Of all the countries affected by the Arab Spring, Tunisia has long been lauded as the movement’s one success. When Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor, set fire to himself in protest of the government confiscation of his weighing scales (and on a larger scale, the endemic of nation-wide corruption and poor governance), the public launched a revolution against dictator Zine El Abindine Ben Ali. After ousting the autocratic leader, the country held a poll in 2011 that resulted in a victory for the Islamist Ennahda Party. Their subsequent rule was characterized by relative tranquillity and a smoother political transition than in other Arab Spring states.
The greatest achievement of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government is their commitment to instituting a fair and representative electoral process. Unlike states such as Egypt, whose transition was marred by a coup and political violence, or Libya and Syria, which degenerated into brutal civil wars, Tunisia has progressed in its democratic shift. Immediately after the revolution, Ennahda (a dominant force in the uprising) set up a coalition government based on parliamentary elections. In January, they peacefully handed power to an interim government that administered this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Neither government tried to seize authoritarian control, instead promoting peaceful and fair elections. Compared to other states in the region, this is a marked victory in itself.
Most frustratingly to many Tunisians, the government has failed to substantially improve the economy.
Moreover, the interim government oversaw the approval of the nation’s new Constitution. The National Constituent Assembly voted overwhelmingly – by a margin of 200 to 16 – in favour of the Constitution, which has been both hailed and criticized. Many consider the document extremely progressive, with clauses protecting freedom of belief and sexuality. The laws also dispersed power to ensure the state’s commitment to democracy and promoted women’s rights. These liberal ideals are rare in many a western nation, but incredible in a state with a history of conservative and authoritarian leanings. However, the Constitution has also attracted considerable criticism. Organizations like the Human Rights Watch were especially concerned with Article 6, a clause that promises freedom of belief but also designates the government as a “guardian of religion”, with the authority fight against “apostasy”. The clause was designed to reconcile the government’s wish for a forward-looking constitution with the nation’s conservative mind-set. In practice, it is at best an unintentional contradiction and at worst, as the Human Rights Watch alleges, a loophole that allows the government to interfere in private matters. The Constitution is undoubtedly a step forward, but leaves much to be desired in terms of religious freedom.
The intersection between politics and religion is particularly significant because of the strength of various Islamist parties, especially Ennahda. After the landmark 2011 elections, Ennahda formed Tunisia’s government with two other Islamist parties but relinquished their power in January. Ennahda is a political force, but increasingly it has tried to distance itself from extremist values. Its leader and figurehead, Rachid Ghannouchi, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times describing his liberal plans for Tunisia’s future. In the article, he reiterates his support for democracy, women’s rights and freedom of religion. He points out that Ennahda does not fit the politicized and hyperbolic description of an extremist Islamic party, but is moderate and has every right to base its values on religion. His views certainly reflect Ennahda’s stance on many issues, and they are ostensibly in favour of personal freedoms and human rights. Ghannouchi’s article shows that the popularity of Tunisian Islamic parties does not diminish their commitment to democratic ideals because the Islamic alternatives are largely moderate. That being said, Ghannouchi also favours a large government that uses its power to preserve rights, diverging from the more liberal archetype favoured in western democracies.
In any case, Tunisia’s democratic trend continued its recent progress with parliamentary elections in October and preliminary presidential elections in November. Ennahda placed second in the parliamentary elections, losing to the secular party, the Nidaa Tunis. Similarly, the Nidaa Tunis candidate, Beji Caid Essebsi, had the most votes in the first round of the presidential elections, followed by current President Moncef Marzouki (who is tacitly supported by the Islamist coalition). Essebsi is generally considered a stable candidate, with experience under the Ben Ali government. In spite of his association with the autocratic regime, many Tunisians believe he will bring more order to the nation. The elections cemented the Tunisian preference for democracy, with losing parties still celebrating the accomplishment of free elections. However, the results also showed the growing public preference for secularism and voiced a measure of disillusionment with the previous government.
This disillusionment is certainly well founded. Though the Tunisian government has succeeded in implementing a peaceful institutional transition, as reflected by their new Constitution and political trends, they have not solved the inherent socio-economic issues that led to the revolution in the first place. The political process itself was tarnished by a series of assassinations and targeted violence in 2013. The murders of two prominent politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, led to widespread discontent with national security. The assassinations were attributed to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda that supported the Islamist coalition, undermining the parties’ legitimacy and peaceful goals. The government was further criticized for failing to prevent Brahmi’s murder (which occurred six months after Belaid’s death) because the same gun was used for both homicides. This unrest was extremely significant in Tunisian politics, leading to a wave of national anger that ultimately forced the Islamist coalition to step down and hand power to the interim government.
Since the 2011 revolution, the country has also seen a growth in Islamic extremism and terrorist activity.
Since the 2011 revolution, the country has also seen a growth in Islamic extremism and terrorist activity. This may seem counterintuitive, given the nation’s apparently liberal political trends, but segments of the population have turned to Jihad as a means of expressing their dissatisfaction. Tunisia has the dubious distinction of sending the most fighters (as many as 3,000 of 12,000 foreigners) to battle alongside ISIS. A growing national concern is the radicalization of young women, illustrating the appeal of religious extremism in all aspects of society. This trend is related to the freedoms promised by the Tunisian government; they allow terrorist cells to recruit openly in Tunisia, without fear of censorship. However, Tunisia has long been a target for extremist recruitment, with a well-educated population that has traditionally been suspicious of governmental authority. Tunisians are particularly vulnerable today, with general discontent at high unemployment rates among the youth. As a result, terrorist attacks have increased in frequency and scale, while terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the local Ansar Al Sharia of Tunisia have learned to synchronize their attacks. Hence, despite the country’s political development and rights-based approach to governance, extremism remains a viable threat.
Finally, and most frustratingly to many Tunisians, the government has failed to substantially improve the economy. The poor economy, inequality and growing unemployment were primary reasons for the revolution and ousting of Ben Ali. The public demanded economic reform along with political changs when they elected the Ennahda in 2011. However, by focusing on political and institutional reform, the Islamist coalition and temporary government neglected to create beneficial economic policies. Instead, they have continued with many of the ineffective policies of the Ben Ali government. Tunisia has received extensive criticism from the World Bank, but is still mired in growing inequality, corruption and an economic system that relies heavily on patronage. Thus, though the Tunisian government has progressed towards in achieving a democracy, its society is still besieged with problems of the past.
Overall, Tunisia has progressed after the Arab Spring, with a distinct move towards greater public representation and freedom. However, this shift has failed to translate into effective governance; though the government has achieved much since 2011, they have been unable to solve many key issues and meet initial expectations. This has directly led to the recent electoral results and the public preference for Nidaa Tunis. Tunisia should still be applauded as a success story of the Arab Spring, but it is important to understand that the nation has significant problems that need to be addressed. If the new Nidaa Tunis government revitalize the economy and control the spread of terrorism, the country can defy the odds and prove that revolution in the Middle East can lead to stability.