After Every Winter Comes Spring: Tunisia’s Democratic Flowering

President Moncef Marzouki shows Tunisia's new constitution. Source: Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters, January 2014
President Moncef Marzouki shows Tunisia’s new constitution. Photo credit: Zoubeir Souissi/ Reuters, January 2014

On December 17th,  2010, a 26 year-old vegetable-seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had his unlicensed cart and products confiscated by a policewoman in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Not only did the police officer demand a large fine from Bouazizi, but she also insulted his dead father and slapped him. Aggrieved, Bouazizi headed to the provincial headquarter to seek justice, only to be turned away. That same afternoon, the street vendor took his grievances to the streets and set himself on fire in public. In the blink of an eye, news about his self-immolation went viral. The world watched intently as protests against the pervasive injustice, corruption, and poverty under the Ben Ali regime spread like wildfire across Tunisia – eventually catalyzing what we know as the Arab Spring. Over the span of a few weeks, the people of Tunisia brought down a dictatorship that had governed their country for 23 years.

More than a month later on January 25th, 2011, mass demonstrations broke out across Egypt, calling for the then-President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – who had led Egypt for 30 years – to relinquish power. After 18 days of struggle between protesters and the state, Mubarak finally succumbed to the revolutionary pressures and stepped down. Weeping tears of triumph, Egyptians celebrated in Tahrir Square. One protester, Mohammed Abdul Ghedi, declared “Now Egyptians are free. All of Egypt is liberated. Now we will choose our leaders, and if we don’t like them, they will go.” The ideals of the Arab Spring – “democracy, good governance, human rights, transparency, gender equality, and social justice” – seemed to have been achieved.

Four years later, Tunisia finds itself on the path of democratization, but not without difficulties. After the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia on January 2011, the Islamist movement, Ennahda, controlled the parliament after an election and led a coalition government for more than two years. However, Ennahda proved incapable of fostering economic growth or providing adequate security against terrorism. Fortunately, despite the uncertainty that hovered over Ennahda’s coalition, Tunisians were able to complete their nation’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy by holding their first five-year parliamentary election in October 2014, followed by a presidential election on December 2014. More impressive than the election itself, however, was Ennahda’s peaceful acceptance of their electoral defeat. For this, The Economist crowned Tunisia the country of the year in 2014 for its “pragmatism and moderation…in a wretched region and a troubled world.” Tunisia managed to shirk off its turbulent political past and find its way on the path of democratization.

Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA
An election rally in Tunisia. Photo credit: Mohamed Messara/EPA

However, Tunisia remains the only success among all the revolutions that rocked the Middle East four years ago.  During the Arab Spring’s fourth anniversary on January 25th, 2015, Egypt found itself in turmoil as the military-led-government crushed political dissent and killed 18 people. Amr Abdel Rahman, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, commented that “the streets are becoming much less safe for Egyptian activists from any walk of the political spectrum than it was even last year.” The deaths serve as yet another haunting reminder of the dismally persistent “Arab Winter,” a phrase used to embody the return of authoritarianism and religious extremism that has followed the Arab Spring. Following the revolution, the political situation looked hopeful as Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood to be President. However, under Morsi, journalists were prosecuted, while military trials and detentions without judicial review became commonplace. Political crackdowns only intensified after a military coup usurped power in July 2013 with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the President. Many Egyptians, like Mr Aboul Fotouh, an Egyptian physician, believed this move made Egypt “more repressive now than under the deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak.”

Four years ago, Tunisia and Egypt started out on the same page. How did their stories unfold so differently?

There are many lessons that Tunisia’s neighbors can draw from the new democracy’s success story. First, a robust civil society can make a huge difference in the success of a democratic transition. In a civil society, citizens assume responsibility for keeping leaders accountable for their actions and decisions. For example, in parts of Tunisia, trade unions and businesses effectively wielded their political power to force a compromise among the elite factions, particularly Ennahda’s retreat from Islamist rule. After witnessing the repercussions of the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to  impose Islamic laws in Egypt, Ennahda banned extreme Islamists in Tunisia and passed political power to technocrats in the government. These moderate measures ultimately prevented greater violence among religious factions.

At a political level, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood imposed its Islamist vision of society on the population. Its steps to make Shariah Law the base of its new constitution only heightened the liberals’ fear of an Iranian-style clerical rule and a political shift towards illiberalism. In contrast, Ennahda opted for a more practical approach in “slowly building grassroots support” and steering away from Islamist rule. This was particularly appropriate in Tunisia where the people are less religious and more than half the population opposes radical Islam. In fact, the Ennahda supported a law banning the most extreme Islamists and toned down the religious language in Tunisia’s constitution.

In addition, Tunisia has illustrated that strong institutions form the foundation of political change. In the 19th century, Tunisia adopted a constitutional order which established the separation of religion and state. From 1959 to 1987, after independence from France, President Habib Bourguiba laid the groundwork for public education, social reform, and female emancipation, all of which ushered the nation onto a democratic path. A stable education system, for instance, expanded the middle class and invigorated the civil service, all of which proved crucial for a stable democracy.

Tunisia’s position as a striking exception to the Arab Winter should give reason to maintain faith in the Arab Spring. Other Middle Eastern countries like Egypt require more time to overcome the challenges of building a robust civil society and strong institutions before breaking out of the vicious political cycle of illiberal elections and military coups. After all, spring follows every winter – it is simply a matter of time.