the democratic leader of the Arab world, such “unlearning” is something that other countries must go through.