10 Years Later: How Tunisia Managed the Democratic Transition

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SEATTLE, Washington — Ten years ago, the Arab Spring, a series of protests taking place in the six Middle Eastern nations of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia, rocked the Arab world. Beginning as a movement for greater freedoms, it eventually grew into an all-out call to realize democracy. However, of the six nations in which the Arab Spring took place, only Tunisia managed the democratic transition well. A military rule dominates Egypt, the civil war roils Libya and Syria and autocrats largely govern Yemen and Bahrain. On the other hand, Tunisia is considered a success story, making strong gains in the Freedom House Index and serving as a model nation for much of the Middle East.

What is the secret to Tunisia’s accomplishment? Several factors, including sustained pressure by the Tunisian people and the active participation of multiple pro-democracy NGOs, led to the success of this newly born democracy and each will be further analyzed below.

Background of Tunisia

Tunisia is a nation of about 11 million people in North Africa. It lays between Algeria to its west, Libya to its east and the Mediterranean Sea to its north. Its capital city, Tunis, is located on the seaside. It serves as the nation’s economic and political hub and was the site of the Arab Spring protest movement in 2011. Tunisia declared its independence from France in 1956 and established itself as a republic. Nonetheless, a single party, the Constitutional Democracy Rally, dominated national politics to render Tunisia a single-party state. In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed Tunisia’s presidency and ruled until the Arab Spring began. Since often governing with little regard for human rights and freedom of the press, the NGO Amnesty International criticized Tunisia for its “aggressive and repressive” strategy.

Sustained Pressure by Tunisians

Tunisia’s democratic transition began as a result of the 2008 financial collapse, which brought about significant youth unemployment and resulted in a loss of confidence in the leadership of President Ben Ali. As stated by a prominent revolutionary at the time, regime change in Tunisia “was not a cry for democracy but a demand for jobs.” Still, sustained civil unrest and many partnerships established between labor unions and civil rights groups across the nation led to a call for democracy that continued to gain strength until President Ben Ali ultimately stepped down. Today, Tunisians remain committed to democratic norms and continue to pressure the national government to strengthen the quality of Tunisia’s democracy. Therefore an anti-enrichment law passed in 2018, aiming to combat the widespread corruption stymieing economic growth.

Effective Leadership by Tunisian NGOs

The democratic transition within Tunisia would not have resulted in success without the sustained pressure of multiple NGOs, including the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LDTH) and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), amongst others. These NGOs and civil rights groups utilized social media to organize protest movements and popularized specific policy proposals that resulted in a successful democratic movement within Tunisia. The ATFD, established in 1989 as an organization promoting women’s rights, ensured that women would become essential components within Tunisia’s democracy.

Essentially, the ATFD used the cause of women’s rights to further the calls for democracy in Tunisia, ultimately improving all Tunisians’ lives. Today, Tunisia enjoys the highest rate of female participation in government in the Arab world, with 47% of local government officials being women in 2018. These NGOs also showcase the value of international organizations in democratic movements around the world. The ATFD maintained strong relationships with several United Nations human rights NGOs and the United Nations Economic and Social Council throughout the duration of the Arab Spring protests, allowing for international pressures to encourage a democratic transition in Tunisia.

What to learn from Tunisia

Tunisia stands as a sole success story following the pro-democracy protests of the early 2010s, referred to as the Arab Spring. While many of its neighbors continue to suffer from civil war and political unrest, Tunisia managed to stabilize the new system. Its democracy is diverse, with a high participation rate of women in politics. Furthermore, it passed laws in the last few years to battle corruption and improve public accountability. Tunisia is not perfect and is still considered a “flawed democracy” in the 2020 Democracy Index due to a judiciary system lacking complete independence and press-related freedoms. Still, it remains the first and only success of the Arab Spring movements and serves as a model nation for every other Arabic country that democratic transitions can occur.

– Saarthak Madan
Photo: Flickr

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