Have you ever witnessed the fall of a dictatorship and the birth of a democracy? Well, that is exactly what transpired less than a decade ago with the Arab Spring Revolution. The Arab Spring Revolution was a series of pro-democracy protests that developed within the Arab/Islamic world during the early 2010s. What made the Arab Spring so interesting is that by large it was a complete failure, with the expectation of one nation and that nation was the one that inspired the movement in the first place. In Tunisia, where one market vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi sparked a movement that would shake many countries to their political core.
Bouazizi decided to set himself on fire, literally set ablaze within the country itself. Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest local officials harassing him for not giving in to their demands for him to pay them, in order for him to sell fruits and vegetables. Since Bouazizi refused to pay, these officials seized his product, however it wasn’t just about seizing his cart, but seizing his livelihood because like most people, Bouazizi was extremely poor and much like the majority of the people of Tunisia, needed to do anything to provide for their family. Bouazizi death stark a protest that would accomplish something that has never been done before, that being ended an Islamic dictatorship through the means of protest. Bouazizi’s death triggered massive waves of protest across the nation, which wanted to end the very corrupt authoritarian regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the very high cost of living that plagued the majority of the country. After a 10 days protest that left at least 300 people dead and 700 injured, Ben Ail fled the country making the protest a success. However, driving out Ben Ali was the easy part, the real work was just beginning because now the country was tasked with creating a new democratic government that benefits and satisfies the people and is free of corruption. However, that’s where the problem lies because democratic systems are very fragile and can easily erode back into the authoritarian regime if the political actors within the system don’t follow the rules of what makes a functional democracy. So far, the new government has been progressing in the right direction.
The Tunisian government has shown that they are willing to keep transitioning into an era of “peace” and openness for all its citizens. For reference, a democracy is only as strong as its actors’ willingness to work with each other. Within the United States political parties usually work within party’s lines, however, when necessary, they are willing to pass legislation that benefits the collective, even if that decision angers core members. In Tunisia the Ennahda party, which was the leading party that took power after Ben Ali and was originally banned by Ben Ali himself, is an Islamic party but its members understand that not everyone supports the strong strict Islamic ruling. They understand that that strict Islamic ruling was one of the major reasons why many took to the streets and risked their lives to protest. So, by using passive depolarization strategies , which was coined by Murat Somer, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke, the Ennahda party dropped some core principles and forged alliances with those who wanted to separate church from state in a sense. Through these alliances a new constitution was created that aims to improve human rights, which includes equal rights for women, and equal opportunity for everyone. This enraged many extreme Islamic supporters of the Ennahda party, but the political actors knew this compromise was needed in order to make meaningful progress.
While the process for these changes and opportunities has been slow, the fact that opportunities are being presented show a sign of change. In addition, like every strong democracy or democracy in general, there should always be a transfer of power when it is time to do so. In the United States, former president Trump and his core supporters believed that his failed reelection bid resulted because of fraud. However, even after months of protests, like every President before him, he peacefully transferred power to the incoming administration. Tunisia demonstrated that process well with their 2013-14 election cycle. As a disclaimer, there were many elections before, however these administrations were short lived and ineffective mainly because those that were elected worked under the Ben Ali government. which doesn’t negate corruption from occurring. During this time around however, tensions were high, and the new government experiment seemed to be on the verge of being a failure after two oppositions to the Ennahda party were assassinated and protesters took the street. However, in a surprising and critical move the Ennahda supported the arrest of the killers and after losing majority within the new government the Ennahda peacefully transferred power. This act further established a strong foundation and showed the willingness of political actors to keep their fragile democracy from failing.
