by Mohamed Fares Mohuachi
On January 14th, 2020 some Tunisians gathered at Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, celebrating the 9 years of the Revolution.
The Jasmine Revolution, as dubbed by many western observers at the time, and the freedom and dignity revolution, as called by Tunisians. The celebration of the 9 years since that incredible day of January 14th, 2011 is becoming more and more bitter to many Tunisians amid economic hardships, repeated political crises and an unstable regional context. Last year Tunisians went to the polls once again to elect a new president and a new parliament, in September and October of 2019. These elections were once again free and fair but came as an earthquake to the political class. The Presidential elections saw the rise of a retired constitutional law professor Kais Said, an independent who led a campaign with minimal resources but succeeded in beating the candidates of all the major parties, some of whom benefit from the support of regional powers. Kais Said won the second round of the elections with about 73% of the votes in a moment of national unity. The year 2019 also saw another major moment of national unity, which was when Tunisia said adieu to its beloved President Beji Caid Essebsi, who passed away on Republic Day (July 25th) and soon enough different political parties and factions, from conservative Islamists to left wing communists rallied together in an emotional tribute to a man who had served the Tunisian state for over 60 years.
Yet, behind these moments of unity the political class remains very fragmented, the outcomes of the parliamentary elections wasn’t nearly as united as the ones in the presidential ones, with no party achieving the majority of 109 MPs necessary to form a government. The political parties remain unable to form a government at the time of the writing of this article about 3 months later. As we come near the 4 month deadline set by the constitution before dissolving the parliament and calling on voters once again, the frustration grows among the population as they continue to suffer the economic consequences of the years of instability.
As despair grows, many have become cynical to the idea of democracy and fantasize of a ‘Just dictator’, the strong man/woman that will bring order to this chaos and save the country. This wave becomes harder to fight against in a regional context unfavorable to the Tunisian experience and the lack of interest shown by Western leaders, who instead make deals with the strong men of the region, seeking stability. Tunisia’s experience is mainly looked at as an exception in the Arab world, a mere stroke of luck. I see otherwise, I see this boiling democracy as a continuation in the journey of modernization that Tunisia embarked on in the mid-19th century, a journey that has transformed the society into being ready for a democratic transition. This journey and its unsteady yet continuous path makes me believe in the possibility of democracy spreading to the rest of the region. The countries that already appear to be on the same path are Lebanon and Algeria. Although democracy seems unachievable at the moment, I believe it will come eventually. It goes without saying however, that the transition remains hard, given the globalized world we live in, and the global tide of populism.
One element of the Tunisian political scene that seems to hold the process of democracy on track is the civil society. Different NGOs and activists have had great success over the course of the past 9 years in changing the outcome of political crises, from the powerful Labor Union UGTT to corruption watchdog IWatch – the civil society was there at every turnt.
At this moment, the main threat to Tunisia’s transition and stability is the economical question – the country’s economy has suffered from the years of instability and has failed to transform into a democratic, open market with ease of access for young entrepreneurs. The youth of Tunisia still face major challenges in joining the labor market or pursuing entrepreneurship, pushing thousands to expatriate themselves and leave the country to look for better opportunities. Such a mass exodus of the country’s brightest will only make the future look darker. However, despite the bleak outlook, Tunisians remain hopeful in seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and are thankful that their Arab spring experience didn’t take as tragic a turn as it did for some of their neighbors.
This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.