Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, moves towards democracy

Henry Srebrnik comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 2, 2014

You may remember this old joke from the 1990s: What is Communism? Answer: The transition between capitalism and capitalism.

To this we can now add: What was the Arab Spring? In Egypt, it has been the transition between military dictatorship and military dictatorship (with a brief interlude of Muslim Brotherhood rule).

Remember all the nonsense about how the liberal youth in Tahrir Square were using social media to bring democracy to Egypt? Where are they now?

Actually, in Yemen and Libya, the Arab Spring brought, not military dictatorship, but semi-anarchy. And in Syria, it has resulted in a bloody civil war that has resulted in more than 130,000 deaths and two million refugees.

The only country not engulfed by chaos is where it all started, Tunisia. That north African country, whose former strongman, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country in January 2011, is in the process of creating a pluralistic, constitutional political system. Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly on Jan. 26 approved a new constitution that has been called one of the most progressive in the Arab world, by 200 out of 216 votes.

Ali Larayedh of Ennahda (the Renaissance Party), the moderate Islamist movement, stepped down as prime minister last month in an agreement with secular opponents, to put an end to the country’s months-long political crisis, triggered by the murder of two opposition politicians.

Ennahda’s founder and intellectual leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who was in exile after 1988 and only returned following the ouster of ben Ali, has supported the constitutional process.

“We are about to crown this historic process of democratic transition in Tunisia,” Gannouchi declared.

The role of Islam and women’s rights took up the bulk of the discussion about the constitution, both inside the Constituent Assembly and in the public sphere. While Islam is enshrined, the document avoids defining it as a source of law.

Articles 20, 40 and 45 not only grant men and women an equal status but also stipulate that a certain number of seats in city and district governments must be given to women.

The country’s poorer, rural regions are being empowered, and the roles of president and prime minister are defined in a way that aims to prevent an autocratic takeover of power. Also, a newly formed constitutional court is to monitor the legitimacy of future laws.

Some on the left remain wary. Karima Souid, a member of the left-leaning Al-Massar (Social Democratic Path) party points out that the role of young people who were behind the protests three years ago has been marginalized.

“Having to fight for the rights of women and young people in this day and age isn’t normal – these rights should be something natural,” she commented.

And women’s rights campaigners fear that other articles in the constitution can be misused for the purpose of limiting the newly won freedoms. For example, they warn that the “holy right to life” can be used to combat abortion.

Still, months of acrimony gave way to a compromise between Islamists and secular leaders that contrasts sharply with upheaval in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Said Ghazi Gherairi, secretary general of the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunis, the capital, “It is a result of consensus, and this is new in the Arab world.”

Tunisia has many advantages. It is ethnically and religiously homogenous, with well-defined borders. Its small military historically has had no interest in political power. In its civilian politics, Islamist and secular factions were relatively evenly matched, with the Islamists winning only a plurality in Tunisia’s first free vote, held in October 2011.

Pollster Craig Charney, an expert on democratization in post-conflict societies, also noted that Tunisia already had strong civil society institutions like the General Labor Union, the National Business Federation, the Tunisian Bar Association and the Tunisian Human Rights League. These “were able to play a nonpartisan moderating role between the different political factions.”

The new caretaker prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, who has succeeded Larayedh in office, has now appointed a non-political cabinet. An election committee will then decide on a date for a presidential vote.

Jomaa has also promised to boost investment and employment in the country.

“I will do everything in my power to confront the challenges, overcome the obstacles and restore stability and security to Tunisia,” he announced.

“Tunisia’s revolution was sparked not only by political grievances, but also economic grievances, and the new government will have a lot of challenges to face on the economic side,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Al Jazeera.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.