After Autocracy: Challenges to Tunisian Democracy

“For its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” It is with this rationale in mind that the Norwegian Nobel Committee bestowed its 2015 Peace Prize upon the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition crucial to the drafting of the country’s democracy composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Upon announcement of the award, the immediate reaction from journalists and analysts, many of whom expected a more prominent figure such as Pope Francis or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was one of surprise. In retrospect, however, it is difficult to deny that the Nobel Committee was anything but exceptionally astute in its choice. The prize recognized not only the direct accomplishments of the quartet—namely drafting and negotiating a “Road Map” for the future of the country amidst political violence in 2013—but also celebrated Tunisia’s successful transition from a corrupt and oppressive autocracy under the rule of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a vibrant, burgeoning democracy and a beacon of hope for the region.

 In many ways, Tunisia is much better off today than it was prior to the revolution just over five years ago. The measure that is perhaps most demonstrative of the country’s rapid transformation is its ranking in “Freedom In the World”—the annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties conducted by watchdog organization Freedom House. While in 2011 Tunisia earned scores of 5 in civil liberties and 7 in political rights—both on a scale on which 1 is “best” and 7 is “worst”—in 2015 the country scored 3 and 1 in those same categories respectively. This is not to say, however, that Tunisian democracy is free of critical challenges. Prevailing analysis has focused largely on two main perils facing the country: the expansion of jihadi terrorism, especially as conducted ISIS, and bleak prospects for overall economic development. But to suggest that these threats are the only—or even the most important—ones plaguing the nascent democracy is to neglect the perspective of the common people. Indeed, rather than the broad, macro-level issues pertaining to security and economics that are given constant attention in the media, the most salient challenges the nation faces are grounded in the everyday safety and financial anxieties of ordinary Tunisians.

A Police State No More

Aside from the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet, the two largest news stories in 2015 related to Tunisia were unmistakably grim. On March 15, 17 tourists were killed and 36 more hospitalized after armed militants opened fire and detonated grenades at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Three months later, on June 28, gunmen killed 38 and wounded 39 on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba in the city of Sousse. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The twin atrocities exemplified real challenges Tunisia faces in the fight against terrorism. But Melani Cammett, a faculty member of the Government Department at Harvard University who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, argues that such security issues are not threatening to the development of democracy as a whole in Tunisia. In an interview with HPR, Cammett noted that the aforementioned attacks have “not led to a democratic breakdown … One concern [is that] in order to address [threats to security] the country would have to curtail civil liberties.” But although the enactment of a tough anti-terrorism law in response to the attacks of last year made some citizens nervous, no curtailments of civil liberties resulting from security concerns have threatened the existence of the developing democracy as of yet.

Nevertheless, Tunisians are scared.  Almost half of the Tunisian population view terrorism as the most important problem their country faces, much more than any other issue. There is reason to believe, however, that these survey numbers may be artificially inflated. In an interview with HPR, Youssef Cherif, a Tunisian political commentator, pointed out that “if you take a Tunisian citizen or policy-maker and ask them, ‘When was the last time you were confronted by terrorism?’ [the answer] will be ‘never,’ because … there [have been] very few terrorist attacks.” How, then, can widespread anxieties over terrorism be explained? For Cherif, part of the answer is simple: “Terrorism has been covered so much in the media that everyone is talking about [it].”

Perhaps a more interesting explanation is rooted in perceptions of the capacity of the Tunisian state. According to Cherif, “the state is weakening … the feeling of security, that [regardless of] whatever happens the state will come and save you, is slowly disintegrating.” In large part, this new lack of faith in the state and feeling of insecurity has manifested in ordinary Tunisians’ doubts about their immediate personal safety.  In an interview with HPR, Laryssa Chomiak, a political scientist living in Tunisia, noted that before the Arab Spring, Tunisians often repeated the narrative that their country was much more stable than its neighbors. But in the post-revolutionary period, Chomiak explained, those opposing the revolution and the newly elected government have propagated the view that the country has become gravely insecure, a perspective that has resonated with significant portions of the Tunisian populace. Their anxieties, then, stem not only from terrorist shocks that Tunisia has experienced since its revolution and how these have been portrayed by major media outlets, but also from “the real [concerns] of security that any kind of large urban center [has] to deal with—pickpocketing, burglaries, etc.” The few statistics that are available validate these perceptions. Information compiled in the U.S. State Department’s “Crime & Safety Report” on Tunisia for 2016 note that while “theft and property crimes showed a slight decrease from 2013 to 2014,” the level of both violent and nonviolent crimes in the country, especially in its urban centers, remains high.

Context is particularly key in understanding why ordinary citizens perceive an increase in domestic insecurity. Chomiak portrayed Tunisia under Ben Ali as “one of those picture perfect police states” where “you could walk around [in] the middle of the night and nothing would happen to you. You had cops at every roundabout.” While in some ways the ambience of security and stability under Ben Ali was spurious—it owed its existence to merciless repression and widespread politics of fear—today Tunisians perceive a real degradation in their level of personal safety.

