The Tunisian success story?

Photo by Ezequiel Scagnetti  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo by Ezequiel Scagnetti  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On November 23rd, the only country to successfully emerge from the turmoil of the Arab Spring uprisings will hold its presidential elections. Tunisia sparked the region wide movement three years ago that toppled repressive dictatorships and created a desire for democracy after decades of corrupt and ineffective leadership. Many believe the upcoming presidential election will complete Tunisia’s transition into a functioning democracy after last month’s successful parliamentary elections. However, others have brought these claims into question. Before taking a look at the responses to Tunisia’s elections, it is essential to understand what exactly happened in Tunisia post-2011.

After Tunisia’s president of over two decades, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted in January 2011, an Islamist party known as Ennahda rose to power and claimed victory in the October 2011 elections.  Since Ennahda was outlawed and banned from politics during Ben Ali’s regime, the members compromising the Islamist group were largely inexperienced lawmakers with lofty promises to the Tunisian people. Those promises included economic stability, social reform and drafting a new constitution. However, by 2012, Ennahda had failed to deliver on their promises and the Tunisian people grew unhappy and restless with their ineffective leadership. This dissatisfaction led to the creation of a secular party called Nidaa Tounes, whose members included former government officials, left wing politicians and secularists. As the opposition party continued to gain popularity among the people, Ennahda’s days in power seemed numbered  

The demise of Ennahda was solidified by the assassination of two Nidaa Tounes members in February and July of 2013. While it remains unclear who committed the crimes, many Tunisians blamed the Islamist party for the murders.  The assassinations were followed by protests and a call for the resignation of the Ennahda led government. In January 2014, directly after signing a new constitution into law a year later than promised, the Ennahda leadership ceded power to a caretaker government. Ennahda’s abdication of power prevented Tunisia from spiraling into another bout of chaos precipitated by an outraged citizenry. In last month’s parliamentary elections, Nidaa Tounes won the majority.

Many have argued that these peaceful transfers of power in Tunisia are monumental to the MENA region because they are indications of a functioning democracy. For a region peppered with oppressive dictatorships and regimes, that the Tunisian people held a political party accountable for its actions and consequently the party lost power is a revolutionary concept.  

Rami Khouri, a columnist for The Daily Star (a Lebanese newspaper), deemed the Tunisian elections as the single most important domestic political development in the history of the modern Arab world. He expounds, “the Tunisian experience since February 2011 offers evidence of three critical phenomena: the capacity of the Tunisian people to peacefully overthrow their former dictator, to affirm their desire to live in a pluralistic democracy, and to manage their vulnerable transition without succumbing to fear, greed, panic or chaos.” Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Khouri’s sentiments when he spoke of the elections, saying: “This milestone in Tunisia’s transition to democracy exemplifies why Tunisia remains a beacon of hope, not only to the Tunisian people, but to the region and the world.”

However, some believe that Tunisia’s label as a fully functioning democracy could be premature. One potential complication is Nidaa Tounes’ role in the political arena. As mentioned previously, Nidaa Tounes consists of experienced politicians who once served in the regime of ousted Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, who was president for nearly 30 years prior to Ben Ali. Fears circulate that if the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who previously worked under both Ben Ali and Bouguiba, were to be elected president (he is currently the frontrunner), the country could slip into another authoritarian regime. Islamist groups are also concerned that with a majority in parliament and a potential president, Nidaa Tounes could crack down on Islamist politicians, similar to Egypt.

There are additional complications surrounding the presidency. Nidaa Tounes does not have the two-thirds seat majority in parliament it needs to ensure approval of a presidential cabinet, therefore it must govern a coalition. The question remains: whom will Nidaa Tounes choose as their coalition partners? Will they choose to exclude Ennahda or incorporate them? Many analysts believe that the secular party will choose a government of two-thirds technocrats and one-third politicians, with the potential for granting ministerial posts to Ennahda. 

In addition to these concerns, there are considerable gender issues that must also be addressed to aid Tunisia’s transition. 50.5% of Tunisian registered voters are women, however only 11 percent led electoral lists. Tunisian women are greatly excluded from politics and even those that do get elected receive backlash from male politicians. In a recent interview, Essebsi said of a Tunisian female politician, “she’s just a woman” and gave no further explanation of his comments. The security threats in neighboring countries could also endanger Tunisia’s stability. As Soumaya Ghannoushi wrote in an op-ed in Al-Jazeera,  “Tunisia is not out of the woods yet. Its democratic process is still under immense pressure. Geopolitics is not in its favour: Libya at its southern border in turmoil… Mali further down in the sub Sahara desert in the grip of terrorism, and its wider Arab environment plagued with rising instability.”  

As the first nation to successfully emerge from the Arab Spring, Tunisia has solidified itself as the herald of democracy in the MENA region. While the nation’s success is monumental for the region, issues still persist. With any new democracy, these kinks must be worked out to ensure that every citizen is guaranteed the same political and social rights. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s successes must be acknowledged and celebrated in a region dominated by ineffective leadership and oppression.