Has Tunisia replaced Israel as the Middle East's only genuine democracy?

Tunisia's young democracy brought a new constitution, a political compromise between secular and Islamist parties, and free elections praised as a model for transition.

By
April 2, 2016 03:37
Tunisians celebrate an election

Tunisians celebrate an election nearly four years after an uprising ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Two years ago, the prestigious news journal The Economist raised eyebrows when it wrote a feature on the Arab Spring in which it listed Tunisia as the Middle East's sole "fully fledged" democracy.

An axiom of Western political discourse has held that Israel was the region's lone democratic country, yet its policies in the West Bank have instead rendered it a regime that maintains a "democratic facade" - at least according to The Economist.

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Although the article was written two years ago, it is worth revisiting the issue, particularly as critics of Israel advance a boycott of its products as a means to punish it for its actions in territories whose political status is subject to dispute.

On Dec. 17, 2010, a young, desperate Tunisian vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in a suicide protest over unemployment and police abuse that spread revolt across the Arab world.

The act ignited a wave of demonstrations that led to the downfall of the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali regime, which had been in power since 1987. The tumult in Tunisia would go on to inspire rioting and insurgencies throughout the Near East, effecting regime change in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

Civil strife and full-blown warfare also erupted in Syria and Bahrain while protesters took to the streets in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mauritania, and Oman.

Tunisia managed mostly to escape the kind of violent after-shocks seen in other Arab Spring countries that toppled long-standing leaders in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, which are still struggling to find stability.

Its young democracy brought a new constitution, a political compromise between secular and Islamist parties and free elections praised as a model for transition in a region where the gun has often beats out the ballot box.

Is Tunisia deserving of the status as "the Middle East's only democracy?" We asked three Israeli scholars for their thoughts on the comparison.

Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.  He holds a PhD from Tel Aviv University in modern Middle East history (1988), after having obtained his B.A in Politics from Brandeis University (1975) and an M.A. in Regional Studies-Middle East from Harvard University (1977). He wrote:

"Tunisia is without a doubt the success story of the Arab Spring upheavals, the only country that was successfully in establishing a democratic political system, marked by the adoption of a new constitution, competitive and honest elections, and most importantly, power-sharing arrangements between rival Islamist and secular political parties. At the same time, and not surprisingly, Tunisia’s new democracy remains fragile."

"The underlying socioeconomic troubles that sparked the protests in late 2010 remain unaddressed, while the elites of the previous regime remain fully ensconced. Incidents of jihadi terrorism have repeatedly shaken the country. Both leading parties – the secular Nidaa Tounes and its coalition partner, the Islamist Ennahda – suffer from serious internal divisions, suggesting that their ability and willingness to cooperate indefinitely in power sharing and maintaining social and political stability cannot be taken for granted. Meanwhile, according to the International Crisis Group, Tunisia’s security apparatus is dysfunctional, at once fragmenting, asserting authority over democratic institutions, and failing to block significant jihadi advances. Taken together, one could certainly envisage the progressive loss of legitimacy of the regime and preference for a strong leader who promised physical and economic security."

"It should also be noted that thousands of young Tunisians have made their way to Syria to fight with IS and other jihadi groups, another indication of the dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, as well as posing a potential danger to the country upon their return."

"As for Israel having only a democratic 'façade', I presume this is referring to the fact that the Arab minority is, while formally equal, in fact, second class in status (unless the reference was to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which is a different story). But even in the most mature Western democracies, there are inequalities between groups. Clearly, Israel’s democracy with the Green Line is a work in progress, regarding the country’s Arab citizens and in other areas."
 
"One final and important point: genuine democracies are not just about elections, they are about institutions and the rule of law. The fact that Israel’s judicial system has just sent a former prime minister to prison for corruption, where he joined a former president; has successfully and repeatedly prosecuted public officials for criminal offenses; and that the conduct of the trials was beyond reproach or outside influence – is a badge of honor for Israel’s still very imperfect democracy."


Hillel Frisch is an Israeli political scientist, professor of political science and Middle Eastern history at Bar Ilan University. He writes:

"The Economist's pronouncement of Israel as a democratic facade is a reflection of its anti-Israeli bias at the expense of objective analysis. The latter is provided by Freedomhouse rankings of democracy - a thirty year old enterprise whose findings are highly valued academically and conform to academic rankings such as Polity. Freedomhouse  ranking from one (most free) to seven (such as North Korea) gives a one rating for political participation and competition and a rank of two (still a "free" country) for human rights. Israel receives in the latter category two because it continues to place suspects involved in terrorism under administrative arrest."

