Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The real Tunisian spring

The real Tunisian spring
Published 3 Feb 2015 

On 21 December 2014, Tunisians elected a president by universal suffrage for the first time in their history.

The election marked the success of a democratic transition initiated when a popular uprising sparked by the death of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Sidi Bouzid (central Tunisia) led to the ousting of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011.

As the Tunisian revolution came to have a domino effect in the Arab world, marking the beginning of the Arab Spring, expectations for democratic transitions in the region were raised. Four years later, we have an authoritarian army-backed regime in place in Egypt, chaos and a disintegrating social and political fabric in Libya, an endless civil war in Syria, and political instability in Yemen

Among these tragic turmoils, Tunisia stands out as an exception. Four years after the downfall of its dictator, Tunisia has peacefully completed its transition to democracy by electing a constituent assembly that produced a new constitution which expanded civil liberties (the third one in the country's history, after those of 1861 and 1959), and organised fully democratic parliamentary and presidential elections.

How can we explain such an outcome? A number of characteristics make this small country, with modest natural resources, a special case in the Arab world: [fold]

  • The role played by civil society in highly urbanised areas.
  • A modernised society thanks to the abolition of tribal structures after independence in 1956. Tunisia is today a country unified by its municipal organisation.
  • Tunisia is relatively homogeneous and unified, with no strong ethnic or religious minorities. This is the why the country is open to modernity (female emancipation, social reform, multi-lingualism, some religious tolerance) without risk to its national unity.
  • A republican army with no political ambition.
  • A relatively advanced political and social life (eg. political parties have existed since the 1920s, and Tunisia has the oldest trade union in Africa).
  • Modern education and high literacy.

What's more, Islamist fundamentalists played no role in the revolution, the army did not intervene against the popular revolt, and Tunisian women played a key role in defending civil liberties during the uprising.

Tunisia's success has come despite several challenges.

The result of the October 2011 elections, the first free elections in the country's history, generated a major discrepancy with the objectives of the revolution, which were freedom and dignity. The Ennahda Movement, a party of Islamic obedience, ran a campaign mainly centered on identity, Islam and sharia law. It won the largest number of assembly seats without obtaining a majority (89 out of 217 seats). This allowed Ennahda to lead a coalition government for two years before handing power to a caretaker government. Islamists tried to hastily advance their vision of society and embed it within the new constitution, but hard-fought negotiations in the constituent assembly followed as well as multiple protests by civil society.

Furthermore, in 2014 the country held successful parliamentary and presidential elections under a new constitution, which were decisive for shaping both state and society. This in a period marked by high levels of polarisation between Islamists and secularists. The elections showed that a majority of Tunisians want the country to remain secular.

In October 2014, the secular Nidaa Tounes party won 86 seats while Ennahda only won 69. Nidaa Tounes was conceived in the aftermath of the 2011 assembly elections in reaction to the perceived threat of an Islamisation of Tunisian society, and to preserve Tunisia's post independence modernist achievements. Nidaa Tounes, whose base of support is broad and comprises leftist figures, trade unionists and businessmen,  defended modernity without excluding political Islam. In December 2014  the leader of Nidaa Tounes, the 88-year old Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected president of Tunisia by universal suffrage. He defeated Moncef Marzouki, the interim president and candidate of the Islamists and their allies (Marzouki was not officially endorsed by Ennahda, but Islamists voted for him). 

The Second Tunisian Republic is showing the Arab world the path toward democracy through peaceful change. By emerging from the storms of revolution as a consensual, secular and enlightened democracy, it is illustrating the existence of a real Tunisian Spring.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gwenael Plaser.

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