Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in 2011 that ousted then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali set off the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa that resulted in the overthrow of sclerotic governments. But the early optimism of the Arab Spring has since dimmed, as the revolutionary protests led to chronic instability in places like Yemen and Libya, the rise of a new authoritarian regime in Egypt and a bloodbath in Syria.
Except in Tunisia. The country has clung to its initial hopes to enact reforms after a fruit cart vendor set himself on fire after being humiliated by the police. But the road to democracy is a long and rocky one. It’s early days yet, and the country still has to tackle the economic grievances that fueled the 2011 mass uprising — all while setting up its first local elections since the revolution and going about the business of governing during a fraught transition process.
Clearly, this is not impossible, seeing all the democracies that exist around the world. Each country has to start somewhere. Whether the transition to democracy is successful depends on time, resources and the willingness of the diverse segments of the population, including those already governing, to compromise and unite toward the same goal.
On that front, Tunisia has already made significant strides. After the overthrow of Ben Ali, who had ruled the North African nation for 23 years, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party came to power. But it failed to jumpstart the moribund economy. And amid fears of growing extremism, its Islamic leanings faced a backlash in the historically progressive nation. After a series of protests, Ennahdha leaders made the unprecedented move to resign in favor of a technocratic government. They also adopted a liberal constitution guaranteeing key rights; launched a widely lauded national dialogue; and ushered in the peaceful transfer of power to the more secular Nidaa Tounes party, with whom Ennahdha now governs as part of a coalition.
But the government has struggled to address widespread joblessness. Despite expected economic growth in the next two years due to structural reforms and greater social stability, the growth has not been enough to curb inflation or youth unemployment, which remains staggeringly high. Even for those with jobs, wages can average as low as $7 to $10 a day.
Tunisia’s economic struggles have been exacerbated by austerity measures demanded by the IMF as part of a $2.8 billion loan program contingent on tough reforms that have, among other things, hiked taxes and the cost of gas. As a result, protests broke out earlier this year, with hundreds of people arrested.
There’s also the wildcard of terrorism. Terrorist attacks against tourists in Tunisia in 2015 were a huge security and economic blow to the country’s all-important tourism industry. And at one point, Tunisia contributed more foreign jihadists to the Islamic State takeover of Syria and Iraq than any other country on a per-capita basis.
Tunisians are now looking toward the upcoming municipal elections to decentralize their government, revive the economy and keep extremism at bay.
“Tunisia is tackling not only security and democratization and reforms — Tunisia is tackling everything,” said Fayçal Gouia, Tunisia’s ambassador to the U.S., at a panel in March at the Middle East Institute (MEI) on “Elections in Tunisia and hope for democratic reform.”
Regularly held free and fair elections, including at the local level, are an integral part of a healthy, functional democracy, and Tunisia has been on the fence about when to hold its first local elections since 2011. The date for municipal elections has been pushed back several times, with the argument that the country is not politically ready for elections. They have finally been scheduled for May 6.
In a mature democracy, the emphasis is often on the presidential election. In Tunisia, municipal elections are just as important, if not more so, than the parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in 2019. The results of the local elections will influence the national elections, indicating which parties and independent candidates will hold more sway among voters.
There has been a tug of war between working through the process of decentralizing government and the timing of elections. Political actors in Tunisia had been reluctant to set the date for elections until a decentralization law was finalized. But activists fear the delays are an effort by members of the old guard and political elite to further entrench themselves in power.
Tunisian government is based on the French system, whereby power is consolidated at the national level. Local governments are therefore dependent on the national government for budget and authority.
The new constitution that was established in 2014 included language that called for decentralizing government to give more power to municipal authorities.
The decentralization law continues to be debated, and until it is finalized, municipal governments lack influence.
While some Tunisians were pushing for the date of municipal elections to be set, others wanted the decentralization law to be settled before holding elections. Critics think Tunisia has put the cart before the horse by delinking the electoral process from the decentralization of power.
“At this stage, the municipal councils don’t have much power,” said Elie Abouaoun, the director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The system is still the old one under the French mandate. It’s a heavily centralized system. Tunisia’s parliament and the political establishment have been debating the law of decentralization in the last two years. Once this law is voted, then municipal councils will have more power and access to resources. This is what the political parties are eying. Candidates are looking for how much power they can wield once this law passes.”
There isn’t yet a clear indication of what form decentralization will take, but if the final result will be an extreme swing away from centralized government, that brings up its own problems.
“There is a tendency among most political and social actors to go to a large decentralized model, which means more powers for the municipal councils,” said Abouaoun. “My fear, shared with other international organizations, is if the level of decentralization is too great and the government is not able to work on an accountability and transparency framework in parallel with the decentralization law, then the effect of the law will be counterproductive.”
He recommends that moving forward, the government also tackle corruption, which was a major grievance against the Ben Ali regime.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign that has led to arrests and investigations of businessmen and government officials, but this top-down approach will not necessarily translate into anti-corruption practices at the local level.
