Tunisia: A Prospective Democracy in the Post Arab Spring Era

On Sept. 15, 2019, Tunisia held its second democratic election since the Arab Spring revolution of 2011. The revolution began after a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of state officials and the oppressive regime. Bouzizi became a martyr in the Arab world — shortly after his demonstration of discontent with the government and its undemocratic principles, a wave of protests with similar motivations swept the region. Despite the efforts of citizens across the Middle East, most of the pro-democracy protests associated with the Arab Spring resulted in little or no change. Tunisia is one of the only Arab Spring countries that have ousted oppressive leaders and taken steps towards democracy. Unfortunately, the country’s path to democracy has not come without its fair share of roadblocks and the majority of examples of attempts at democracy in the region indicate that Tunisia has a difficult battle ahead if it hopes to achieve its democratic goals. 

Evaluating the outcomes of attempts at democracy in neighboring states might give some insight in predicting what lies ahead for Tunisia, since it isn’t the first Middle Eastern state to try its hand at democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring. For instance, Egypt’s Tahrir Square was a major symbol of the Arab Spring movement, transforming a central traffic circle in the country’s capital city into a campsite for passionate activists of all ages. Organized through social media and word-of-mouth, millions of protestors of varying backgrounds showed up, camped out and eventually toppled an authoritarian regime that had been in power for nearly 30 years. Having ousted the oppressive military leader, Hosni Mubarak, the citizens of Egypt voted for Mohamed Morsi from the Freedom and Justice party in the country’s first democratic election in June 2012. However, not long after his election, Morsi, a former member the Muslim Brotherhood, proved to be just as autocratic as his predecessor. Morisi unjustly detained and tortured those who opposed his leadership. This, naturally, led to another round of protests, casting Egypt into yet another period of political turmoil.

Again, Egyptians were successful in rising up and dethroning the autocrat of the moment, and in the following years, citizens turned to the military as a source of legitimate and potentially-democratic leaders. This brought Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, to power in May 2014. A former officer in the Egyptian military, Al-Sisi is known for using excessive force and suppressing the media to maintain power, tactics that helped him quell dissent and secure the presidency. In 2018, Al-Sisi was reelected after a less-than-democratic process which lacked competition and silenced attempts at dissent.

Unfortunately, Egypt serves as the post-Arab Spring norm, not the exception. As evidenced by the defeat of democratic attempts in Egypt as well as the broader failure of the Arab Spring — exemplified in countries like Syria and Bahrain where the authoritarian regimes have completely resisted calls for change and increased use of force in retaliation— it seems that the movement for democracy, overall, has fallen short in the follow through. If Tunisia does not remain diligent in its democratization process, they will likely experience this same democratic backsliding

This failure to seal the deal and make the necessary changes to move forward in democratic processes is unfortunate, but not surprising. It is difficult to implement an entirely new system of governance without the proper framework for maintenance. Such a framework should include some combination of a motivated middle class, decentralized power and protection of civil liberties, as these qualities create a safety net for potential backsliding. For example, Eastern European countries from the former Soviet Bloc were successful post-communism democratic transitions due to the aforementioned structures, resulting in durable democratic societies. Defining features of the democratization process in these countries included notable civil liberties for citizens and effective electoral cycles that resulted in government turnover. The post-Arab Spring transition in most Middle Eastern countries lacked these qualities. In Egypt, transitions of power between administrations were not peaceful and led to government suppression of public protests. Libya and Yemen both failed to facilitate peaceful power transitions and continue infringing upon the civil liberties of their citizens. Tunisia is the only Arab Spring country that has held legitimate elections resulting in a peaceful transition of power and continues expanding civil liberties such as freedom of individual expression and religious practice. 

In the years immediately following the Arab Spring, Tunisia experienced a severe economic downturn that led to inflation and a major increase in debt. This situation has contributed to an unfortunate cycle: as the economy struggles, citizens’ discontent pours into the streets, tourists view the country as unsafe, leading to less tourism and business investment, which contributes to a lower GDP and so on. Economic development, while far from the end-all be-all to democracy, is an important indicator in how well a democratic system might persist. This presents a notable problem for a newly democratic state like Tunisia. The economic downturn, coupled with the continued restriction of civil liberties such as the jailing of individuals for speaking out against the government contributed to further discontent amongst citizens. Much of the unsavory action on behalf of the government was attributed to the country’s establishment leaders, the people who ruled in the past and were familiar to Tunisians. The Arab Spring was a way to voice grievances, but it means nothing without concrete change. Tunisians were keenly aware of this, and for that reason there was — and continues to be — a popular anti-establishment movement in the country. The movement personifies Tunisan desire and motivation to break away from the past and move towards a truly democratic future.  

The results of Tunisia’s most recent presidential election indicate the importance Tunisians place on pushing forward a democratic agenda, which can perhaps be interpreted as a positive sign for their democratic future. The influence of this push for Tunisian democracy is particularly apparent in Tunisia’s October 2019 presidential election. Candidates from opposing parties faced-off in a competition that resulted in a runoff featuring two contenders: Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui. Saied, who ran on a platform promising to fight corruption and promoting a revolutionary spirit, was announced the ultimate victor, winning about 70% of the vote share. Saied’s promises appealed to the youth of Tunisia, as demonstrated by the 90% of 18-25 year olds who voted for him. This is also the age group that bore witness to and participated in Arab Spring protests during the height of the movement. This demographic has also suffered significantly from the economic hardships of the post-Arab Spring era. Perhaps their support for Saied demonstrates a hope that he can fulfill a desire for democracy and prosperity. The electoral process that brought Saied to power also serves as a promising indication that even after the youth becomes disillusioned by its inspiring political outsider, the increasingly democratic institutions in Tunisia will facilitate another peaceful transition of power.  

While the prospects of post-Arab Spring democracy seem slim, not all hope is lost. Although still in a very fragile state, Tunisia presents an interesting case of young democracy in the region. With their recent presidential as well as parliamentary elections that appear to have been competitive, one might hope to see a demonstration effect in the future. Perhaps Tunisia could be the example of a legitimate and functioning democracy that the Middle East needs.