Tunisia's Democratic Learning Curve

Africa Digest

Nothing refutes orientalist stereotypes about Arabs and doubts about the prospects of good governance than the institutionalisation of free elections and the recalibration of political behaviour in the direction of toleration of difference, deep participation, fair competition, and gradual ‘meltdown’ of authoritarian practices and attitudes in institutions, elites, individuals and groups, as evident in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, avers Larbi Sadiki

The October 2014 parliamentary poll and two rounds of presidential elections in November and December offer a ray of hope to Tunisians and their neighbours, Algerians, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis, amongst others, who harbour democratic aspirations of their own. With the conclusion of electoral contests, Tunisia, an Arab and Mediterranean country of 11 million, has successfully set an important benchmark for the Arab region in terms of the democratic learning curve.

Elections: From Revolution to Democratic Evolution

Without a doubt, the return to power of figures and political forces allied with the ousted dictator Ben Ali has upset many ordinary Tunisians. Those in the marginal central and southern cities, where the original anti-Ben Ali riots erupted in December 2010, are unhappy about the turn of events. Democracy, they reason, is unreliable. However, it is fellow Tunisians who have spoken, freely and fairly, by choosing the party Nidaa Tounes, and an octogenarian, Beji Caid Essebsi, to preside over the country for the next five years. Some are already rioting and others will boycott the system for some time, especially given the state of marginalisation in these regions (unemployment, absence of hospitals and factories, and gloomy economic prospects).

Nonetheless, the elections raise hopes that legal, orderly, pluralist and peaceful transition in the Arab world and in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is not impossible. Nothing refutes orientalist stereotypes about Arabs and doubts about the prospects of good governance than the institutionalisation of free elections and the recalibration of political behaviour in the direction of toleration of difference, deep participation, fair competition, and gradual ‘meltdown’ of authoritarian practices and attitudes in institutions, elites, individuals and groups.

So what are the main outcomes of Tunisia’s landmark free and fair elections since the ousting of dictator Ben Ali in January 2011? Above all else, there is an air of optimism about Tunisia’s democratic learning curve. Tunisians, young and old, secularists and Islamists are united by the eagerness to turn their own specific democratic curve. The end of the interim transitional period and the completion of legalising the Second Republic now equipped with a modern and democratic constitution, licensed political parties, shared rules of political engagement and an increasingly robust civil society, bodes well for uniting the country around developmental goals such alleviation of poverty, job creation, and emulating the success story of sustainable development in transitional economies, including India.

Authoritarian ‘Meltdown’

Forty-four months after Ben Ali’s ouster, the authoritarian apparatus, including large security and police bureaucracies, is in a state of meltdown. Despite ideological differences, Tunisia’s political leaders and civic architects of the country’s fledgling democracy firmly believe that there is no return to absolute power.

Integral to the notion of a sustainable and modern state is the rule of law that imposes strict guidelines for all aspects of exercising the Weberian prerogative of monopoly over the legitimate use of coercive power. A secularist lawmaker is of the view that Tunisia’s democratic constitution, relative to the region and Africa, has sought to close all loopholes that aid any ideology, party or person in a position of power to adapt power to selfish and nefarious ends geared towards despotic power reproduction. What attested to the authoritarian meltdown was that Tunisia’s secularists (at the time led by Essebsi) measured up to the new political moment when they handed power to the Islamists following the October 2011 election.

Path-Breaking Strides by Women

There is enough of a cumulative civic, ethical and practical learning and struggle that has engendered a gender factor. The crux of it is that women in Tunisia, against all odds, lead, struggle and speak for themselves. The civic space they occupy is their own. It is not the gift of a state or a statesman. In this way, gender-consciousness has run deep in the revolutionary moment from the first forms of organisation and mobilisation against Ben Ali and in its aftermath, in Tunisia’s public squares of revolt and within formal and informal networks of political participation and activism.

From the outset, Tunisia’s women, including from within the rank and file of Federated Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), have asserted themselves as an integral dimension of the January 14 Revolution. The creation of gendered citizenship has placed high premium on universal rights of worthiness, inclusiveness and has lent credence to the revolutionary demands of social justice, dignity and freedom.