"Yet even Freedomhouse does not do justice to Israel's democratic performance. One of the basic tenets of liberal democratic thought is the trade-off between democratic and human rights and collective security. Liberal states have the right to curtail human rights temporarily to protect the State which practices democracy. This is the lesson learned from the downfall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany in its stead. France, the United States and France have all recently made the trade-off to deal with its terrorist and security threats. The latter two introduced administration detention albeit only temporarily."

"Were one to factor in the security threat in Freedomhouse scores, Israel's ranking would be stellar, in a category all on its own given the security threats facing Israel compared to these states. Israel has one of the most competitive political systems in the world, Arab parties who condemn the state in Israel's Knesset forcefully on a daily basis, a completely free Arab press and an Arab language educational system. Many European states could only dream of the levels of integration achieved by Israel's Muslim citizens compared to its own, probably in Great Britain as well. Tunisia's fledgling democracy has much to learn from the Israeli experience.
The Economist should call for such cooperation instead of defaming Israeli democracy. Israel should hope that it will not be the only functioning democracy in the Middle East."

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is a former national security adviser. Now a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Amidror served 36 years in senior IDF posts, including commander of the Military Colleges, military secretary to the minister of defense, director of the Intelligence Analysis Division in Military Intelligence, and chief intelligence officer of the Northern Command. He writes:

"The Economist noted that Israel has a 'democratic facade,' as is indicated on the map in the article. It would be interesting to know what the criteria is for removing the title of 'democracy' from a country about which the Indian ambassador once told me, 'You are a crazy democracy.' The ambassador was observing the degree of press freedoms here, particularly when a majority of journalists write stories critical of the elected prime minister. The ambassador was also listening to the boisterous arguments between senior technocrats and politicians in the government - all the more remarkable in that nobody is removed from their jobs as a result of these disagreements."

"It is also worth noting that an Arab judge sat on the High Court panel that sent an Israeli prime minister to jail for corruption-related offenses. This was the same judge who served as chairman of the central elections commission, the government body responsible for overseeing elections for parliament. Following the elections, the prime minister worked hard to form and maintain a coalition with a razor-thin majority - a coalition that is being faced down by a rowdy, multi-faceted opposition that could topple him any given day."

"Israel has administrative detentions, which on the surface appears to represent a certain infringement of democracy. What is less known, however, is that each such detention is brought before a judge and security officials need to persuade that judge that the step is necessary. It is true that administrative detentions do not permit the suspect access to a lawyer, but all detainees have the option of appealing to court against the detention itself."

"By the way, the rightist parties that rule the current coalition consider the legal system to be biased in favor of left-wing views - yet another manifestation of the pluralism and checks and balances that is characteristic of an Israeli political system that assiduously maintains a separation of powers."

"All of this is happening in a country where nearly every day for the last six months has been marked by terrorist attacks. It would be interesting to see how Britain would behave under similar circumstances. After suffering much fewer attacks, France declared a state of emergency. There is no point in delving into what has taken place in the United States following terrorist attacks there."

"Israel has a serious problem because it is perceived as an occupying power by virtue of its hold on swaths of the West Bank, areas that are inhabited by 2 million Palestinians. After the Oslo Accords, however, it was the Palestinian representatives who comprise the Palestinian Authority who took day-to-day control over their welfare. Since the Palestinians launched a campaign of terror and murder - the height of which took place in the spring of 2002, when as many as 122 people were killed per month, almost all of the fatalities civilians - Israel has limited Palestinian freedom of movement."

"Israel has officially stated that it is willing to hold talks on forming a Palestinian state on the basis of the parameters of Oslo because everything is subject to negotiations. The Palestinian representatives, however, have placed so many preconditions on the talks that have essentially precluded any chance for progress in the negotiations. One can fault Israel for being too stingy. One can also argue that Israel is being irrational in its demands, yet these accusations can be refuted."

"Israel cannot, however, respond to the claim that it is not a democracy since such an argument is so absurd and far from the truth that there is no basis for it. Hence, there is no point in responding to it. It is a conclusion that is as biased as it is flawed. There is simply no point in arguing it. It's a pity that
The Economist has sunk to such depths in its prejudicial attitudes toward Israel."

"To state the obvious, every journalist who works for the magazine can freely travel to Israel and work from here without fear. In a genuine democracy like Israel, there is no infringement on freedom of the press, irrespective of its biases."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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