In December 2010, a Tunisian street fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the front of a government office in Sidi Bouzid to protest acute joblessness and oppression by the state. His self-immolation set off a revolutionary movement that rippled across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling long-standing authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and giving a jolt to others. Still yet, others such as Syria, Yemen and Libya descended into bloody civil wars that are yet to abate.
Egypt and Tunisia were the only countries to successfully transition to democracy. Although, Egypt quickly slid back into dictatorship when current strongman, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, overthrew the democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi, after just one year in office. Al-Sisi now sees himself as “a divinely ordained leader” and has rammed through many constitutional changes to almost guarantee his continued hold on power and render any opposition to his rule impossible. Egyptians have suddenly found themselves under a worse dictatorship than the one they revolted against.
Tunisia has been the only success story of the Arab Spring. It successfully transitioned to democracy in 2011 and has maintained a relatively stable democracy that Freedom House, the US-based global freedom and rights watchdog, ranked “free” in 2020. At the heart of Tunisia’s success with democratic experiment is its willingness to compromise and accommodate disparate groups and tendencies, including Islamist political parties. This tendency is unique in the Arab world, especially those wracked by revolutionary pressures and has helped the country navigate difficult times usually through dialogue and concessions. Other Arab countries have leaders that are fearful and intolerant of democratic fervour and resort easily to repression and smouldering of dissent since the onset of the Spring in 2011.
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Sadly, since the revolution, economic situations have worsened in Tunisia and across the Middle East as a whole. Youth unemployment in the region remains the highest in the world
Another important factor that helped democracy to flourish in Tunisia is the fragmentation of the security sector and in particular, the weakness, side-lining, and non-politicisation of the military. Former dictators, Bourguiba and Ben Ali deliberately fragmented the security sector, privileging the police, national and presidential guards over the military. This turned into a great advantage during the Arab Spring as the military completely stayed out of the people’s way and the police, national and presidential guards were unable to maintain Ben Ali in power against the popular will or repress the people without the help of the military.
After the revolt, the non-politicisation of the military became a greater advantage as it allowed politicians and the people to decide the fate of the country unlike in most Arab states with a highly politicised military that is ready to hijack popular protests and discontent to install itself in power.
The resort to dialogue and concessions, even by Islamist parties, have helped the course of democracy even in very unstable times such as during the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2012, political assassinations and terrorist attacks in 2015. With relatively well-developed civic institutions, Tunisia was able to approve what Sharan Grewal, a non-resident fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, described as “one of the world’s most progressive constitutions”. Besides, it has held two very successful rounds of elections in 2014 and 2019, all adjudged free and fair. By far, Tunisia is the most democratic country in the Middle East.
But all these came into question last month when, out of the blues, the president, Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor who was elected president in 2019, fired the prime minister, suspended parliament and took over all constitutional powers. Many described the action as a coup and there are calls for Tunisians to come out on the streets to protest like they had done in the revolution in 2011. Former president Moncef Marzouki, who helped oversee the transition to democracy after the revolution, said it could represent the start of a slope “into an even worse situation”.
Shockingly however, the news of the power grab has been greeted with silence or even outright support for the president from many segments of the country. Why is this so?
This is principally because the revolution was not about democracy. Bouazizi or even the protesters in 2011, weren’t protesting for democracy. They were protesting the dire economic situation and high youth unemployment in the country. Unable to secure any employment after school, Bouazizi resorted to selling fruits on the street to survive. Still local officials seized his fruit cart, ostensibly because he had no permit, but really because they wanted to extort money from him. It was the last straw for him. At the front of the government office, his last words were: “how do you expect me to make a living”?
This act of defiance would resonate across the region, reputed to have the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world, where millions of others too had reached breaking point. It was a protest principally against government corruption and lack of economic opportunities.
Sadly, since the revolution, economic situations have worsened in Tunisia and across the Middle East as a whole. Youth unemployment in the region remains the highest in the world. This is exacerbated by Covid-19 and the new outbreak being fuelled by the delta variant. Tunisia, sadly, has suffered most from the pandemic in the region, with most cases and deaths. The pandemic has severely affected the country’s health system and forced the president to request for medical aid from neighbouring countries last month. According to CNN, “The UAE sent 500,000 vaccines to the country and Syria sent doses, ventilators, oxygen concentrators, medical beds and PPE, its state-run SPA agency said at the time. Qatar sent a field hospital, while Libya shut its borders with Tunisia over concerns about the spread of the Delta variant”
Worse, the political system is in a gridlock. The dialogue and concessions that has served Tunisia well during the transition to democracy is now it’s undoing in delivering the dividends of democracy to its people when decisive action is most needed. Its parliament is highly fragmented with no major political party in charge. The parliament is now more reputed for quarrelling and petty scuffles than making laws. On the other hand, the president and prime minister have been enmeshed in political disputes for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and flailing response to the pandemic. This is contributing to public anger and unrest. Tunisians want economic emancipation and not just democracy. That was why Saied, who was not a politician, was elected president in the first place.
This leads to the whole argument about democracy and or development. Are Tunisians sacrificing one for the other? Can there be a strong democracy without effective economic emancipation? Which should come first – democracy or economic growth?