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Dec 15, 2023


In countries with high unemployment and poverty rates, the nation`s people are often more concerned with the economic environment than the intricacies of its political systems.

In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller in a street in Tunisia, set fire to himself after police had confiscated his scales for working as a street vendor without a permit. He had gone to complain to the governor, but he refused to see him. His self-immolation was an act of sheer
desperation. The video of this incident spread worldwide. His death was seen as a symbol of the despair felt by ordinary people throughout the Arab world, suffering from poverty, unemployment and, above all, despair, with no prospect of a better future. His death is often held up as the spark that set off the `Arab Spring`, in which people in a number of autocratic Arab countries took to the streets in protest against their ruling regimes, which traditionally enriched the ruling elite at the expense of the public good. The incident ignited protests in Tunisia that led to the departure of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years. This event came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. In 2011, he and his family fled to Saudi Arabia where he died in exile in 2019. The road from toppling dictators to making a successful transition to democracy would be a bumpy one. Tunisia is held out as having been more successful in democratic transition that some of its neighbours, such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. But poverty and unemployment, especially among the young, has seen little alleviation.

Tunisia was under French colonial rule until 1956, when it made the transition from a monarchy to a secular constitutional republic, with lawmaking vested in an assembly. Its first leader as a free state was Habib Bourguiba, its independence leader, who ruled as president for nearly three decades. Despite the hope of democratic elections and pluralism, he ruled as the head of an authoritarian, one-party state. By the mid-1980s, when he was becoming enfeebled, what was, in effect, a coup took place. The then-prime minister Ben Ali took over in 1987 on the grounds that the president was incapacitated. This was held to be within the constitution and there were hopes that democratic transition would ensue, enshrining pluralism and a multi- party democracy. Unfortunately, the tendency to a strong state and personal rule re-emerged, as the new government took repressive measures against the rising threats of Islamists. Harsh authoritarian rule characterized Ben Ali`s 23-year tenure from 1987 to 2011. An interim government was installed in 2011, and a new era was beginning, to be guided by a new constitution.

The new constitution was several years in the making, all parties seeking consensus on the priorities and processes. The constitution of 2014 was progressive, enshrining freedom of religion, women`s rights, citizens` rights and due process. It helped to establish the notion of an
Arab cultural identity that incorporated both Muslims and non-Muslims. But with high hopes for democratic governance, the problems of inequality, high unemployment and weak social protections meant that Tunisia was still mired in the same problems that had sparked the protests in 2010. The IMF estimated that Tunisia`s economy would need to grow at 5% annuallyfor five years to reduce the unemployment from 15% to 11%. From 2010 to 2017, economic growth averaged just 1.7%.

The government`s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic led to violent anti-government protests in the summer of 2021 when infection rates rose. The president responded by seizing power, dismissing the prime minister and declaring a state of emergency. Was this another coup?

Certainly, the public had become disillusioned with the apparent ineffectiveness of the lawmakers in dealing with the continuing socioeconomic problems, as well as the pandemic. It seemed that Tunisians were more concerned about jobs and social safety net measures than the type of political system. Liberal democracy in practice, it seemed, had brought greater personal freedoms but had failed to bring better living standards and individual wellbeing. The world looked on as Tunisia`s latest democratic transition faltered. Electoral democracy had been fostered by western governments as the route to social inclusiveness and political stability. But they perhaps paid too little heed to the economic environment. Inequality, unemployment, the lack of inclusive development - ultimately, these mattered more than the
trappings of democracy. Electoral democracy is a necessary first step but, for democracy to be sustainable, a culture of democratic values is required, which cannot be imposed from above. Tunisia`s long history of dictatorial rule has been difficult to overcome.


-Why is Tunisia held up as a relatively heartening example of democratic progress?
-What aspects of Tunisia`s history are relevant to its democratic development today?
-What are the socioeconomic aspects of Tunisia that pose obstacles for democratic transition?
-Authoritarian governments throughout the world, such as China, are probably reassured that Tunisia`s democracy has suffered more setbacks. What would you say to them in defence of democracy?

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