The wave of upheavals known as the Arab Spring overwhelmed Arab countries at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Tunisia could not help but fall under the influence of the neighboring countries striving for decent living conditions, protection of human life and rights, and the opportunity to become a democratic society. However, unlike other Arab states, the democratic experiment in Tunisia turned out to be successful, and the revolt itself was not long and did not lead to excessive bloodshed.
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This paper aims to investigate the specificities of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, especially the determinants of its short duration, its positive implications on the system, and transformations in the society. Another objective of the research is to identify the components of the efficient transition to democracy focusing on the internal and external forces driving the revolution and keeping its ideals alive.
Specific attention will be paid to current concerns related to societal and governmental views on the established democratic regime with the emphasis on their significance in avoiding the second wave of intolerance and turmoil. Finally, the paper will conclude in speculations on the future of democracy in Tunisia and some ways to preserve it.
The Arab Spring in Tunisia: Specificities and Challenges
The Arab Spring in Tunisia began with the self-immolation of the unemployed Mohamed Bouazizi in response to the cessation of his small business by the police officer as he sold vegetables in the streets to make his living (“Arab Uprising: Country by Country – Tunisia” par. 2). This protest movement is similar to the outburst of revolts in other Arab countries because they also began with the citizens setting themselves on fire in the streets.
This action brought other people to streets, encapsulating the resentment of everyone who had become suffocated by lawlessness, economic stagnation, and disrespect for human rights and freedoms accompanied with corruption, police abuse, and the absence of opportunities for personal and financial growth and development (Malsin par. 1).
The revolt was not durable, especially if compared to the cases of other Arab states. Lasting for only three weeks, it had a perfect ending as the dictatorship of President Ben Ali was overthrown. Even though the number of killed was around 300 people, this figure is significantly lower than in other countries swept by the unrest of the Arab Spring (“Arab Uprising: Country by Country – Tunisia” par. 2).
There were several reasons for the rise of intolerance and the launch of the revolution in Tunisia. First of all, Tunisians were dissatisfied with the standard of living, employment opportunities, working conditions, development of infrastructure, quality of social services such as education and healthcare, and, of course, the freedom of expressing themselves represented in excessive government control and interference in personal lives and affairs (“Tunisia: Analyzing the Dawn of the Arab Spring” par. 2). Moreover, they grew tired of poverty and seeing no prospects for a better future.
Regardless of the three hundred civilians who fell victim to the regime and revolution, the Arab Spring has become the source of numerous positive outcomes and the transformation of society. First and foremost, the President gave up his positions, helping to avoid thousands of deaths and years of unrest. Second, the country witnessed democratic and transparent parliamentary elections, where they had an opportunity to vote for a leader based on their personal and political convictions (Feuer par. 3). Furthermore, Tunisians received the chance to adopt a new Constitution, guaranteeing rights and freedoms and protecting them (Al-Ali and Romdhane par. 1).
Speaking of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, it is paramount to keep in mind its similarities and differences from the rest of the Arab countries covered by the revolt. Even though the underlying causes in each case were identical and related to the corrupt systems, Tunisia has become the only country reflecting the success of the ideals promoted by the rioters, turning it into an exception by avoiding the tragic turmoil witnessed in rest of the region.
For example, Syria was slaughtered by the civil war and has been forced to defend its citizens from the Islamic State, Libya fell victim to unrelieved chaos, Yemen was overcome by military actions, and Egypt returned to military authoritarianism (“The Guardian Views on Tunisia’s Transition: A Success Story” par. 2). Because neighboring states sank in unrest and its consequences are dreadful, it could serve as the motivation for finding ways to preserve the democratic regime in Tunisia and make it last, stimulating positive changes in society and altering the corrupt system to better avoid, at the same time, instances of repetitive unrest.
The Role of Religion in the Government and Protection Against Jihadists
One of the current concerns in modern Tunisia is the polarization between religion and secularism (Welsh par. 6-7). However, at the same time, it points to the establishment of democracy and strengthens it because democracy implies the coexistence of different religious views. Still, it is imperative to avoid the open collision of interests because it might lead to negative outcomes and tragic consequences. For now, Tunisia is highly polarized, and the secular party has withdrawn most of its representatives from the parliament, leaving the majority to the Islamists (Welsh 8).
Nevertheless, there are still secularists in the parliament, who work together with Islamists when developing the plans for further reforms to better the country (“Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” 10). This coexistence and cooperation of two parties point to the possibility of respecting the interests and addressing the needs of people living in different regions of Tunisia and adapting the programs of change to benefit them. This feature of the Tunisian regime proves that it is a democracy.
Still, there is a significant risk to preserving the achievements of the new government because not all representatives of religions are willing to cooperate to benefit the citizens and eradicate the elements of the corrupt system by replacing them with more perfect mechanisms of running the state (i.e., democratic leverages). Jihadist attacks, for example, were a critical matter of concern long before 2011 and the transition toward the democratic regime. However, as democracy has been established, the problem has become even more severe.
