The Grim Reality Behind Tunisia’s Fairy Tale

Tunisia’s democratic achievements are under threat. Here’s why a fake “national consensus” isn’t the answer.


Tunisia is the lone success story of Arab Spring — or, at any rate, so we hear. The story goes like this: While the rest of the Middle East and North Africa struggles with wars and authoritarianism, Tunisians should be congratulating themselves on their good fortune, having somehow managed to preserve the fruits of their revolution.

This mantra has been repeated so relentlessly, in fact, that one is sometimes left with the feeling that Tunisians have lost their right to speak up, to express any kind of frustration with their present political and economic situation. Indeed, the current celebration of Tunisia as the “good student of democracy” is eerily reminiscent of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the international community lavished praise on President Ben Ali’s regime for his “good economic example” — the alleged structural reforms he was carrying out at the time. The comparison is revealing. In both cases, the enthusiastic approval serves as cover for the tendency to prioritize stability and flawed consensus over genuine equality and justice, privileging elite maneuverings over the people’s concerns. The hype about Tunisia’s political progress has become completely disconnected from the reality on the ground.

That reality is stark: Tunisian democracy is at risk. The corrupt media, business elites, and the politicians of the old regime have joined forces, with the support of some regional powers, to hijack our post-revolutionary institutions. The much-touted “national unity government” that currently rules the country has become a vehicle for the revival of the old regime and the careers of its stalwarts. When current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was appointed as the head of the government on August 3, his first act was to appoint 12 new governors — nine of whom were officials of the old regime. There is good reason to believe that his appointments to lower positions in the administration will follow the same pattern.

The current ruling coalition is based on a set of three key ideas: political consensus, reconciliation, and the fight against terrorism. These are noble and necessary principles, but the ways our policymakers apply them obscure truly needed reforms and undermine Tunisia’s democratic experiment. As a result, they may ultimately serve to harm democracy more than they reinforce it.

First, let us address the notion of “political consensus.” Since the revolution, many of our leaders have harped on the need for political stability, claiming that the government should be based on a pact between the two main former adversaries: the secular party Nidaa Tounes, which includes many veterans of the old regime, and the Islamist Ennahdha Party.

What this coalition misses, however, is that a true consensus necessarily represents the reality of all political and social forces, no matter how divided or divisive. Such a consensus would have the ability to politically channel and address the needs of the Tunisian people. This is not the case today. The current government of “national unity” in reality represents only particular segments of Tunisian society, and acts merely as a pretext for those two parties to keep their hold on power.

Second, there is the complicated issue of “reconciliation.” Needless to say, this is a term of vital importance in transitional justice. The National Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament that emerged soon after the revolution, created an independent institution — the Truth and Dignity Commission — designed to oversee the process of bringing to justice those who committed crimes under the old regime.

Today, however, the parties in the governing coalition have joined together to support President Beji Caid Essebsi’s plan, known as the “Reconciliation Bill,” that allegedly aims to “revive the economy” by offering amnesty to businessmen accused of corruption under the old regime in exchange for their ill-gotten wealth. Several international organizations, such as the International Center for Transitional Justice and Transparency International, have criticized the bill for failing to deal with the root causes of corruption. Tunisians have also attacked it for undermining the process of transitional justice already established by the Truth and Dignity Commission. What Tunisia needs is a full-fledged fight against corruption, not reconciliation with the corrupt.

Third, the “fight against terrorism.” The challenge here is to find a way to guarantee both security and human rights. The current political elite has instead exploited the premise that security can only be achieved at the expense of human rights. Take, for example, the recently adopted anti-terrorism law, which assumes an extremely broad definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism (such as damaging property during a demonstration), and gives the police the authority to hold in custody someone without a lawyer for 15 days. This approach is unnervingly similar to that of the Ben Ali regime, which was happy to channel the public’s fears into anti-terrorism measures that focused purely on security. Instead we need a strategy that goes beyond needed security reforms, incorporating de-radicalization programs that both work and respect civil rights.

Rather than the current fairy tale of success, Tunisia urgently needs a government that is politically stable because it truly represents the people. The country has already experienced two administrations in the past two years. Reform of the economy, public health, and education is impossible in such a transient and precarious context. Even more ominously, we now see a growing gap forming between the political elite and the increasingly frustrated populace. We need to rebalance the make-up of the government to ensure proper representation of the growing mass of young people and the poor who feel alienated from the national unity government’s top-down version of “consensus.”

One solution to this problem would be to promptly hold free and fair local elections. Currently these elections, which have been repeatedly postponed, are scheduled to take place at some point in 2018. That is not soon enough. Local elections could provide a desperately needed breath of fresh air, a chance for people to reconnect with their political representatives. Unfortunately, those currently in power simply do not have the will to speed up the process, and the reasons have little to do with concern about the quality of Tunisia’s democracy. Specifically, Nidaa Tounes, the party of the president, is plagued by internal disarray that is degrading its capacity to compete effectively in the elections — hence the postponements. The consequences of the resulting delay are incalculable.

I am convinced that we can achieve sustainable democracy and make the economy work for the people and the environment only by forming a broad, centrist, and progressive coalition that goes beyond current political representation in the parliament.

Such a government would emphasize four major issues. First, it would resist any attempts to use needed reforms as a pretext for imposing the kind of austerity that leads to greater economic hardship for many Tunisians. By increasing public spending rather than cutting it, this administration would avoid layoffs and loss of revenue for the private sector so that aggregate demand would increase, leading to economic growth.

Second, the government would oppose the controversial “Reconciliation Bill,” which represents only the restoration of a corrupt elite, and let the Truth and Dignity Commission continue its work as originally mandated.

Third, it would defend the basic rights highlighted in the 2014 constitution, notably freedom of speech, free media, and all guarantees of free and fair elections; such a commitment is a key condition for maintaining the integrity of democratic institutions.

Fourth, it would speed up the consolidation of local democracy, as guaranteed by the constitution, by pushing for municipal and regional elections as soon as possible. The government should also work to ensure the fairness of the next national elections in 2019.

I am determined to contribute to efforts to challenge the current stagnation, and will work to create a constructive channel for the frustrations and aspirations of those who are not represented by the narrow and rotten “consensus” of Islamists and old regime figures. This is the objective of the Irada Party, which I created last year based on the lessons of my 2014 presidential campaign.

Contrary to the ideas of those currently in power, our party’s platform is not based on a fairy-tale unity between foes. Drawing on the economic and political precepts of social democracy, it takes as its starting point the everyday reality experienced by most Tunisians.

While Western commentators and organizations outdo themselves in the celebration of Tunisia’s democratic success, it is vital that the Tunisian people begin to experience this success in their daily lives. We see the objective of our party in precisely these terms. We aim not for a consensus among those at the top, but for the establishment of genuine dignity on the ground, among the people.

In the photo, Tunisians protest the “economic reconciliation” bill in Tunis on July 25.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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