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Tunisia: Democratic Miracle or Mirage?

[ ["Tunisia Grunge Flag." Image by Nicolas Raymond via Flickr]

Since December 2014, Western officials and analysts have very actively, almost aggressively, celebrated the Tunisian “success,” which is alternatively defined as an “exception” or a “model” in a chaotic Arab world. Following the Tunisian president’s official visit to France in April 2015, Beji Caid Essebi’s visit to the United States on 20-21 May 2015, completed the Western consecration of Tunisia’s induction into the “club of democracies.” The current fascination with Tunisia’s democratic achievement, echoing the blind celebration of the so-called Tunisian economic miracle during the Ben Ali era, requires critical analysis. The promotion of Tunisia as a “bon élève démocratique” today poses the same problems as the defense of Tunisia as a “bon élève économique” in the past, and rests on similar neoliberal and depoliticizing assumptions.

What Tunisians have achieved over the past four years is indeed extraordinary (rather than exceptional). The Tunisian National Constitutional Assembly (TNCA) has succeeded in drafting a new constitution despite the numerous crises (including two dramatic political assassinations) that regularly threatened to derail this unique experiment of collective deliberation. Parliamentary and presidential elections were organized successfully. Further, despite the limited turnout, these elections effectively and peacefully brought about a period of transition. Civil society has become extremely mobilized and vigilant, with an impressive proliferation of associations, artistic performances, and new media.

While these crucial achievements should be acknowledged, and give us reason for hope, it is important to note how the West’s stubborn attempt at reducing Tunisia to a “success story” contributes to obfuscating the reality of the social grievances, and frustration toward the political elites that is actually transpiring in the country. The two main goals of the revolution, namely social justice and political pluralism, are fading away each day, in the name of a category of “democracy” that has been stripped of its political and social meaning. The op-ed Barack Obama and Beji Caid Essebsi co-authored on 20 May 2015 in the Washington Post is a perfect embodiment of this general infatuation with empty pro-democracy rhetoric, the major effect of which is to render Tunisia’s society invisible and deprive its people of their collective voice. The United States' faith in Tunisia’s future and its commitment to support the democratic consolidation is expressed through the juxtaposition of buzzwords, and catch-all notions such as “opportunity,” “security,” “reforms,” and “partnership.” Beyond this managerial jargon, the joint statement does not delineate any real political and economic vision for Tunisia. The superimposition of deceitful and elusive concepts on a dark socio-economic reality is nothing new. "Stability" was a key concept of the Ben Ali regime, and it was used to legitimize various, and often contradictory economic strategies. The attitude of international donors who saw this fake stability as a condition of development only reinforced this shallow rhetoric. The emphasis on stability not only led Ben Ali's administration to avoid compliance with external pressures of liberalization and economic globalization. It also allowed them to avoid implementing structural and political reforms. [1] The Tunisian revolution has shown the inanity of such an avoidance approach. 

Admittedly, the Tunisian government's priority is to attract capital inflows and economic support from the United States. US support to Tunisia was necessary, and did help the country to avoid a major crisis. Total US assistance to Tunisia since 2011 amounts to nearly 700 million dollars. The US sovereign loan guarantee also allowed successive Tunisian governments to borrow 485 million dollars in 2012 and 500 million dollars in 2014. However, the US assistance will be useful only if it is integrated into a long-term vision and serious reform agenda driven primarily by Tunisians themselves. In the absence of such an agenda, the conversations that took place during the Tunisian president's visit to the United States last May suggest once more that both countries prioritize military and security support, at the expense of non-military instruments of cooperation. Although US assistance was doubled to 138 million dollars after the Bardo attacks of 18 March 2015, it is still far from sufficient to help Tunisia face its current economic and social challenges. The delegation president Caid Essebsi led sought a loan guarantee, in order to allow Tunisia to gain access to international capital markets, and to endure the financial pressure exerted by international financial institutions. The visit took place at a critical moment, as the International Monetary Fund is incessantly pushing for structural reforms.[2] Its decision to postpone to the end of this year the allocation of 600 million dollars initially promised for June 2015, creates additional pressure on the government, which needs 1.3 billion dollars to meet the 2015 budget deficit. The visit to America, in that sense, constitutes an attempt at diversifying the sources of debt. This race for international funding is coupled with the government's inability to implement structural reforms in order to foster job creation and attract investment, especially in deprived regions. Capital inflows will not contribute to Tunisia’s economic recovery if they are not coupled with key reforms such as decentralization and the reallocation of state resources. The crisis of capital inflows reveals a much deeper crisis of governance, characterized by the lack of political vision, and the reluctance to launch a wide and inclusive debate on reforms that are adapted to the needs and constraints of the Tunisian society rather than contradictory with them. In the current context marked by the absence of clear political orientation and of collective deliberation that includes all the relevant social and political actors, the prospects for democratic consolidation and economic prosperity are much grimmer than analysts may want to admit. More specifically, Tunisians are facing three major problems, which, if not immediately addressed, could soon tear apart the rosy picture that the Tunisian government is presenting to the world.