In Tunisia today however, the country is in a tense situation. The current president, Kai Saied, has declared a move that not only increase his power but also temporary dissolve the parliament and fired the current prime minister. This move has been criticized by all four major political parties has declared this move to unconstitutional and illegal. However, Saied claims that the constitution allow him to seize power in time of crisis and to put the economy back on track. furthermore, he believes that by controlling this power he can root out corruption in the political class. However, the constitution claims that the president must consult with the prime minister and parliamentary speaker and that the parliament remain in “a state of continuous session throughout such a period,” not frozen. furthermore, the President’s action of blocking the parliament have joining together and his utilization of the country’s military is showing signs of a self coup. This action alone can be a strong indiction of political polarization within the country.
However, while the democratic process is progressing politically, the country isn’t faring significantly better economically than under this new democracy regime. The state of a democratic country’s economy can indicate whether it is resilient or experiencing a backslide. The early stages of democracy in Tunisia were very trying for the economy and thus experienced many signs of backsliding. Tunisia is a country that is built around the oil industry and typically oil prices indicate how well or poorly the country is operating. In the early stages unemployment was skyrocketing, promised opportunities were limited and many believed that the country was reverting back to the “old” corrupted days because of the lack of transparency by the government. Protests and terrorist attacks were becoming common and youth voting turnout were extremely low. These are signs that the Tunisian experiment was beginning to fail. However, the government understood that during times of crisis, especially financial crises, polarization(tension) between citizens guaranteed to increase. Many who wanted a strong Islamic presence in government have defected to terrorist groups like Isis or simply left the country for better opportunity. However, the overall GDP has increased since 2014, even if the process is happening slowly. One of the big reasons why is that the government is trying to stimulate the economy with other resources and programs instead of solely relying on Oil. By providing these opportunities, economic inequality and unemployment has slowly decreased and while citizens aren’t overly happy, they are satisfied, once again the new government survived the hard times. Furthermore, the government itself can collect more taxes and increase its spending to better assist their citizens. Tunisia’s democracy is very fragile and the current action of the president is very concerning for most. the reason being any misstep or further power grab by the president the government could easily become the dictatorship that it once protested against. The citizens are wishing for more transparency and wish the government would do more to root out corruption on every level. However, the willingness by the political actors to follow the rules of democracy is what make Tunisia’s democracy the only democracy that toppled a dictatorship and “thriving” today, despite current event.
Claire Parker, K. F. (2021, February 8). He lost his leg protesting for freedom in Tunisia. A decade later, he hopes his sacrifice wasn’t in vain. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/arab-spring-anniversary-tunisia-democracy-ennahda/.
Death toll of ‘Arab Spring’ | US news. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.usnews.com/news/slideshows/death-toll-of-arab-spring.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Jasmine Revolution. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Jasmine-Revolution.
Gallup. (2021, May 7). Tunisia: Analyzing the dawn of the Arab Spring. Gallup.com. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/157049/tunisia-analyzing-dawn-arab-spring.aspx.
Grewal, S. (2021, July 26). Kais saied’s power grab in Tunisia. Brookings. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/07/26/kais-saieds-power-grab-in-tunisia/.
Jazeera, A. (2020, December 17). What is the arab spring, and how did it start? Arab Spring: 10 years on News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/17/what-is-the-arab-spring-and-how-did-it-start.
Mbarek, N. (2021, January 14). After ten years of Progress, how far has Tunisia really come? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/14/after-ten-years-of-progress-how-far-has-tunisia-really-come-pub-83609.
Murat Somer, Jennifer L. McCoy & Russell E. Luke (2021) Pernicious polarization, autocratization and opposition strategies, Democratization, 28:5, 929-948, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1865316
Robinson, K. (2020, December 3). The arab spring at Ten Years: What’s the legacy of the uprisings? Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.cfr.org/article/arab-spring-ten-years-whats-legacy-uprisings?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-eeMBhCpARIsAAZfxZDZIvUCMvhkjMKuMYjw55hBX8MOuDxlMZPH-xjpbc9aliSnAaEaoBMaAqcIEALw_wcB.
Tunisia timeline: Since the Jasmine Revolution. United States Institute of Peace. (2020, November 6). Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.usip.org/tunisia-timeline-jasmine-revolution.