Because there is a high possibility of change in the whole region evoked by the positive experience of Tunisia, the local government should protect the interests of its citizens and their safety. Existing military regimes feel endangered because there is a risk of being overthrown. That is why they meet the institutionalization of democracy in Tunisia as a threat—because it could become the foundation for changing the dictatorial face of the region and removing the traditional regimes.
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Because the activities of jihadist groups jeopardize the stability in society, the government should develop the frameworks for separating radical organizations from peaceful ones and should integrate the latter into the political and societal systems (Abdessalem par. 13). Designing such frameworks might become the strategy for strengthening the regime in the country because democracy relates to the freedom of choice as well as the safety of society.
The Role of Civil Society Organizations in the Transition to Democracy
The role of civil society organizations in the transition to democracy should not be underestimated, because they are the drivers of positive change. In this case, it is paramount to note that there are two types of organizations involved: internal and external ones. Still, without regard to the type of institution, their central role is in financing the change and injecting funds for promoting it.
One of the examples of domestic civil society organizations is the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering the establishment of the democratic regime in Tunisia. The key to its success is the ability to reach a compromise between the sides of the religious parties represented in the parliament and the Tunisian society as a whole. The most significant achievement of this organization is achieving such spectacular outcomes without involving military force and through peaceful dialogue (“Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” 4).
Even though the National Dialogue has demonstrated its efficiency in enhancing democracy, there are still other significant missions to be accomplished since reaching unity among the members of parliament and in society is still distant. It can be explained by the fact that the democratic regime has been installed recently and that launching similar civil society organizations might help preserve it and change the whole region.
As for the international civil society organizations having an interest in establishing democracy in Tunisia, they include USAID, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, among others (“Tunisia: Analyzing the Dawn of the Arab Spring” par. 22, 29). The link between the operation of international organizations and enhancing democracy in Tunisia lies in making the country open to the outer world. In this case, it becomes easier to hint to effective strategies for guaranteeing and protecting human rights as well as decreasing the instability in the region by being able to monitor the situation from the inside and having an influence on it.
The role of USAID and the European Union in the establishment of the democratic regime in Tunisia comes down to developing the plans for the further development of the region, such as finding sources for developing infrastructure or fostering social change and stimulating reforms (“Tunisia: Analyzing the Dawn of the Arab Spring” par. 22).
As for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, they intend to analyze the economic situation in the country and identify ways for improving it by investing in creating new jobs, increasing standards of living, and combating corruption as well as designing the strategies for continuous and inclusive economic growth (“Tunisia: Analyzing the Dawn of the Arab Spring” par. 29). To sum up, the role of civil society organizations is to support and drive change, whether it is financial or organizational.
Foreign Implications on the Transition to Democracy
When speaking of foreign implications on change, specific attention is paid to the allocation of foreign investment. However, this case is different from the instance of civil society organizations because only separate countries and their roles in the development of territory are estimated. In the case of Tunisia, the significant share in the transition to democracy belongs to the United States of America due to their continuous injection of investment in the region. For example, in 2016 Congress plans to allocate $142 million to developing Tunisia’s potential (Feuer par. 10).
There are numerous reasons for allocating the funds in this country, which vary from economic drive to humane motives. However, the most significant motivation is the United States’ desire to demonstrate the benefits of democracy not only to Tunisia but also to the rest of the Arab countries willing to get on the path of democratic development. The investment can be used for both enhancing the economic situation in the country and protecting against jihadists as well as solving some currently existing concerns.
Still, the primary challenge in the case of Tunisia is the existence of numerous restrictions for allocating the funds. It can be explained by the peculiarities of the previous autocratic regime designed to benefit the chosen groups of society and limit the influence of foreign economic actors on the national development (“Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” 23). If the government takes steps to eliminate these restrictions, it will prove Tunisia’s desire to develop democracy and integrate it into the global network of cooperation.
Regardless of the numerous positive shifts and transformations in Tunisian society, there are some significant concerns related to the current state of affairs, which should not be ignored. First and foremost, more than 80 percent of Tunisians believe that the outcomes of the Arab Spring should have been more spectacular to justify the losses and lives shifted away during the revolt.
That said, the dissatisfaction with the current government is constantly growing as citizens claim that not enough effort has been put toward restoring the domestic economy, granting and protecting fundamental human rights, and investing in changing the face of the Tunisian society by injecting funds into education and reforms aimed at improving living standards and creating jobs (Bishai and Mastic par. 2).
The most troubling issue is the fact that high-quality education is not synonymous with better workplace conditions or employment in Tunisia because the unemployment rates remain high, and no prospect of positive change can be seen. Also, the economic environment in the country is unstable due to the collapse of the entrepreneurial sector and persistence of inequality in access to work and pay (“Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” 6).
