Walking on a tightrope: Tunisia and the struggle for democracy in the Middle East

Hopes were high for what media and policymakers enthusiastically (and short-sightedly) called the “Arab Spring.”

Another Ramadan evening begins in Kafr Kasim (photo credit: ILANIT HARAMATI)
Another Ramadan evening begins in Kafr Kasim
(photo credit: ILANIT HARAMATI)
2011 will certainly be remembered as a year of unprecedented change in the Middle East. With no advance warning, a tidal wave of revolts shuffled decades of geopolitical balances almost overnight; longtime dictatorships crumbled one after another.
Hopes were high for what media and policymakers enthusiastically (and short-sightedly) called the “Arab Spring.”
Yet five years on, the situation is far from idyllic, and while Syria, Libya and Yemen imploded under the weight of seemingly endless civil wars, Egypt swiftly returned to its despotic past after a brief parenthesis of Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
To date, the only outlier is Tunisia.
In the past five years, this small North African country held two rounds of free and fair elections – in 2011 for the Constituent Assembly, and in 2014 for the election of a new president. It adopted a new constitution that upholds noble and progressive principles: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and belief, equality of women, and clear limits to executive powers. And it achieved this despite tremendous pressure caused by political assassinations, terrorist attacks and profound internal fractures.
Ultimately, not only did Tunisians manage to ouster their dictator, president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; unlike their brothers and sisters from other Arab nations they successfully established a genuinely democratic regime and avoided backtracking from the progress made.
Yet Tunisia’s struggle is far from over.
Its transition to democracy is an ongoing process, challenged by both internal and external factors.
One is the security threat caused by instability in neighboring Libya.
Attempts by Islamic State to infiltrate Tunisia culminated with the attack on the coastal town of Ben Gardane in early March – when combatants from al-Baghdadi’s caliphate crossed the security barrier separating the two countries, and employed heavy weaponry to launch simultaneous assaults on police and military posts. Despite an overall death toll of at least 55 people, security forces managed to repel the attack. However the episode was a stark reminder that a spillover of the Libyan chaos is indeed a tangible risk.
Paradoxically though, also the way the government responded to the ISIS threat presents a challenge to Tunisia’s stability.
Last summer the parliament approved a new anti-terrorism law granting security forces considerable surveillance powers as well as the authority to detain terrorist suspects without a trial. Furthermore, in the name of the ongoing state of emergency – which was reconfirmed and extended several times since November, with the next deadline coming up on June 22 – the administration has also introduced media censorship, and suspended the rights to strike and to protest.
These measures came on top of an exponential growth of Tunisia’s defense budget: on average 21 percent per year since Ben Ali’s fall, more than any other ministry. Meanwhile also US military assistance boomed – from $32.9 million in 2014 to almost $100m. in 2016. That includes over $80m. worth of weapons such as Black Hawk helicopters and Hellfire missiles.
In light of these developments observers began to fear that the country might be reversing its democratic course.
The risk is that incumbent President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi may combine the firepower of tough anti-terrorism legislation with a newly-bolstered army not only to enhance security, but also to crack down on internal dissent.
These are certainly valid concerns. Yet the truth of the matter is that Tunisia’s struggle is nothing unheard of. When countries are faced with significant security challenges while emerging from decades-long dictatorships, establishing a legitimate democratic regime becomes similar to walking on a tightrope. You progress slowly and cautiously while battling to maintain a precarious balance.
And sometimes a mere gust of wind is enough to knock you over.
What makes this country truly exceptional, then, are not its struggles, but the wider context in which they are taking place. In most of the Middle East politics is still largely intended as a zero-sum game where the end goal is an absolutist rule. So the power of dictators is nearly unlimited, and more often than not their opponents seek to replace them not in the name of balance and justice, but to impose their own worldviews on everything and everyone.
Despite these circumstances and against all odds, Tunisia has carved a role for itself as the vanguard of a small yet historic revolution. And by nurturing a new political culture based on compromise rather than a winner-takes-all mentality, it is challenging the practices and inclinations of an entire region.
Clearly the way forward is still uncertain and filled with obstacles, but one thing is for sure: the endurance of Tunisia’s experiment will be a great indicator for the future of democracy in the Arab world. If Tunisia withstands the forces trying to hamper its progress, then the Middle East might have found, for the first time in decades, a viable alternative to religious or secular authoritarianism.
If, however, Tunisia drifts away from its achievements, then the age of liberty, equality, and representation in the Arab world will be further away than we thought.
The author obtained a Master of International Affairs in International Security Policy from Columbia University. Today he is an analyst for an international business consulting firm.