Is Democracy Dead in the Birthplace of the Arab Spring?

Is Democracy Dead in the Birthplace of the Arab Spring?

In Tunisia, the euphoria of the Arab Spring has descended into an autumn of discontent. In the wake of rising public unrest, the country’s government has announced it will step down and begin talks with the opposition about forming an interim administration in the run-up to new parliamentary and presidential elections.

As much of the rest of the world has been preoccupied with the civil war in Syria and the political turmoil in Egypt, developments in the birthplace of the Arab Spring threaten Tunisia’s democratic revolution. Worsening national conditions have soured Tunisians’ views of both their political leadership and many national institutions associated with the country’s democratic awakening. And, in a possible harbinger of the challenges that lie ahead for democratic governance in the region, middle-income Tunisians are losing faith in democracy’s efficacy in solving the country’s problems.

Tunisians are particularly critical of the current political leadership. In March, less than half of those interviewed had a favorable opinion of interim President Moncef Marzouki, according to a Pew Research Center survey. There was even less backing for other coalition and opposition figures, and their standing in the public eye has generally deteriorated since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Political parties have suffered the same fate. The popularity of the ruling moderate Islamist party Ennahda has declined 25 percentage points since 2012, and just four-in-ten Tunisians saw it favorably this year. Ratings for Ennahda’s coalition partners, Ettakatol and the Congress Party for the Republic, also declined — with roughly three-in-ten supporting their efforts. In addition, the public was displeased with the opposition: the Popular Petition Party (Aridha Chaabia) and the Republican Party, the largest non-governmental party in the Constituent Assembly.

Adding to the disenchantment, the Tunisian public has also lost faith in many of the main institutions of Tunisian society. Support for the Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with drafting a national constitution, is down 25 percentage points since last year, with just one-in-five Tunisians saying it has a good influence on the country. Positive views of the court system have declined by 11 points. And less than half the public has faith in religious leaders. Only the military, the police, and the media retain widespread public support.

Much Tunisian disaffection grows out of concern for the state of their nation. An overwhelming majority (81 percent) says the nation is headed in the wrong direction. And about half of Tunisians (52 percent) think the country is worse off today than when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted strongman, was in power. Only a third believes the country is better off.

As Tunisians’ unhappiness with their country’s direction and their national economy has grown, so has their disappointment in their new democracy. A broad majority (72 percent) is dissatisfied with how their democracy is working, including 42 percent who say they are not at all satisfied.

A majority prioritizes having a stable government, even if it is not fully democratic, rather than having a democratic government that may have some political instability. This is a dramatic reversal from 2012, when a majority chose democracy over stability.

Furthermore, middle-income Tunisians in particular have lost faith in democracy in the past year: preference for democracy over stability is down 24 points; preference for democracy as a political system is down 18 points; preference for democracy over a strong leader is down 16 points; and preference for a good democracy over a strong economy is down 14 points. The decline has occurred across all income classes, but it has been steepest among middle-income Tunisians.

Nevertheless, as Tunisians begin to choose a new government, democracy is not dead in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Despite their disappointment, broad majorities of Tunisians continue to value key democratic principles, such as fair elections, free speech, and an uncensored media. But this Tunisian democracy is one with an Islamic flavor. Tunisians believe that the principles of Islam should influence their legal system and that religious leaders should have a role in political matters.

In the weeks ahead, Syria and possibly Egypt are likely to continue to dominate news emanating from the Middle East and North Africa. But developments in Tunisia should not be ignored. Changes in sentiment there about democracy bear watching for the insights they provide about the political evolution of the region.