This increase in crime and general insecurity is unlikely to be curbed anytime soon. While the Tunisian parliament has adopted some legislation dealing with security matters, said Cherif, “the problem is not about passing laws—it’s about implementing them” He argued that since 2011, the main challenge for the government has been figuring out how to turn policy into reality.

The Right to Work

It is difficult to find anyone to disagree that matters of security pose a significant challenge for Tunisia. Cammett, however, argues that “the biggest threat” to the country’s democracy in the long term “is the lack of prospects for economic development and the problems for economic growth.” Indeed, in the aftermath of the revolution, Tunisia’s economy has struggled and largely deteriorated. While the country’s average rate of growth was around 5 percent in the decade preceding 2011, growth slowed to 2.3 percent in 2014. Security concerns are not wholly irrelevant to the country’s economic performance either—the terrorist attacks of 2015 have greatly diminished the number of tourists to the country, causing the Tunisian government, which relies on tourism for a noteworthy portion of its GDP, to reduce its predicted growth rates by 2.5 percent. Only worsening the country’s economic situation is a steady decline in foreign direct investment, down 9.4 percent to just over $1 billion in 2014.

Perhaps the most relevant metric, however, is the country’s unemployment rate. Since the ousting of Ben Ali, around 15 percent of the entire Tunisian populace has been without a job. Among youths, the unemployment level is 31 percent.

A number of commentators and scholars of the region have identified the country’s widespread joblessness as a key factor contributing to the onset of the Arab Spring. But Chomiak contended that the triggering event of the revolution in 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi’s public self-immolation and the less-covered protests of this year were motivated by individuals seeking a very specific kind of work—civil service. Ridha Yahyaoui, whose electrocution and subsequent death sparked the events of this past January, decided to protest directly after being denied a job in a local government office.  Chomiak contextualized the situation by noting that when Tunisians “talk about economic grievances, it’s not about getting any kind of job; it’s getting specific kinds of jobs that are within the right-to-work culture … it’s about having this dignified position that allows you over a lifetime to take care of your family.” This right-to-work culture is evident in the fact that Tunisians—by margins of over three to one—believe that their government should provide assistance in securing employment. Tunisians, therefore, are hardly clamoring about a dearth of low-pay, temporary employment opportunities, nor are they worried about abstract macroeconomic indicators like foreign direct investment. Rather, the driving force of uncertainty for Tunisian citizens and thus the country’s democracy is a lack of well-paying positions that offer secure long-term employment prospects.

In the face of rampant unemployment, the Tunisian government has focused primarily on expanding hiring opportunities for exactly these types of “dignified” jobs. These efforts, however, have had little success, as the number of job seekers has far outnumbered the number of civil service positions made available.

Selective Memory

Deteriorations in both personal safety and job stability, when coupled with the perceived threat of terrorism and macroeconomic decline, appear to have engendered a general longing for a stabler past among at least a segment of the Tunisian populace. Cherif affirmed the presence of this sentiment, citing everyday conversations with his compatriots and the recurrent remark, “‘It was better under Ben Ali.’” He attributes this mounting nostalgia, however, to a collective amnesia, arguing that “people don’t [remember] what used to happen under Ben Ali, while they know too much about what is happening today.”

Indeed, the politics of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary past was repressive and inaccessible to ordinary citizens. Cherif, drawing on his own personal experiences to characterize the reality of life under Ben Ali, remembered how he brought up politics in discussion only to have his friends disparagingly ask, “‘Why are you talking about politics? It’s useless!’ … That is the feeling that people had in Tunisia … The common people couldn’t have any say.”

In contrast to the political situation in Tunisia just over five years ago, perhaps the most striking difference today is the pluralism and openness that has taken root. In her retrospective article for the Washington Post published in January of this year, Chomiak asserted that the “most notable achievement of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution—one that astonishingly seems to have been forgotten—is the space for political critique, assembly, and speech that the revolution carved and has protected.” There now exists even “the freedom of being allowed to criticize what the government is doing, to criticize individuals within government, to criticize security forces,” she told the HPR.

This dramatic metamorphosis of the Tunisian political climate suggests that democracy, though in existence for a mere five years, may have a long future ahead of it if the threats it faces can be sustained. These threats, however, are not well reflected in media portrayals of jihadist violence and macroeconomic sluggishness. The true test of Tunisian democracy will be whether the country’s new leaders can adequately address the immediate concerns of their citizens. Understandably, more than any augmentation of their freedoms, Tunisians want improvements to the basics: personal security and access to stable jobs. In order for the country’s democracy, so passionately fought for, to survive in the long run, Tunisians will have to eschew any nostalgia for their country’s autocratic past in favor of a cautious optimism for its future.

Image Source: Flikr/khaled abdelmoumen

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