Tunisia’s democratic experiment ‘still up for grabs’?


Thousands gathered in Tunisia’s capital Thursday to mark the fifth anniversary of the uprising that inspired the Arab Spring. Tunisians thronged Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare in central Tunis and the epicenter of the revolution, AFP reports:

Some attended political rallies, chanting revolutionary slogans like “Work! Freedom! Dignity!” and waving Tunisian flags, while others listened to concerts or reminisced about the uprising. For many the anniversary raised mixed feelings, with fierce pride at the revolution tempered by concerns over continued economic problems and a rise in jihadist violence.

Hundreds of unionists gathered before the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), to celebrate the anniversary. The labor movement is widely credited with convening a civil society coalition which saved the transition process and earned the participants the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tunisia’s democratic infrastructure is now almost complete, which, by historical standards, is a very swift transformation, notes Carnegie analyst Marc Pierini. Right now, the democratic hardware is in place, the software is not, he writes:

The parliament, for example—not much of a force under the police state—traditionally had a small budget, few offices, and very few qualified staffers. For the legislature to be fully involved in the crafting of laws, to debate proposals from the executive branch, and to interact with other constitutional organizations and Tunisian stakeholders at large is inevitably a long learning process. The same can be said, to varying extents, of other actors such as the executive branch, political parties, trade unions, business associations, and civil society organizations

The anniversary provides a moment to rethink the political trajectory of how a revolution is institutionalized and to separate the euphoria of a revolutionary movement from various forms of discontent with post-revolutionary governance, notes Laryssa Chomiak, author of an upcoming book on the politics of dissent in Ben Ali’s Tunisia.

The most notable achievement of Tunisia’s Jan. 14, 2011 revolution is the space for political critique, assembly and speech that the revolution carved and has protected, she writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

In only five years, public debate in Tunisia has been marked by contentious and open discussions about previously taboo topics, including religion and political orders, rule of law, stability vs. reform, gay rights, national consensus and political compromise, artistic expression, and the meaning of revolution and a democratic polity. It is the revolution that has made such discourse possible.

An eruption of accumulated grievances over joblessness, underdevelopment, and social exclusion in Tunisia’s marginalized regions sparked the 2011 revolution, notes Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research at the project on Middle East Democracy [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy]:

Since then, each successive government—including the current one—has promised to address these inequities, but little has happened. Now, the worry is that many young people, hit hard by dashed revolutionary hopes, social malaise, and economic hardship, are more and more alienated from the national-level political transition.

Tunisia is embarked upon a process of decentralization, but there is little debate about the possible costs, notes analyst Adnan Saif:

Political offices could yet be captured by local elites; after decades of centralised authoritarianism, local legislators are generally inexperienced; and highly localised government can of course be very expensive. Still, the draft legislation does include some safeguards to protect the process. The decentralisation process will be gradual, and economically lagging areas will benefit from extra financial support to keep them from falling behind… But for now, the World Bank at least is willing to give Tunisians the benefit of the doubt: it has agreed a funding package of US$300m in 2014 to support governance reform, endorsing the changes to local governance as “transformational”.

Civil society is thriving, and there’s a general sense that there can be no turning back to the pre-2011 days of a near police state, argues Sarah Feuer, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That said, many challenges remain, she writes for Tunisia Live:

The country’s economy sputters along, and too may Tunisians—especially those living in the chronically neglected regions of the interior, where the protests started back in 2010—haven’t seen any economic progress since the Jasmine Revolution, so many of the grievances that inspired the uprising remain unresolved. The spate of terror attacks last year killed the mild upticks in tourism the country had registered since the upheaval in 2011, further undermining economic growth. And the security threats remain considerable, not just in the form of spillover from neighboring Libya, but also in the terror cells that are periodically uncovered within the country’s borders.

All of this suggests Tunisia’s experiment in democracy is still very much up for grabs, Feuer concludes.

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