An expert's point of view on a current event.

Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion

The dawn of democracy is something to root for — but the forces that have pulled the other Arab Spring countries back into upheaval still threaten to undo its progress.

By , the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute.



Nawef, a 25-year-old in a red baseball cap, is taking me on an impromptu tour of Douar Hicher, the Tunis suburb that has gained infamy as an incubator of jihad. When you visit the place you can understand why: It’s a disheartening landscape of identikit public housing, dusty streets, and flyblown garbage left uncollected. “That’s the house where the cops staged a raid last month,” he says. “They arrested 15 terrorists.” He doesn’t know who they were, but he says that many of his friends have chosen the holy war in Syria over the prospect of more hopelessness at home. “I’d probably leave, too, if I could find a cause I could believe in.”

Those who stay in the neighborhood have a better chance of earning a decent living from the drug trade, which, he claims, is tolerated by the police, who are happy to look the other way in return for bribes. Honest work is much harder to come by. Nawef (whose last name I’ve omitted at his request) earns $11 a day from his job as a pastry chef in a Tunis hotel. Others try to make do by selling produce on Douar Hicher’s main street. But they have to run the gauntlet of corrupt local cops, who are always keen to hassle the vendors for infractions real or imagined. If you don’t pay the “fines” they demand, he says, there will be trouble.

“But wait,” I interject. “Isn’t that the same sort of thing that triggered the revolution?” I’m referring to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire in late 2010 after enduring a public humiliation at the hands of local police. His act of self-immolation was the spark that ignited the public protests that led the overthrow of the dictatorship.

“Everything is exactly the same,” Nawef answers. “For us, nothing has changed.”

Surely not everyone would agree. By many measures, Tunisia’s progress toward democracy in the five years since the 2011 overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been a remarkable success.

Tunisians have chosen parliaments and presidents in three rounds of national elections and adopted a new constitution that guarantees citizens a broad array of rights and freedoms. They’ve exulted in the newfound freedom to organize, agitate, and express opinions, and basked in the attention accompanying a Nobel Peace Prize. (Technically the award was bestowed upon four civic groups that played prominent roles in the revolution, but Tunisians don’t take that all too literally; they know that it was really recognition for their collective success in dumping an autocrat — and managing the aftermath.) Add it all up, and the 11 million people of this country have experienced a tumultuous journey without its analog anywhere in the rest of the Arab world.

To anyone who has spent time in parts of the greater Middle East where the secret police still hold brutal sway, the general lack of fear in today’s Tunisia is striking. When I interviewed him recently, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui proudly noted that security forces had responded to a wave of public protests earlier this year without causing any fatalities — in sharp contrast to the crudely repressive behavior of the old regime. The new freedoms of expression and assembly are here to say, he assured me: “There’s no going back.”

Take a closer look, though, and the picture darkens. Tunisia’s positive track record in building the institutions of democracy can’t disguise its signal failure in other areas. The economy is languishing. The gap between rich and poor remains huge — as does the regional disparity between the relatively prosperous northeast and the rest of the country. The rise of Islamist extremist groups, and a series of devastating terrorist attacks, have sown fear and distrust. Small wonder that a recent study by one U.S. think tank concluded that Tunisia’s democratic transition is “stalling.”

Tunisians themselves would seem to agree. In a recent survey of Tunisian public opinion, 71 percent of those polled said that the country is going “in the wrong direction.” (Only 25 percent expressed optimism about the future, even though a clear majority continues to regard democracy in positive terms.) For most people the chief worry is the economy, above all the country’s painfully high level of unemployment. The official rate is 15.4 percent, by most measures higher than it was before the revolution. But the true magnitude of the problem is illustrated by a more specific figure: Joblessness among young people is at 30 percent.

Legislators have been pushing ahead with new laws on banking, investment, and customs regulations. But they’ve had notably less success in cutting back the country’s entrenched crony capitalism. Throughout the years of dictatorship, politically connected insiders managed to protect their interests by erecting protective walls of red tape designed to ward off newcomers. (Small wonder that most Tunisian businesspeople prefer to operate in the informal economy, which accounts for as much as half of all economic activity.)

A massive public sector doesn’t help. And to make matters even worse, the remarkable power of the country’s national trade union makes it nearly impossible to fire underperforming employees.

Security remains a major issue. Since the revolution, Tunisia has earned the dubious distinction of supplying the Islamic State with a contingent of foreign fighters larger than that of any other country. Islamist movements, ruthlessly suppressed by the old regime, made a dramatic return to public life in the years after the revolution. And while many joined the enormously influential Ennahda Party, which has shown a willingness to engage in the give-and-take of democratic politics, others have gravitated to ultraconservative Salafi groups, some of which — like the notorious Ansar al-Sharia — have forged ties with the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.

That Tunisia shares a long and porous border with anarchic Libya, where many of the jihadis go for training, certainly hasn’t helped. But the virtual lack of substantive reform in the internal security apparatus is also proving corrosive. Human Rights Watch notes that a new counterterrorism law passed last year in response of a series of devastating attacks has given broad new powers of surveillance and detention to the security forces. And this, understandably, raises fears that a heavy-handed war on terror will end up exacerbating the problem it’s supposed to be fixing.

Finally, as Nawef’s story suggests, Tunisians will have a hard time making serious progress on economic reform or security unless they manage to tackle a particularly insidious problem: corruption. Sealing the borders is that much harder when terrorists can simply pay border guards to look the other way. Restoring the health of the economy will be difficult without combating bribery and cronyism (perhaps by enshrining protections for whistleblowers, an issue currently being hotly debated). Ominously enough, even though malfeasance has a long history in the country, those who monitor it say that it’s only been getting worse in the years since the revolution.

So why should we care? Tunisia may be a relatively small country, but it’s hard to overstate its importance for the future of its region — and the world. As I’ve argued elsewhere, a free and prosperous Tunisia is the most effective possible argument against the brutish allure of the Islamic State. More broadly, a thriving North African democracy would also present a healthy challenge to all of those around the world — jihadis and Islamophobes alike — who claim that democratic institutions somehow aren’t “appropriate” to Muslims.

All this is to explain why we at Democracy Lab have decided to cover the story of Tunisia in such depth over the past few years — and why we’re now continuing that tradition with our new special report, Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow. This project seeks to explore aspects of the country’s turbulent transition that you won’t often find in the usual fleeting coverage — from the revival of a once-suppressed minority to a woman’s struggle with domestic abuse.

It’s hard not to root for Tunisia. While the people of the other Arab Spring nations have slid back into the iron embrace of autocracy or succumbed to the anarchic pull of civil war, Tunisians continue to plug away at building the institutions of an open society. They deserve our support and our applause.

Yet we should balance the urge to cheerlead with a pragmatic awareness of the challenges that remain ahead. Tunisia’s remarkable democratic experiment will succeed only as long as its people — and its friends abroad — can stay honest about its failings. In that spirit, we invite you to keep on reading.

Photo credit: HYLTON WARBURTON for Foreign Policy

Read more from Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow:
A Verdict on Change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisia’s justice system. But he still has to type out his own verdicts.
The Storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he’s the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
El Khadra Still Can’t Breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one’s listening.
Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the sector reeling — but its problems actually go much deeper..
Crisis of Governance: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Terms of Abuse: On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. Yet the reality is starkly different.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
The Mainstreaming of Tunisia’s Islamists: The Ennahda Party’s latest moves put its political astuteness on show once again.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?

Christian Caryl is the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute. Twitter: @ccaryl

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