Argument

Shadows in a Silver Cloud

Everyone’s congratulating Tunisia’s new democracy. So why are young people tuning out?

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Tunisia has much to be proud of. After all, it was the “Tunisian street” that launched the Arab Spring of 2011 and chased dictator Zine Abdine Ben Ali from power. Less than three years later, Tunisian leaders brought together political foes to design and adopt the Arab world’s most progressive constitution.

On November 23, the country held a presidential election that observers from my own International Republican Institute (IRI) and other international organizations hailed as “another positive step in the country’s transition to democracy.” The October 26 parliamentary elections had already garnered similar praise.

That Tunisia was able to hold successful votes despite threats from extremist voices in the region and the logistical challenges of staging three national elections in just over two months is impressive. That Nidaa Tounes, Tunisia’s leading secular party, was gracious in claiming victory in the October parliamentary elections, and that Ennahda, the country’s main Islamist party, was statesmanlike in conceding defeat, is encouraging.

However, at the risk of searching for a dark lining in a silver cloud, one aspect of these elections should serve as a reminder to Tunisian leaders of just how far they still need to go if the lofty hopes of the Arab Spring are going to be realized.

As many observers have noted approvingly, official voter turnout for October 26 approached 70 percent. But that figure is misleading: it only pertains to those who officially registered to vote under the election commission’s new guidelines. In fact, in absolute numbers, approximately 600,000 fewer votes were cast in October than in the most recent national elections in 2011. Even fewer voters participated in the November presidential election.

So who didn’t show up to vote? Evidence suggests that it was young people. And given Tunisia’s unique status as the big success story of the Arab Spring movement, that’s a problem leaders need to address as soon as possible.

The early days of 2011 were heady ones for Tunisia and for democracy in the region. Who can forget the poignant images of the capital city’s famous Bourghiba Avenue packed with young citizens demanding not just a new leader, but a new political system that would give them a chance to shape their own future. Their cries of “dégage!” (clear out!) ultimately helped to topple the Ben Ali regime and inspire everyday citizens throughout the Arab world to take to the streets.

In many places — too many — the cries for liberty and democracy were quickly extinguished. But Tunisia was different. There, the spirit of the street powered a several-months-long national dialogue in which leaders from every sector of society came together around a new progressive constitution that encapsulated the goals of political freedom, socioeconomic opportunity, and gender equality.

IRI polls, taken during the period from the height of the street protests through the recent elections, show how hopes that democracy could lift lives have risen and fallen over and over again. In March 2011, just weeks after Ben Ali and his family fled, nearly 80 percent of Tunisians said their country was heading in the right direction. But polls taken just months later showed that optimism quickly fading as the harsh realities of the country’s stagnant economy and its bloated, unproductive bureaucracy seemed to shove high hopes aside. Nowhere was the economic pain felt more acutely than among young Tunisians, who face one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world (more than 30 percent).

Optimism soared once again in early 2014, as the National Assembly approved the country’s historic new constitution. In a February 2014 poll, the percentage of Tunisians saying the country was on the right track jumped more than 25 points from where it was only months earlier. Seventy percent of Tunisians described themselves as “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their democracy.

But by the middle of this year, when exuberance at the National Assembly’s passage of the constitution began to fade away, frustration with the economy returned. People began to realize that democratic reforms, no matter how widely praised around the world, would not swiftly transform their moribund economy. IRI’s June 2014 poll shows a 19 point increase (from 48 percent to 67 percent) in the percentage of Tunisians who said their country was heading in the wrong direction. Eighty percent of those polled described the country’s economic situation as “somewhat bad” or “very bad,” while 65 percent said they were “not satisfied at all” with their democracy.

The drop in voting in the October parliamentary and again in the November presidential election is a sharp reminder that Tunisians — especially economically hard-hit, young Tunisians — expect democracy to deliver. IRI polling shows deep pessimism with the state of the economy, Tunisians’ number one issue, combined with high levels of dissatisfaction with Tunisia’s democracy. On the other hand, the strong optimism they clearly expressed after the first unity government was formed in January 2012, and after the constitution was passed in January 2014, suggests they’re not looking for a different political system either. They want their democracy to succeed.

As the next president is elected and takes office, he or she will need to join hands with the new coalition-led National Assembly and move quickly to capitalize on the hope and optimism the elections will produce. The country’s new leaders will need to tackle the unproductive public sector that has sapped the economy of much of its vitality and undo the damage that Ben Ali’s oppressive policies have wrought.

But economic reforms will take time to work. In the meantime, Tunisian leaders must find ways to engage young Tunisians and involve them as a constructive and ongoing voice for democratic change. They must find a way to bring young people “inside the tent.” This needn’t take any one form, but must represent a sincere effort to show the youth that their priorities are being acted on and their opinions are valued.

Of course, a drop in turnout and a fall in “right track” polling numbers are not the only measure of frustration and anger in the Arab World. Reports suggest Tunisia is the top source of new fighters for ISIS, with as many as 3,000 young men joining forces with that evil presence. ISIS is the antithesis of the Arab Spring and the opposite of what those young activists on Bourghiba Avenue sought. That so many young Tunisians are joining up reminds us how fragile and, sadly, how rare, liberty, opportunity and democracy are in the Arab World.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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