“The opportunities that decentralization and local elections bring are about bringing democracy and decision making closer to the people, but the risks are that flaws in the system — corruption and patronage — get replicated at the local level,” said Sabina Henneberg, a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, at the MEI event.
The Candidate Field
At the moment, the horse race of the municipal elections is unpredictable, and that’s because a slew of candidates ranging from established political players to independents are all in the running. Tunisians who have not been traditionally part of politics are eager to get in the game, aided by the new election law that mandates inclusiveness in the electoral candidate field. That includes a large number of young people.
There are 2,173 lists of candidates vying for 7,287 seats in 350 municipalities, said Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy research and programs at MEI, at the panel. More than 75 percent of candidates are under the age of 45; 50 percent are under 35; 47.5 percent are women; and there are more than 1,800 candidates with special needs, he added.
The impetus for the revolution in 2011 was an overwhelming disenchantment with the old regime, where people outside of politics felt they had no say in how government affects their daily lives or their economic prospects. The municipal elections will be a grassroots approach to give marginalized people a chance to participate in local government, which is the base of a democracy.
“You cannot talk about democratization of the country without talking of local governance,” said Ambassador Gouia at the panel. “It is essential to decentralize, to give power to people to exercise their rights in terms of determining their future and the future of their regions and communities and localities.”
Young people are especially keen to get involved in government, which is not surprising given the size and grievances of Tunisia’s youth — more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30. While generally well educated, Tunisia’s young people face bleak job prospects and that in turn is driving some to leave the country or turn to radical Islam.
Officials hope municipal elections provide an outlet for frustrated youth and will be a good training ground for political novices, especially given that only 3 percent of Tunisians under the age of 30 are currently members of political parties, according to FTDES, a Tunisian nongovernment organization and research center.
These elections will serve as “an outlet for civic engagement, building up political leadership, getting people involved,” said Elissa Miller, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “It’s important for Tunisian youth who want to be in politics. They can develop a new political class able to compete with entrenched elitist parties.”
As a middle-income country, Tunisia has shown disappointing economic growth. The terrorist attacks on tourists in 2015 kept would-be travelers away from Tunisia’s popular beaches, although Gouia noted that the number of visitors is expected to return to the level it was before the 2011 revolution.
But economic growth has been anemic and not enough to meet the high expectations that the 2011 revolution inspired. In 2015, the economy only grew by 1.1 percent and by 1 percent in 2016. It grew by 1.8 percent in the first half of 2017. What little growth there was came mostly from the services and agricultural sectors. Inflation rose to 5.6 percent year over year in July 2017, with core inflation (excluding food and energy items) rising to 6.7 percent.
One of the catalysts of the 2011 revolution was severe youth unemployment. That year, the youth unemployment rate for those in the 15-to-24 age bracket was 42.6 percent. In 2017, it was 35.4 percent, according to the World Bank. There are also huge income disparities between the coastal cities and more remote, interior regions.
Tunisia sought help from the International Monetary Fund to address its economic problems, which has resulted in unpopular austerity measures.
According to a statement from the IMF Executive Board: “Successful fiscal adjustment will require strong policy implementation. It will be critical to increase tax revenue in an equitable manner and rein in current spending to reduce debt and increase investment and social expenditure. The 2018 priorities are to strengthen tax collection, implement the voluntary separations for civil servants, not grant new wage increases unless growth surprises on the upside, and enact quarterly fuel price hikes,” it said, noting that the Central Bank of Tunisia may need to further hike interest rates if inflation spikes.
While Tunisian officials say the painful austerity reforms are necessary to consolidate growth and build up the private sector, many average residents say the measures are tone-deaf to the millions of Tunisians struggling to get by. Inflation has been eating away at people’s earnings, and the increase in sales tax on things like cars, phone calls, the internet and gas will hit the poor the hardest.
Yet the protests against the austerity measures at least show that Tunisians face a far less oppressive environment than they did under the Ben Ali dictatorship. It will be a long process to get the economy on track, and it will not be without popular backlash, as the protests in January showed, but at least the seeds of democracy appear to be taking root.
A Success Story?
Some observers of Tunisia have been quick to call the country a democratic success story, but that call may be premature. It has only been seven years since the revolution, and building democratic government takes many years. It will not happen with the upcoming municipal elections, or with the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections.
What is evident is that Tunisians have generally embraced the concept of democracy, with ordinary citizens wanting to hold their government accountable and even participate in politics themselves. The decentralization law currently being debated will further cement the democratic gains. There is no question whether it will be passed — the government has been focused on building political consensus — so the question now is what form decentralization will take.
“Successful democracy is a relative concept, even in the U.S.,” said Abouaoun. “So far, Tunisians have proved to be attached to the model of democracy. Even the Islamist party in Tunisia has embraced a more or less liberal constitution.”
He predicts there will be no major disruptions to the upcoming elections because while Tunisians are keen on having an open political debate, they do not wish to see violence — or a return to the authoritarianism of the past.
“If you take all these ingredients, the chances for success are quite high,” Abouaoun said of Tunisia’s transition to democracy. “Ensuring the success will be the challenge at some point.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.