How to preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy


Tunisia’s top diplomat wants the U.S. to “reach out more” to the tiny North African nation for collaboration against the evolving threat posed by the Islamic State — and to bolster its fragile island of democracy, The Washington Times reports. “We have an example to show, not only to our American friends, but all over the world,” said Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui.

Now a nascent democracy, Tunisia is again facing the issue of police brutality. Several local and international NGOs have recently criticized police tactics, which authorities say is necessary to contain terrorist activity, the Tunis-based daily Le Temps reports:

At a recent conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), activists argued that Tunisian police have carried out mass arbitrary arrests and used physical violence and torture in interrogations. New laws outlawing torture and providing defendants with lawyers have routinely gone ignored, and detainees are subject to long periods of detention without trial.

In December 2015, Tunisia’s new government was in crisis.  It was broke.  Terrorism was suffocating an already weak economy.  The country’s biggest party was in shambles, writes Leo Siebert, Resident Tunisia Program Officer for the International Republican Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “Promised reforms were stalled indefinitely.  The prime minister and the president were not getting along.  Public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country had reached historic levels and faith in democracy was deteriorating,” he adds.

On Feb 2, 2016, President Beji Caid Essebsi enlisted IRI to work with the government on a new strategy of participatory responsive governance and engagement with youth. …. Essentially, this initiative consisted of local dialogues between the Tunisian government and young people in more than 1,000 towns and villages across the country, and highly publicized regional level dialogues with youth civil society activists engaging in honest and open dialogue with Minister of Youth and Sports, Ms. Majdouline Cherni.  With assistance from IRI, youth from marginalized regions were able to sit down face to face with their leaders.  The interactions were genuine.  There was anger.  There were sharp disagreements between youth from various social cleavages. 

Tunisia dialogue. Credit: IRI

“The government engaged in a type of dialogue that had once been unthinkable,” Siebert writes. “It was uncomfortable at times.  But it gained them some respect and signaled positive changes in how the government interacts with young people desperate for hope.” RTWT

Tunisia’s people are ready to take the challenge of governing within their own municipalities, says Chris Yonke, Senior Political Parties

Credit: IRI

Adviser for Tunisia for IRI, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Sadly, political party infighting and stalling on local elections is effectively losing the support of the very people that support their existence,” he writes. “Effective local government will need these young activists, local leaders, and people who genuinely care about their communities.” RTWT

Tunisia’s transition remains on course, primarily because civil society stuck to the principles of democracy and was instrumental in leading the country to choosing compromise over conflict, says analyst Donia Jemail.

Observers often disregard the extent to which Islamist parties are shaped by their distinctive local contexts, something that applies particularly to Tunisia, says Sayida Ounissi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament for the Ennahda party. In a contribution to Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative, Ounissi discusses the criticism from rank-and-file activists that Ennahda diluted its Islamist brand and identity in its attempt to hug the center. She also reflects on how the debate over Ennahda’s Islamic identity was informed by party leaders’ years of political exile as minorities in secular, Western countries.

Islam, Democracy And The Tunisian Bargain

Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, but the constitution guarantees freedom without discrimination and accords equal rights to all, notes Nagothu Naresh Kumar, an analyst at Budapest’s Central European University. This variety of political dispensation is premised upon the idea that Islam calls for a demarcation of state and religious authority but not separation of religion and state which thinkers such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi (left) believe is against the spirit of Islam, Kumar contends:

The bargain and compromises forged in the Tunisian case moreover show that political theologies emanating out of Islam are fluid working in contravention of the commonly held assumption that they are etched in stone. As such, all religions are capable of generating political theologies that are helpful as well as unhelpful in the pursuance of a democratic ethos contingent upon the temporal and geographical atmosphere.

Of all the North African states featuring so-called Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia is exceptional. While its process of democratization is still ongoing, to make it really happen and move the country forward towards democracy, Europe must take its due part, analyst Hamza Meddeb argues in ‘Peripheral Vision: How Europe Can Help Preserve Tunisia’s Fragile Democracy’, a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

First, it could boost the incentives for Tunisia by offering it a membership in the European Economic Area, thus galvanizing the country’s journey towards stability.

Second, the European Union should help Tunis promote the role of the country’s private sector, implement an effective mechanism for positive discrimination and strengthen civil society in the peripheries.

Tunisia’s ticking time bomb

Meddeb is critical of Tunisian authorities for focusing exclusively on security aspects in the war against terror, rather than launching efforts to genuinely address the causes of youth radicalization. There’s no consensus over how to tackle the problem [of radicals returning from fighting in Syria], he tells Qantara:

As soon as the discourse touches on the role of political Islam, society is polarised. And the debate is always focused on security aspects. Returnees are criminals and terrorists and should therefore stay away. People look for an easy solution. … We now have the seventh prime minister since the Revolution and the average shelf-life of a government is less than a year. Violent extremism will not be solved by leaving society to confront its own demons. Those in power are simply managing the status quo. This makes the situation all the more fragile, because we’re just perpetually going around in circles.


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