First, the pressing issue of social justice that was at the origin of Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-ignition is becoming more contentious everyday. Since the formation of the government in February 2015, strikes, demonstrations and occupations of work places have been incessant. Members of the health sector, schoolteachers, railway workers, civil servants have organized numerous protests and strikes. Since March 2015, strikes in the mining region of Gafsa have completely blocked all economic activity in the surrounding area. Recently, clashes occurred between unemployed youth and police forces in the city of El Faouar in the South West of the country. The protesters reclaimed their right to employment and the development of their marginalized region, where many oil companies are installed without endorsing any social or environmental responsibility in the development of the area. As representative of the middle classes, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) appears increasingly unable to deal with these protests and to channel the social claims of the disenfranchised lower classes, who feel excluded from political representation and from enjoying the benefits of the revolution.[3] In addition, the arm wrestling between the UGTT and the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade,  and Handicrafts (UTICA), which is the main union representing the entrepreneurs, has worsened the situation dramatically. The UGTT condemned the implication of businessmen in tax evasion, and called for a fiscal reform in order to overcome the budget deficit, arguing that such reforms had become urgent in order to contain political instability.

The response of the government in face of all this social unrest has been lagging at best. In the context of the post-Bardo trauma, the rhetoric emphasizing national unity and state authority in the name of the war on terror--and echoing international emotionalism around slogans such “we are all Americans in 2001” or “Je suis Charlie” in 2015--has resurfaced, bringing to mind the discursive promotion of unity and stability during the Ben Ali era. Social movements are increasingly criminalized, participants in social protests are made to feel guilty for threatening the country so-called exceptional transition, and the absence, or slowness of solutions is blamed on the former government of the troika. This social instability not only indicates the government's inability to contain the protests; it mainly expresses the inability of the political system to include all political and societal forces and its limited capacity to mediate social conflict.

Second, numerous Tunisian activists and commentators are seriously questioning and second-guessing the very notion of pluralist politics that the democratic consolidation was supposed to facilitate. The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (TNCA) (2011-2014) was a truly pluralist experiment in two senses. First, it brought to the fore a new, younger, more diverse political class with different backgrounds like Mohamed Hamdi, the president of the democratic coalition, the main opposition bloc in the TNCA who is a politician, labor unionist, and a local activist in Medenine at the Tunisian-Libyan border. Moreover, it allowed for the assorted parties and actors to actually resolve their conflicts through deliberation and negotiation, despite the dramatic crises that repeatedly blocked their work. By contrast, the compromise that characterizes the present political scene pertains to a strategy of conflict avoidance, rather than conflict resolution. Rather than an instrument of peaceful pluralism, compromise has turned into a strategy of elite-pacting, and mutual cooptation and neutralization between the formerly two most violently opposed parties, Ennahda and Nida Tounes.

As to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), it is now dominated by four right wing parties (Ennahda, Nida, Afek, and UPL), all of which share the same neoliberal understanding of social reform. The agonistic form of pluralism that characterized the work of the ARP has given way to a much more stifling style of political transaction, defined by preference falsification and anticipated deals regarding power sharing. Although it may bring some resemblance of stability in the short run, the rotten form of compromise that is shaping the politics of the post transition period carries with it numerous risks for both parties, and for the future of democratic politics in Tunisia. Mostly, this appearance of stability and compromise leads to an increased disconnect between the bases and the leadership of parties, and the isolation of the latter; and it further alienates the people from politics, by giving credibility to the notion that all that politicians desire is to “share the cake” between themselves, and that social grievances are of no concern to them.

