Changes in political regimes have been associated with various changes in outcomes not only in the democratic process but also in the political and social systems in a nation. In most of the Arab world and in Africa as a whole, forceful transitions have been particularly characterized with violence and less than democratic outcomes as those who oust leaders automatically take on power without a consideration of any democratic process. In some cases, the targeted democratic changes turn out to be worse than the ousted regimes. Unlike what happens in most Arab and African countries, changes in Tunisia’s political leadership after the ousting of President Ben Ali have shown the nation’s commitment to democracy, and the participation of the key national players such as the military and the elite in the development of an entirely democratic space (Bellin, 2013). The democratic consolidation in Tunisia in particular, has resulted in changes in the political and social systems that have made Tunisia to be hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring. The ensuing paper presents an exploration of various concepts in relation to the democratization process in Tunisia following the removal of President Ben Ali, with an objective of proving the successes of Tunisia relative to other countries in the Arab spring. The proposed thesis is that the democratic consolidation in Tunisia is responsible for the other positive changes experienced in its leadership and social structures.
From the institution of the state of Tunisia, the country’s leadership had been ruling with an iron fist. First, it was through the state’s ownership of the forces as commanded by the nation’s founder, Habib Bourguiba. Later, it was through the iron fist of President Ben Ali, who also marginalized the forces. This marginalization of the forces contributed to the peaceful transition experienced during the ousting of the president as the forces refused to shoot at demonstrators. Years later, Tunisia has continued to grow in the democratization process, building a democratic system that incomparable to most of the Arab states in which governmental transition was carried out forcefully. For instance, change from the interim military led government in 2011 took place democratically and peacefully following pressure from the civil society, which was aimed at eliminating the constant procrastinations of an elective process by the interim leaders.
The democratization process also saw the disbandment of the state security division and other offices characterized by political policing removed under the guidance of the forces. Meanwhile, the forces stuck to their commitment to avoid interfering in political processes. Additionally, the democratic consolidation saw the full revision of the Tunisian constitution with an objective of addressing power inequalities. The power inequalities in the previous constitution favored the president and the legislative arm of the government, eventually leading to a dictatorship (Bellin, 2013). The transition was made possible through the election of a constituent assembly, which led the establishment of an independent electoral commission through a genuinely democratic process. The electoral commission not only registered many political parties but also legalized the Islamic Ennahda Party, which had been banned under President Ben Ali’s regime (Zoubir, 2015). The commitment of the country’s president to a democratic process resulted in the establishment of a moderately Islamist regime that supported democratic processes in government entities.
Another characteristic that confirms the democratic consolidation in Tunisia after Ben Ali is reported by Zoubir (2015). The 2011 election has been described as free, fair and transparent, unlike most elections in Africa and the Arab world. It is attributed to the constitutional structures, a well educated population, the existence of strong trade unions, respect to the rule of law and professional associations such as the national lawyers’ association. The homogeneity of the Tunisian people has also contributed significantly to the process of democratic consolidation due to lack of fragmentation along religious, ethnic, cultural or religious inclinations. This homogeneity also led to a smooth promulgation of the new Tunisian constitution in 2014, following a protracted process that was approved by all people across the political and social divide. That constitution is considered the most democratic and liberal in the entire Muslim world as it supports civil liberties and also distinguishes between legislative, judicial and executive powers in the government. It recognizes Islam as the official Tunisian national language while accords religious freedom to all.
Political Culture and Social Capital in Tunisia after Ben Ali
Hibou, Meddeb and Hamdi (2011) described the social, political and economic systems in Tunisia in the years previous to the social unrest that resulted in the removal of President Ben Ali. Through the social unrest, the Tunisians were made to realize the effects of the Ben Ali regime on the country’s socio-economic model, which was characterized by exclusion and unemployment. Loss of job security, corruption, and the interventionism practiced by the power wielders on the economic systems all played an essential role in the destabilization of social systems. The rise in poverty rate from 3.8% to 10% was also an outcome associated with the regime, and which purposed to further prove the social instabilities of the system (Hibou et al., 2011). Through the executive changes and the constitutional reforms, the Tunisian people have had slight changes in their social capital and political cultures.
