The Tunisian Exception: Political Tensions Threaten Post-Revolution Stability in Arab Spring’s Only Success Story

Nov. 26, 2013, 12:11 p.m.

Of the 18 Arab countries that experienced popular uprisings in 2011, only four resulted in regime change (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen). Of those four, only two are now classified as electoral democracies (Tunisia and Libya), and of those two only one has achieved stability: Tunisia. Why has Tunisia seen success where so many others failed? Will this trend continue or will the country slide back into instability?

Speaking at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Tunisian professor Dr. Wassim DAGHRIR gave a first-hand account of the Tunisian Revolution and provided insight into how local Tunisians view their country’s current political tensions. Dr. DAGHRIR explained that Tunisia has always viewed itself as an exception. Due to its culturally diverse history and its progressive independence leader, Tunisia has a long-established tradition of tolerance and modernity. While the country’s first President, Habib BOURGUIBA, exercised authoritarian control over the political sphere, he also emphasized education and women’s rights to an extent unprecedented in the region. Economic reforms in the 1980s led to years of a relatively healthy economy, establishing a large middle class and enabling it to avoid the class warfare present in more unequal societies. Lastly, as a relatively homogenous society both ethnically and religiously, Tunisia has been able to avoid the sectarian divides that have hindered other countries in the region.

These advantages were evident during the Tunisian Revolution in early 2011. The month-long period of demonstrations was largely peaceful and demonstrators were more or less unified in their demands for an end to authoritarian rule, endemic corruption, and economic mismanagement. Even without a guiding leader, party, or ideology, Tunisians were able to speak of a coherent vision for a more democratic and just future. Educated youth with access to the internet were able to utilize social media, helping the movement to stay organized and coordinated.

Despite this early unity, Tunisia has since experienced a growing political divide between secularists and Islamists. After the revolution, the Islamist movement Ennahda capitalized on the fragmentation of secular parties and won a plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. While Ennahda is a relatively moderate party by Islamist standards, Dr. DAGHRIR explained that secularists, a large majority in Tunisia, see it as a threat to the revolution and are determined to prevent it from derailing the process of democratization. Ennahda’s inability to restart economic growth or control growing jihadist elements has further galvanized the opposition against it. After two secular leaders were assassinated by hardline Islamist groups earlier this year, Tunisians took to the streets accusing Ennahda of corruption and duplicity and demanding that the party step down from power. In response, a national dialogue was established and a deal struck whereby Ennahda will yield its power to a neutral caretaker government, which will govern until fresh elections are held. However, the talks have now stalled over who to appoint as interim Prime Minister and Tunisia’s political future remains uncertain.

As divisive post-revolution politics threaten to tear apart the unity and solidarity exhibited by the Tunisian protestors three years ago, Tunisia’s democratization project has slowed to a standstill. With levels of foreign investment falling, suicide bombings by Islamist extremists on the rise, and the political elite paralyzed by infighting and polarized between Islamists and old regime figures, Tunisia’s future as an Arab Spring success story is now in question. In order to achieve real stability and advance democracy in Tunisia, the government will have to put its ideological differences and political maneuvering aside and focus on the country’s long-term challenges: preventing a deterioration of law and order, combating corruption and increasing the efficiency of government, and addressing the social inequality and lack of economic opportunities that were a major impetus for many of the early demonstrators. Only then will Tunisians see their revolution as complete, and only then will it be safe to call the democratic transition a success.


(Image Credit: popularresistance.org)

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