Corruption, poor economy, illiberalism threaten Tunisia’s exceptionalism


Poor economic conditions and corruption are at the source of intense public dissatisfaction in Tunisia, according to a new poll by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research:

A combined 87 percent of Tunisians describe the economic situation as either “somewhat bad” (26 percent) or “very bad” (61 percent). A plurality (44 percent) say that unemployment is the single biggest problem facing the country, followed by the economic and financial crisis at 24 percent. A clear majority of respondents (72 percent) think that fighting corruption and bribery is the best way to improve the economy of their local communities, followed by 59 percent who say that local government should “make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses.”

Corruption continues to be a major concern, with a startling 89 percent of Tunisians maintaining that corruption is higher today than before the 2011 democratic revolution. Sixty-four percent think that personal connections (wasta) are “very likely” to lead to personal wealth in Tunisia. ….The survey also indicates declining interest in participating in the electoral process. Fifty percent of respondents say they are either “somewhat” (9 percent) or “very” (41 percent) unlikely to vote in the planned municipal elections—a 7-point increase from April 2017. Additionally, 83 percent either don’t know or refused to say which party they would vote for if elections were held tomorrow.

“This poll reinforces the vital need to address the issues of greatest concern to Tunisians: corruption and the economy,” said Scott Mastic, IRI Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa for IRI [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.]. “Our findings reinforce the need to confront corruption on both the national and local levels, and it is our hope that the government integrates this approach into its newly-launched ‘War on Corruption.’”

Tunisia deserves special attention as one of a small set of vulnerable but important post-transition democracies, argues Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The fate of each of these democracies could have significant implications for the future of democracy within their regions (in the case of Tunisia, far in excess of its small population size relative to the rest of the Arab world),” he told the recent Fifth Ministerial of the Community of Democracies.

Muslim republicanism?

A new book – Anne Wolf’s Political Islam in Tunisia: A History of Ennahda – suggests that “perhaps we need to adjust our exception about what are good outcomes for the region and what should be considered a ‘good outcome’ for a political reform,” says analyst Faheem A. Hussain. “This is not lowering the bar, but perhaps be more realistic in accepting that democratic forms of governance must suit the context of the local people,” he writes for Open Democracy:It’s with these more measured expectations in mind that an excellent Hudson Institute policy paper by Eric B Brown and Samuel Tadros, advocates a Muslim republicanism. They propose that it is an American strategic goal for ‘Tunisia [to] emerge as a self-sustaining democracy that can contribute to solving the larger crisis of governance and republicanism in the Arabic-speaking world’. In this instance, what is proffered is not the hope of a liberal democracy but a more realistic idea, if rather vague, non-authoritarian Muslim democracy as an alternative to ‘ political cul-de-sacs of Islamism and unreconstructed laicism’

The Tunisian parliament approved a new cabinet led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of the Nidaa Tounes party, analyst Keian Razipour writes for the Project for Middle East Democracy:

Chahed came to power in August 2016 as Tunisia’s sixth head of government since January 2011. This is the second cabinet change under Chahed, and Tunisia’s ninth since January 2011. Chahed’s new cabinet has 28 ministers. Five of them served in government or in the ex-ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), under toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), the largest number of such cabinet members since the 2011 revolution. Five cabinet members are women. [Click here for a PDF copy of this report.]

The country’s Jewish minority has also been the target of illiberal forces, according to reports:

The invitation to a Tunisian festival in July of the Jewish comedian Michel Boujenah provoked protests in Tunisia that local anti-racism activists said were anti-Semitic. Tunisia has several pending bills, introduced by Islamist and secular nationalists, proposing a blanket boycott on Israel and a ban on any Israelis from entering the country.

Since the revolution, Tunisia’s once strangled civil society has blossomed with new unions, advocacy groups and many organizations dedicated to watching the politicians and hounding out corruption, notes one observer.

A number of human rights activists and “victims of the former regime” occupied very senior positions within the post-2011 governments and new human rights organizations emerged to focus on socioeconomic, sexual and ethnic rights, notes Asma Nouira, a professor of Political Science and Law at the University of El-Manar. Due to the way it evolved and because of the current context, the human rights movement in Tunisia faces a number of challenges, including its relationship with politics, the generational chasm among activists, and internal governance issues, she writes in a new report for the Arab Reform Initiative (right).

Tunisia recently became one of the only countries in the Arab world to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, notes analyst Paul Schemm. The measure has been cited as another example of Tunisia’s exceptionalism — as the country that kicked off the Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the Middle East and where the struggle for democracy hasn’t degenerated into war, unrest, military coups or greater repression, he wrote for The Washington Post:

Just the day before, however — little noticed abroad — Tunisia’s parliament passed a reconciliation law that seeks to protect civil servants from the old regime from prosecution under the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission that is dealing with the legacy of the brutal dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that fell in 2011. Many fear, in fact, that the Tunisian democratic experiment is under threat from a counterrevolution as more and more officials from the Ben Ali period, including the president and many in the new cabinet, are voted into power by an electorate tired of economic malaise and terrorist violence…. According to Monica Marks, a researcher at Oxford University with extensive experience with Tunisia, the approach has been working, with nearly three times the amount of coverage in the foreign press for the marriage decision than for the amnesty law. Yet that amnesty is the biggest indication so far that the government is trying to undo the achievements of the revolution.

“It sends a huge symbolic signal that the state approves impunity for the powerful and the values of the revolution are no longer the center of the process,” she said.

The late Alfred C. Stepan [left, a regular contributor to The Journal of Democracy] noted a commonality with the transitions that produced effective democratic leadership in Indonesia, Spain, and Chile; like those nations, Tunisia has had a multiplicity of cooperating leaders, rather than a single “strong leader” or multiple conflictual leaderships. He contrasted Tunisia with the notable failures of democracy to take root in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, writing for Daedalus:

Many classic studies of leadership focus on strong leadership in the singular. This essay focuses on effective leaderships in the plural. Some of the greatest failures of democratic transitions (Egypt, Syria, Libya) have multiple but highly conflictual leaderships. However, a key lesson in democratization theory is that successful democratic transitions often involve the formation of a powerful coalition, within the opposition, of one-time enemies. This was accomplished in Chile, Spain, and Indonesia. In greater detail, this essay examines Tunisia, the sole reasonably successful democratic transition of the Arab Spring. In all four cases, religious tensions had once figured prominently, yet were safely transcended by the actions of multiple leaders via mutual ideological and religious accommodations, negotiated socioeconomic pacts, and unprecedented political cooperation. A multiplicity of cooperating leaders, rather than a single “strong leader,” produced effective democratic leadership in Tunisia, Indonesia, Spain, and Chile.

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