On December 18th, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted upon him by government officials. In that moment, the Arab Spring had begun. The Arab Spring was a series of antigovernmental protests and uprisings that spread across the entire Arab world with the goal of removing oppressive authoritarian regimes. Tunisia, where the rebellion began, has the distinction of being the first state to transition to democracy; it is also the sole remaining one.
The road to democracy is rough and bumpy. Tunisia’s path even more so, with the added pressure to live up to the enormous expectations. In January 2011, longtime President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country as the rebellion coalesced behind a democratic transition, seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia. After a two year-long power struggle between the Islamists, who believed Islam should act as a guide for political, social, and personal life, and the Secularists. The new Tunisian Parliament approves a new constitution that promotes personal liberties, equal rights for minorities, and a split of political power between the offices of the President and Prime Minister. Many hailed it as one of the most liberal for an Arab state. Two presidential elections held in 2014 and 2019 have resulted in peaceful transfers of power. Across Presidential and Parliamentary elections, turnout and participation rates were high. It appeared from the outside that Tunisia had consolidated its new democracy. The truth is that Tunisian democracy is fragile and is it in slow decline.
The Arab Spring, which brought about Tunisian democracy had many complex causes, but chief among them were government corruption and economic decline. The Tunisian Revolution had the world’s attention. However, the Tunisian people simply wanted a quick fix to their problems. The political system only began to show symptoms of democratic decline in 2018 and 2019 with lower turnout in elections and social unrest in the streets. The first round of its democratic election was held in 2014, and both Presidential and Parliamentary elections garnered over 60 percent turnout. It was not the blowout often seen in elections masked as democratic in authoritarian states; President Beji Caid Essebsi won with 55 percent of the vote. Fast forward to 2019, when current President Kais Saied, a political outsider, won with over 70 percent of the vote in an election with less than 50 percent turnout. Tunisians were disheartened between 2014 and 2019 with the progress made by democracy. According to Ahmed Driss, the director of the Centre des Etudes Mediterraneennes et Internationales, a Tunis-based research institute that focuses on democratization, “people are angry that this democratic process has not yet led to their expectations of economic advancement and wellbeing.” The 2019 election was a resounding rejection of the Tunisian political elite in which voters chose from a constitutional lawyer who had never voted before, and a television station owner jailed on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.
A 2019 study by Arab Barometer found that public trust in democratic institutions was extremely low. The survey, conducted face-to-face, consisted of 2400 responses from all governates. Thirty percent had trust in the head of government. Twenty percent had trust in the government as a whole. Only fourteen percent had confidence in the national Parliament, and a meager nine percent had faith in Tunisia’s political parties. Trust in the Islamist Ennahda party fell from 35 percent in 2012 to 15 percent in 2019. Whenever any country takes the first steps to democracy, people are inclined to conclude that it is a democracy. The truth is that democracy is not built in a day and Tunisia, even with fair and free elections and peaceful transfers of power, has not consolidated its fragile democratic system. Yes, fewer Tunisians believe that democracy is flawed or indecisive. This number has dropped sixteen percent since 2016. However, large parts of the country were excluded from the economic reforms made in the wake of the revolution. Tunisia’s largest economic industry, phosphate mining came to a standstill during the revolution. A weak economy has made Tunisian democracy vulnerable, but I am optimistic that steps can be taken to create a more inclusive political system that would lead to stronger institutions and greater degree of public confidence.
Brésillon, Thierry, and Hamza Meddeb. “Reform from Crisis: How Tunisia Can Use Covid-19 as an Opportunity.” European Council on Foreign Relations, 24 June 2020, ecfr.eu/publication/reform_from_crisis_how_tunisia_can_use_covid_19_as_an_opportunity/.
“Democracy Isn’t Built in a Day: The Case of Tunisia.” Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, 4 Feb. 2020, nimd.org/democracy-isnt-built-in-a-day-the-case-of-tunisia/.
Robbins, Michael, and Kathrin Thomas. “Tunisia at a Crossroads: Findings from the Fifth Wave of the Arab Barometer.” Arab Barometer (2019)
Macdonald, Geoffrey, and Luke Waggoner. “Dashed Hopes and Extremism in Tunisia.” Journal of Democracy 29, no.1 (2018): 126-140.
Teyeb, Mourad. “Is Media Liberalization Good or Bad for Tunisia?” Daily Sabah, Daily Sabah, 19 Nov. 2020, www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/is-media-liberalization-good-or-bad-for-tunisia.
“Timeline: Tunisia’s Bumpy Path to Democracy.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 14 Oct. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-election-history-timeline/timeline-tunisias-bumpy-path-to-democracy-idUSKBN1WT1XB.