As the country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia has kept the attention of people wondering whether democracy can flourish in the Arab world. But Tunisia’s democracy is a fragile one. Although Freedom House classifies Tunisia as free–the only Arab country with that designation–it worries that “freedoms of assembly and association were imperiled” in 2018. With Algeria and Sudan moving away from decades-long dictatorships of their own, events in Tunisia will provide a model for democrats in each country on how (and whether) they can achieve democratic stability.
The effects of Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship continue to have an impact on Tunisia’s politics. In December 2018, the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) completed its four-year investigation into human rights abuses going back to 1955. No government officials attended the commission’s presentation of its findings. As the Washington Post reported, the IVD frequently faced opposition from members of Tunisia’s government and from unions representing security forces.
Furthermore, there is reason to worry that new laws might weaken civil society. Law 30, passed in 2018, requires civil society organizations to register with the government and report their activities, a requirement many NGOs fear will allow censorship and monitoring of the kind practiced by Ben Ali’s regime. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Sarah E. Yerkes noted in Foreign Affairs that an earlier law “already regulates the civil society sector and provides the transparency the new law supposedly seeks.” Added regulation creates reason to fear added restriction.
But there are also encouraging signs. One of them is President Beji Caid Essebsi’s announcement that he will not seek a second term. A 93-year-old leader trying to remain in office would have raised the specter of an autocratic president-for-life. Furthermore, Essebsi’s secularist party, Nidaa Tounes, recently split into rival factions over the nomination of its next presidential candidate, with one faction supporting the President’s son, and the other supporting legislator Sofian Toubel. Ironically, the split may be a good sign; had the whole party rallied around the younger Essebsi, there would have been a risk of a ruling dynasty.
Another recent political split is also encouraging. September 2018 saw the end of Nidaa Tounes’ coalition government with its chief rival, the Islamist party Ennahda. When it was formed in 2014, many saw the coalition as necessary for national stability following a string of assassinations of leading politicians. But consensus is not always desirable, especially if ideological rivals agree on laws that empower the government at the expense of its citizens. As Brookings Institution scholars Sharan Grewal and Shadi Hamid noted in Foreign Policy, a 2015 terrorism law the coalition passed included “an overly broad definition of terrorism – potentially encompassing peaceful political activity.” Meanwhile, a 2017 law, in the words of Human Rights Watch, grants “complete impunity to civil servants who were implicated in corruption” under Ben Ali. The return of competition creates more space for open debate and a chance to repeal restrictive laws.
Even with Law 30 in place, civil society is still making its voice heard. When the government raised fuel prices in March, farmers, truck drivers and car owners launched protests across the country. And when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visited last November, protestors gathered in Tunis to condemn the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While repression is always possible, thus far Tunisian activists do not appear to be dissuaded from speaking out.
To keep the promise of the Arab Spring alive, Tunisians must not lose faith in democracy. The country’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for October 6, 2019, with the presidential election on November 10. If Ennahda wins power, for example, secular Tunisians must avoid attempting to overturn the results. When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, many secular Egyptians welcomed the coup. But Egypt has since backslid into dictatorship, with both Islamist and secular opposition crushed. A similar turn of events in Tunisia would be tragic.
While the future of Tunisian democracy is ultimately up to Tunisians, outside powers can help. In 2015 the Obama administration made Tunisia a Major Non-NATO Ally, giving it access to various security benefits. The United States could add an economic dimension to the relationship by offering to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement.
The European Union can also help. Law 30 came in response to the EU’s putting Tunisia on a “blacklist” of countries that “failed to make a high-level commitment to comply with good governance standards,” including tax enforcement. The EU should consider whether attempts to rigorously enforce its rules might be counterproductive. If a government restricts citizens’ rights to comply with rules written by foreigners, it will not be surprising if those citizens lose trust in both foreign and domestic powers.
Tunisia provides a stark rebuttal for anyone who thinks of the Arab Spring as a failure. But democratic institutions do not defend themselves; they need citizens to stand up for them. As a new group of North African countries step cautiously away from autocracy, their eyes (and the world’s) will be on Tunisia.