What one may call the ‘gender monument’ in Tunisia fed into the social capital that integrated women and men in the October 2014 electoral campaign and election. The ‘parity law’, even if still in its infancy, translated women’s aspiration for leadership roles in Tunisia’s democratic learning curve. The electoral lists across the board left much to be desired in women’s inclusiveness, something in need of improvement in future elections, as women are more politically engaged through self-empowerment, including through employment and education. Islamist and secularist women were visible organising and mobilising throughout the electoral campaign. On voting day, a perfunctory count to gauge electors’ presence from queues in several constituencies I visited (including Marseille Road, Tunis), revealed that women outnumbered men. The 2011 uprising, the first democratic National Constituent Assembly (NCA) of October 2011, and the October 2014 parliamentary election represent pivotal moments for female political participation. Tunisia’s women seem to be making path-breaking strides in electoral politics as voters, campaigners, NGO watchdogs such as ‘Muraqiboon’, among others, and candidates. There are regional, partisan and educational variations amongst women as well as between them and men. One irony is that the secular and modernist parties – by comparison with the Islamist party, Nahda – seemed to have lesser female candidates on top of their lists.

Islamist and secularist women today organise and mobilise as well as create forums committed to the ideals of gender democracy as part and parcel of the country’s fledgling democracy through both partisan and non-partisan forums, such as ‘Democratic Women’ and ‘Coalition for Tunisian Women’, among others. The democratically elected parliament features many dynamic female voices equipped to add value to democratic learning in Tunisia.

Towards a Market-Oriented Political Economy

At one level, the 2014 campaign highlighted the rise of a two-party system in Tunisia’s nascent democracy. The exaggerated theme of polarisation between Islamists (Nahda) and secularists (e.g. Nidaa Tounes) is partly ‘fiction’, constructed by binary elite rhetoric and weak democratic media tradition not used to focussing on issues of relevance to electors. Discussion of detailed and knowledgeable economic issues was almost absent as a topic of discussion throughout the electoral campaign. This is in spite of the fact that economic and security concerns represented the backdrop against which the 2014 parliamentary electoral campaign and election was conducted. It is in the realm of economic management that Nidaa Tounes and Nahda seemed to converge most: both reconciling their policies with market economics. For instance, the contrast between them, on the one hand, and the economic preferences of the Leftist Popular Front of Hamma Hammami (winner of 15 seats), on the other, is so stark. The convergence towards the market lessens the impact of the putative ideological divide between Nahda and Nidaa Tounes. The move towards a model of market-oriented political economy by Nidaa Tounes is puzzling, given that Essebsi’s political party is a mélange of old Leftists, including trade unionists, intellectuals and business people, many of whom have links with the ousted Ben Ali regime. It is not actually ideology that seemed to matter most within Nidaa Tounes. Rather, it is the drive to replace Islamists and their partners (which formed the ruling ‘troika’ between 2011 and 2013) in power.

Civic Outlook

Tunisia’s Islamists, namely the Nahda or Renaissance Party, is the closest to a full-fledged civic political force in the Arab Middle East. That is, civic in terms of adaptation to the rules of democratic engagement in the contestation of power for the purpose of ordered democratic transition. The party stretched its political imagination for the greater sake of sustainable democratic transition. This included giving up power for the purpose of socio-political decompression at a time when tension ran high. Once the constitution was secure, the Nahda-led government resigned, passing on the baton to a national unity government. One of its most liberal voices, Abdelfattah Morou, was voted deputy speaker of the newly elected parliament.

One key takeaway from the presidential run-off won by Essebsi (55 percent of the vote in the second round on December 21) is that Tunisia’s political culture has installed in Carthage (the Presidential palace) a leader with a modern and fairly anti-Islamist outlook, and whose politics favour incremental reform via evolution and not revolution. Many Tunisians may miss the outgoing President Moncef Marzouki (44 percent of the vote in the second round), the well-known human rights campaigner, even if he was inexperienced and populist. What is certain, however, is that Tunisians looking for the return of some kind of normalcy in polity, economy and society will not miss the uncertainty of the interim period.

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Larbi Sadiki

Larbi Sadiki is Professor of political science, with special reference to the Arab Middle East, at Qatar University. He is editor of the newly published Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring (London: Routledge, 2015).

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