Tunisia provides an example of ordinary citizens freeing themselves from oppression and ushering in democracy.

Since the 2011 uprisings that characterized the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia has often been cited as the Arab world’s most successful democracy.  Within a span of four years, Tunisia has drafted a new constitution, held a landmark legislative election, and instituted their first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi.  Tunisia, for all intents and purposes, has stuck to its transition strategy.  Unfortunately, the relative stability that has characterized the Tunisian transition cannot be said for neighboring Libya and Egypt, both of which have been plagued by nonconsensual and exclusive political processes.  One is left to wonder what exactly differentiates Tunisia’s transition from that of Egypt or Libya, and how those differences ultimately led to a democratic consolidation.

I attribute Tunisia’s success to five key factors:

  1. A history of political liberalism and a social progressive population. Tunisia was the first Arab country to adopt a constitution, dating back to 1861. Tunisia’s long history of dialogue and professionalism has persisted throughout its political history and undoubtedly opened the stage for a more widely accepted dialogue process in 2012.
  2. The military came down on the side of the protesters. Tunisia, unlike Egypt, has never had a military strongman as President. Additionally, both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes kept the military small and underfunded.  Under Ben Ali’s veritable police state, the military was consistently overshadowed by well-funded security agencies directed by the ministry of the interior.  The military had no real stake in the Ben Ali regime, and had no reason to spill civilian blood for such a regime.  With the start of the demonstrations and unrest in 2010, Ben Ali gave commands to quell the protests, but General Rachid Ammar rejected his commands and instead began to place his troops between the security forces and the protesters, effectively saving the revolution.
  3. The entry of new parties into the political system. Tunisia’s Ennahda, or Renaissance party, is a moderate Islamist group that was shunned under the Bourguiba, and banned under Ben Ali. It was only after the collapse of the Ben Ali regime that the group was legally allowed to form a political party.  During the 2011 October elections, the Ennahda party won 41.5% of seats in the constituent assembly.  While the Ennahda won a plurality, they fell short of an outright majority.  In order to govern, they formed a coalition government with two secular parties.  The inability of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to share power has often been cited as a determining factor in the shift back to an authoritarian regime.
  4. The willingness of all political actors to compromise. In Egypt, the SCAF took over the transition process with no real intention to leave. In contrast to this, Tunisia’s transition has been passed along from various parties with little internal conflict.  At the time, what seemed to be the greatest barrier to a consolidated democracy was the assassination of two left leaning political actors, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.  Their assassinations were pinned on the Ennahda.  The assassinations, coupled with a lengthy constitution drafting process prompted mass demonstrations, strikes, and a call for the resignation of the interim government.  In October of 2013, the Ennahda party agreed to step down in favor of a technocratic interim government to oversee the latter part of the transition process.
  5. The influence of non-political institutions. Ennahda’s delegation of power to a technocratic government was in large part due to civil society groups, most important among them being the Tunisian General Labour union (UGTT). The UGTT, with more than half a million dues paying members, has been deeply embedded in Tunisia’s political history since declaring independence in 1956.  The UGTT proved instrumental in urging all parties to draft a constitution, and provide a “roadmap” of steps to be taken in the coming months.  The use of non-political institutions (with political clout) as mediators could prove invaluable to other transitions in the region.

New democracies are among the most fragile states in the world.  They need to be fostered and taken care of, or they risk unraveling.  The recent attack on the Bardo National Museum by the Islamic State has called into question Tunisia’s stability and it’s potential to unravel.  Several prominent news publications have been quick to publish headlines like “Tunisia Museum Attack Is Blow to Nation’s Democratic Shift” or “Democracy Stalled by Extremism”.  One has to wonder whether these outlets have been waiting for an opportunity to declare Tunisia as an “almost success”.  These headlines come out of a popular discourse which paints the Middle East as antithetical to progress, and Islam as incompatible with democracy.

While terrorism and security will most definitely be a key issue in the coming years, it is by no means a threat to democracy.  And to say the attack on Bardo has already weakened the newly elected government disregards not only the achievements made by Tunisians in the last four years, but also disregards Tunisia’s rich history, and the extraordinary capability of ordinary citizens to free themselves of oppression and demand democracy.