In a study of the Tunisian political and economic models after Ben Ali, Zoubir (2015) pointed out the changes in the political culture of the country and their contributions to the economic systems. One of the key political cultures that has been established and evidenced over time is the respect for constitutionalism, which was observed through the democratic election process of 2011 and the second election held in 2014. The new constitution not only allows for a political culture of democratic peaceful processes. For instance, the country faces challenges such as state and social tensions, but these have been solved continually through peaceful measures. Similarly, the government accepted its failure to address the concern around their complacence in handling the salafist extremists who had emerged along the borders with Libya, and even resigned to allow for a democratic election process that would be steered by a caretaker government (Zoubir, 2015). This was a key step in the development of s sustainable political culture that would recognize the importance of public input into political decisions.
On social capital, the Tunisian constitution has been effective in creating sustainable relationships between the Tunisian people, regardless of their political, social or religious affiliations. A system that allows for gender parity in political processes is unique in an Islamic society, and Tunisia has been at the forefront of leveraging the roles of women in politics. Similarly, religious affiliations have not been allowed to be a cause of interpersonal conflicts among the Tunisian people (Zoubir, 2015). Currently, Tunisians revel in a more inclusive leadership and social system that involves nationals in the development of social solutions to existing problems.
Chomiak (2016) describes the 2011 revolutionary conclusions to Tunisia’s dictatorial regimes as one of the astounding historical moments for the country. In particular, he mentions the euphoria that was previously linked to the outcomes of the revolution, describing it as the beginning of changes in the political systems and social structures of the nation. While recognizing the political and social reforms that the country has undergone over the years, Chomiak points out the challenges and strings of failure that have been used by pessimists to caution against excitement in the course of a revolutionary action. However, he also asserts that pessimists should not be blind to the positive outcomes associated with the revolution. The most prominent of these outcomes is described as the establishment of a political system in which institutions are open to criticism, as evidenced in the case of the 2014 elections. The revolution carved and has continued to protect the rights to speech, space and political criticism, as the paradigm for social and political change.
The political institutions in the country today allow for open discussions on formerly taboo subjects such as religion and political orders, gay rights, rule of law, political compromise and national consensus among others. While a proposed economic reconciliation promises to give Tunisians an opportunity to bury the wounds of dictatorship, it has been shown that Tunisians are still at pains in conceiving the rationale behind granting amnesty to previous dictatorship regimes (Hibou et al., 2011). Political systems continue to work together with the public towards solutions to painful memories of the past. In spite of challenges associated with their past experiences, Tunisians can be said to have achieved irreversible change in the political game, notwithstanding the contentions and conflicts associated with the transformation (Chomiak, 2016).
Ongoing Political, Social and Economic Problems
While Tunisia has made significant strides politically through the democratic reforms that have taken place over the years, the country is yet to completely move from the high rates of unemployment and social inequality that it previously experienced. As at 2012, Tunisia had succeeded in the industrial transformation that led to an increase in its capacity to diversify the national product portfolio. Instead of the production of more diverse and more sophisticated goods enabling the country to move forward at a faster rate, Tunisia is still struggling to move ahead economically. Tunisian products have been heavily reliant on the European market, which has stifled innovation potential and limited the capacity for entrepreneurship. The country’s export policy has remained constrained to the export sector without any significant spillover to the local economy in spite of building a relatively robust manufacturing sector. Additionally, the African Development Bank (2012) also pointed out other challenges such as limited exposure to competition from a global context, protectionism of the domestic markets and lack of focus on developing international markets.
In the social context, Tunisia mainly faces challenges in addressing the needs of the populace based on two different factors. The actions of the presidency are likewise judged based on the two factors namely, social justice and democracy. These factors constitute an essential measure of the democratic efficiency as well as the social system, and are thus the indicators of social welfare and political well-being. According to Salem (2015), there are currently fears about the return of dictatorship to Tunisia especially from the civil society and the political class. The actions of the executive in various instances of social unrest have been pointers towards the potential for dictatorship. For instance, the institution of the state of emergency and the subsequent anti-terror law promulgation, were both considered as indications of the potential for dictatorship. Moreover, Salem (2015) suggests that as much as there are government choices that do not directly affect the citizens or have instant ramifications, their impacts on the social system can be prolonged. A shift towards dictatorship for instance, would violate the democratic transition that has occurred over the years.