What is even more significant is the fact that more than 70 percent of Tunisians feel that the current government is no better than the overthrown dictatorship due to the low level of transparency of political decisions and poor information about the involvement of Tunisia in regional and foreign affairs. That said, people have become disillusioned with the breakthroughs and ideals of the Arab Spring, and they believe that the situation in the country is most likely to worsen soon (Bishai and Mastic par. 7-8). This issue is closely related to the slowdown in the pace of governmental reform as the repetitive formation of new parliament has become a common trend in Tunisia (Feuer par. 8).
Other significant matters of concern drawing the attention of society are security and safety. The central issue is a higher rate of terrorism (“Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” 19). Even though the Tunisians are not limited in their rights, the problem of terrorism is alarming as almost 50 percent of citizens believe it is the central current problem due to the increased terrorist attacks on public places, such as restaurants, museums, and beach resorts.
Recall, for example, the massacre in the Sousse Beach taking 38 lives and 22 killed by the jihadists in the National Museum (Bennet-Jones par. 4). The latter is the most troubling because Tunisia is attractive to tourists and tourism is one of the sources of revenue to the state budget (Bishai and Mastic par. 6). The problem of terrorism is significantly aggravated with the involvement of young Tunisians in regional civil conflicts. As they start returning to their homeland, the risks of increased terrorism or higher crime rates are substantial (Feuer par. 9).
To sum up, the central current concern in Tunisia is the sense of mutual mistrust hovering over the Tunisian society like a black cloud. Neither citizens nor the elite can trust the government or each other because they feel they are being misinformed and, as a result, endangered. For example, citizens cannot trust the old elite because they feel that these groups benefited from the overthrown regime, while the elite cannot cooperate with the new government due to the fear of being punished for their past connections (Bennet-Jones par. 11-12). Altogether, it feeds the atmosphere of strain on society and undermines not only the ideals of the Arab Spring but also of democracy as such.
Conclusion: Speculations on the Future of Democracy in Tunisia
Tunisia is the only country in the Arab world that has had an opportunity to witness the benefits of democratic development preached by the rioters involved in the Arab Spring. One of the specificities of the transition process is its swiftness because the revolution was over in three weeks. Since the beginning of 2011, Tunisia has witnessed numerous positive transformations in their society, such as free parliamentary elections, adoption of the new constitution, and the coexistence and cooperation of the representatives of both Islamist and secularist parties in the parliament.
Regardless of the benefits mentioned above, there are still significant challenges that might threaten the future of democracy in Tunisia, such as continuous jihadist attacks, the atmosphere of mistrust in the country, and the danger of terrorism. The government should address them to avoid wasting the already achieved progress. Otherwise, there is no democratic future for Tunisia.
Some strategies can be deployed by the government to preserve the achieved progress and guarantee that the ideals of the Arab Spring are kept alive. First of all, getting involved in constructive dialogue with the members of parliament as the representatives of citizens and elite might help create the necessary environment of trust and openness because both the common people and the elite are interested in personal safety and protection of their rights.
In this case, it is paramount to demonstrate that the motivation of the elite is to enhance positive shifts in society instead of finding ways to derive enrichment illegally. Moreover, this strategy should be supplemented with launching efficient sources for communicating governmental decisions and actions so that people are informed of the latest news and do not underestimate the significance of victims of the Arab Spring.
Another way to preserve democracy is to design frameworks for detecting dangerous as well as peaceful organizations uniting religious minorities and finding resources and mechanisms for integrating them into society, working together to combat terrorism and diminish its risks. The extension of this strategy is involving the representatives of religious minorities in parliament so that they can address the specific needs of all citizens and enhance their development. Finally, it is imperative to focus on gaining international support, either financial or organizational, because foreign experience in building a democratic society might be feasible for detecting the currently existing gaps and filling them.
To sum up, several determinants are making Tunisia’s democratic transformation possible. First and foremost, the wise decision of President Ben Ali to give up his position and resign before the riot turned into a civil war was the initial step in the transition. Second is the readiness of citizens to embrace change and follow the path of democracy that drove the process. Moreover, it is the homogeneity of the population as well as the coexistence and cooperation of Islamists and secularists that made it efficient. Finally, the involvement of civil society organizations and the United States has also been instrumental.
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“Arab Uprising: Country by Country – Tunisia.” BBC News. 2013.
Bennet-Jones, Owen. “How Tunisia Is Keeping Arab Spring Ideals Alive.” BBC News. 2015.
Bishai, Linda, and Scott Mastic. “5 Years After the Spring.” US News. 2016.
Feuer, Sarah. “The Tunisian Democratic Experiment Five Years in.” Washington Post, 2016.
“The Guardian Views on Tunisia’s Transition: A Success Story.” The Guardian. 2014.
Malsin, Jared. “Why the Arab Spring Has Not Led to Disaster in Tunisia.” Time. 2015.
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