Third, the future of democratic politics in Tunisia is inseparable from the issue of the sovereignty of the country from geopolitical and economic pressure that foreign powers in the Arab and Western worlds exert. This crisis of governance shows the striking overlap between politics and economics. In fact, economic recovery and political stability require the establishment of a social compromise between labor forces and capital holders, who need to agree on which structural reforms they should adopt in order to strengthen Tunisia’s leverage in negotiations with international financial organizations. In that sense, a fiscal and banking sector reform will undoubtedly allow the mobilization of internal resources and help to bring the debt, which represents fifty-three percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), under control. The adoption of a consensual investment code will also help to stimulate domestic and foreign investment. The fragile internal situation and the regional turmoil represent a real threat to the future of democratic politics in Tunisia, particularly in light of the diplomatic pressures aiming at committing Tunisia to supporting one of the belligerents in Libya. Tunisia should lend its support to the search for political solutions to the Libyan crisis in order to secure its borders, consolidate its fragile stability, and protect its citizens living and working in Libya. The government must tackle more broadly the development of a national strategy for combating terrorism. The aim should be to achieve a higher level of consensus, and to maintain security without sacrificing freedom.

As Corinna Mullin and Brahim Rouabah have pointed out, the uncritical celebration of Tunisian democracy by Western media and political officials may prove quite unproductive and deceptive in the long term, just like the uncritical celebration of the so-called economic miracle was under Ben Ali’s rule. More than eulogy, Tunisia's democracy is in need of critical examination and solidarity. While some analysts may be true admirers of the unique achievements reached over the past years, singing the praises of the Tunisian democracy often seems to serve the same function as the rhetoric of celebration of stability in the past. Moreover, the democracy rhetoric is closely intertwined with a revisionist rewriting of the transition period that is reconstructed as a mere parenthesis in a long history oriented towards peaceful reforms. This revisionist account of the past not only obliterates the revolution that made it all possible, but oddly reconstructs the political trajectory of Nida Tounes officials, and magically attributes to them a democratic virginity. Some may argue that democratization simply requires the conversion of former elites to the rule of law, and democratic principles and institutions, be it by conviction or by opportunism. However, the fact remains that the governance crisis and the three challenges that we described are closely linked with the opportunistic and superficial dimension of the compromise that was reached between the main political players after the fall of 2014. This compromise did not create the conditions for a healthy political pluralism, nor for a robust accommodation between political elites and a society that remains highly alienated from politics.

To a large extent, it is fair to say that Tunisia has indeed turned into a democracy, which, despite its youth, ironically shares from the outset the same ills as older democracies (low vote participation and a collective distrust in political elites). Unless social protests generalize and turn violent, an abrupt turn to an Egyptian scenario, with revocation of political liberties, and the return to authoritarian rule, is unlikely in the near future in Tunisia. This perspective, however, is based upon the fragility of the present political compromise, rather than on the strength of pluralism and on the vigor of the political scene. The current equilibrium is based on the fact that no political party is powerful enough to govern alone. This favors the development of mistrust among political actors and of attempts at causing destabilization and achieving hegemony. It also risks facilitating the increased intrusion of regional powers into national politics.

In this context, the global attempt at depicting Tunisia as a success story does very little to help the concrete lives of Tunisians and to strengthen the nascent democracy. Compared with the large degree of suspicion against Ennahda in 2011, the almost univocally uncritical support and approval from analysts and political officials worldwide is worrying. While the participation of the current president in Ben Ali’s assembly, and his lack of opposition to the authoritarian rule are strikingly downplayed, the fact that numerous Nida Tounes deputies used to belong to, or to hold high posts within, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) is almost never mentioned. The global double standard in analysis of the role of Ennahda in 2011 and that of Nida Tounes in 2014, the striking opposition between the definition of the Troika government in 2011 (presented as treacherous and deceitful) and the present alliance, then, beg the question of the reality of the standards under which the Tunisian success is to be evaluated. Is Tunisia successful because it progressed toward achieving the goals of the revolution, namely social justice, and political pluralism? Or, is it successful because it brought to the fore a “democracy” that finally looks like “us” and confirms “our” theories of progress and economy?


[1] Samy Elbaz, « When the Regime of 'Change' Champions 'Stability': Words and Development Trends in Tunisia », Revue Tiers Monde, n 200, 2009/4, pp. 821-835.

[2] The weakness of economic support is not exclusive to the United States. Europe always gave priority to supporting Ukraine which is on the verge of bankruptcy. See : http://orientxxi.info/magazine/les-dilemmes-du-nouveau,0813.

[3] The UGTT was created in 1946 and played an important role in the anticolonial struggle and during the independence era. For more on the role of the UGTT see Fabio Merone, “Enduring Class Struggle in Tunisia: the Fight for Identity beyond Political Islam,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015, 42 (1), pp. 74-87.

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