Comparison to Other Countries
Tunisia’s revolution made an impact across the world not only due to its uniqueness in Africa, but also due to its contradiction of the norms of government change in the Arab world. The outcomes of the regime change in particular, have been regarded as some of the best in the Arab springs, as a result of the peaceful and democratic outcomes birthed by the revolution and the subsequent changes in government and Tunisian economy (Yakinthou & Coeser, 2016). For instance, the outcomes of the revolution cannot be compared to that of the Libyan revolution, which was marred by deaths, and which resulted in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Various other revolutions across Africa have been characterized by violence, and non has registered as much positive outcomes as the case of Tunisia. For instance, Sly and Fadel (2011) posited that social media reports following the Tunisian revolution indicated that “revolutions are like dominoes”, and that after Tunisia, Egypt was to follow suit.
Contrary to the case of Tunisia where President Ben Ali was forced into exile as a result of the public protests, other countries also experienced similar protests, lesser impacts. For instance, Jordan, Libya and Algiers all faced violent protests in response to social injustices such as unemployment, official corruption and rising commodity prices. Each of these countries identified with an aspect of the Tunisian social and economic system prior to the revolution, which drove them towards public action. In Egypt, public rumblings were fueled by an increasing resentment of the ruling elites, growing populations and limited employment opportunities (Sly & Fadel, 2011). None of these countries realized the kind of democratic consolidation that was experienced in Tunisia following the revolution.
The political history of Tunisia presents various unique features that have contributed significantly to the nation’s democratic and political growth. For instance, the peaceful transition, willingness of care taker governments to participate in democratic electoral processes; promulgation of a new constitution; election of an electoral committee; and even the agreement by a government to step out of power due to public dissatisfaction are all elements that have continued to steer democratic consolidation in Tunisia. While much has been achieved democratically, the country still struggles with various issues economically and socially. Nonetheless, outcomes such as high unemployment and high social inequality, which drove the revolution towards change, have been reduced and/ or prevented in the recent years. The governments continuously do all they can not only to prevent crime, but also to make use of available natural resources for better growth. All the country needs to do is to work out a plan for expanding the domestic trade sector without emphasizing the export markets for the good products.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) Group (2012). Tunisia: Economic and social challenges beyond the revolution. African Development Bank Group. Retrieved from www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/Tunisia%20Economic%20and%20Social%20Challenges.pdf
Bellin, E. (2013). Drivers of democracy: Lessons from Tunisia. Middle East Brief, no. 75. Retrieved from www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB75.pdf
Chomiak, L. (2016, January 14). Five years after the Tunisian revolution, political frustration doesn’t diminish progress. The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/01/14/five-years-after-the-tunisian-revolution/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fe3d026dfab0
Hibou, B., Meddeb, H. & Hamdi, M. (2011). Tunisia after 14 January and its social and political economy: The issues at stake in reconfiguration of European policy. Copenhagen, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. Retrieved from www.refworld.org/pdfid/515013412.pdf
Salem, M.B. (2015). Social, economic and political dynamics in Tunisia and the related short- to- medium term scenarios. New Med Research Framework. Retrieved from www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaiwp1541.pdf
Sly, L. & Fadel, L. (2011, January 15). Overthrow of Tunisian president jolts Arab region. The Washington Post Foreign Service. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/15/AR2011011503639.html?noredirect=on
Yakinthou, C. & Croeser, S. (2016). Transforming Tunisia: Transitional justice and internet governance in a post-revolutionary society. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 10(2), 230- 249. Retrieved from academic.oup.com/ijtj/article-abstract/10/2/230/2356897?redirectedFrom=fulltext
Zoubir, Y.H. (2015). The democratic transition in Tunisia: A success story in the making. Conflict Trends, 10-17. Retrieved from www.researchgate.net/publication/283048524_The_Democratic_Transition_in_Tunisia