Is Tunisia’s democracy being derailed?


Over the course of just one week, the Tunisian government has made three concerning moves that, taken together, signal a major backsliding in its democratic development, Carnegie analyst Sarah Yerkes writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • The first occurred on September 11 when Tunisia’s Parliament approved a government reshuffle that enabled the replacement of 13 of 28 cabinet ministers. It was an alarming move, as some of the new ministers have ties to the former regime of dictator Zine el Abidene Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring.
  • The second incident took place three days later. After a divisive, years-long debate over President Beji Caid Essebsi’s controversial economic reconciliation law (dubbed the “administrative reconciliation law”), Parliament passed it 119 to 98 with 90 members boycotting the vote. (Many of those who abstained joined protesters outside of the Parliament building.) This law grants amnesty to civil servants who facilitated corruption under the Ben Ali regime without putting them through any sort of legal process…
  • Then finally, on September 18, the government announced that Tunisia’s first-ever municipal elections, scheduled for December 17, would be postponed for a third time—likely until the end of March 2018. The elections were originally scheduled for October 2016, but were postponed to March 2017 and then again to December 2017 due to a variety of logistical and political factors. The government postponed them this time because the head of the elections body resigned over the summer, slowing down the election preparation process.

It’s no wonder that the number of Tunisians who say they “trust the government to a medium or a great extent” fell from 62 percent in 2011, just after the revolution, to 35 percent in 2016, according to Arab Barometer.

Before reforms can truly take root, it is first vital to understand where and how corruption occurs, say Brian Braun, a Program Manager in the International Republican Institute’s Middle East and North Africa Division, and Eguiar Lizundia, a Senior Governance Specialist at IRI’s Center for Global Impact. In order to better understand citizens’ daily experience with corruption and determine the best ways to support anti-corruption champions, in July 2017 IRI conducted an assessment in the municipality of Manouba to identify vulnerabilities to corruption in municipal government processes, they write for WINEP’s Fikra Forum:

In Manouba, we found that key administrative services provided by the municipality—most notably the notarization of public documents and the issuing of construction permits—are critically vulnerable to corruption. In interviews with a broad spectrum of city stakeholders, this was repeatedly attributed to the poor quality of public service delivery. Faced with limited access to information, arbitrary requisites, and long wait times, many citizens find it simpler to bypass the established legal and bureaucratic channels and offer small bribes to secure what they need.

Meanwhile, a “democratization” of corruption has occurred, in which the center no longer so tightly controls the abuse of public office, notes Kate Bateman, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. Grand corruption may have decreased in volume, but corruption overall seems to have risen. Political parties, consumed with internal jockeying and compromised by their own corrupt practices, have not taken on corrupt patronage networks. Perhaps this is also why they did not mount serious political opposition to the reconciliation law, she writes for Lawfare:

Tunisia’s international supporters should do all they can to maintain pressure on the government to demonstrate a genuine commitment to tackling corruption and impunity. If donors, partners, and investors want long-term stability in Tunisia, they should deliver a consistent political message on the importance of rule of law, support Tunisian civil society efforts and offer incentives to the Tunisian government to take tangible reform steps.

In 2013, it was estimated that corruption costs the Tunisian economy more than 2 billion USD, writes Laura Hagg, Resident Tunisia Country Director for IRI [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.] Imagine how Tunisia could invest that money into infrastructure, communities and job programs instead of losing it to corruption, she adds.

Furthermore, grievances against corruption are fueling violent extremism in Tunisia, according to a recent IRI poll which examined the drivers of violent extremism. A 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study estimated that 6,000 Tunisians have left their country to join the ranks of ISIS, a number disproportionate to the country’s small size, Bateman adds.

There is a glimmer of hope, however, argues Jonathan Fenton-Harvey. Along with last month’s marriage law, Tunisia passed a historic anti-violence law in July, which tightens penalties for violence against women, criminalizes sexual harassment, along with scrapping a colonial-era ‘marry-your-rapist’ law, he writes for Open Democracy.

“This could be the start of a ‘domino-effect’ scenario, in which other activists become inspired to push for greater reforms,” he adds. “After all, both changes came after years of campaigning and pressure from women’s rights movements.”

Alongside Ukraine, Tunisia deserves special attention as one of a small set of vulnerable but important post-transition democraciesargues 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.

The Tunisian government has proven to be a strong and reliable security and economic partner to the United States and Europe, and its political and social environment is conducive to increased financial assistance, Yerkes adds:

Democratic transitions are inherently uncertain and tumultuous. With ISIS next door in Libya, the failure of Tunisia’s transition would have implications far beyond its borders. Thus, it is in both the region’s and the West’s interests to make sure that the country succeeds in upholding the democratic principles that so many Tunisians sacrificed their lives for in 2011.


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