By Rakshan Kalmady
Much has changed since the Arab Spring, but somehow the region is less free than it was in 2010. It has been shaken by wars, refugees and now Covid-19. All but with the one exception of Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring which has emerged as the only country to have established democratic governance. However, 11 years from then, the people of Tunisia are on the streets protesting again, but this time they are protesting democracy itself, bringing back the question: Is the region suited for democracy? Has the western idea of democracy failed the country? Was the Arab Spring worth it?
Eleven years ago, on December 17th 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street fruit vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in protest after corrupt officials had confiscated his fruit cart to extort money from him, subsequent to which he died a few weeks later. Within weeks there were protests across Tunisia as Mohammad’s plight resonated with millions of people who had also reached their breaking point as they were also suffering from some of the same frustrations. Within a few weeks, the most powerful man in the country, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was brought down by the most powerless section of society. This resulted in him fleeing the country, becoming the first Arab autocrat to be pushed out by popular protest. Mohammad Bouazizi’s act of sheer desperation started a revolution that started a wave not only in his country but across the whole gulf peninsula, with people across West Asia and North Africa feeling inspired to demand change in their countries too. This resulted in the toppling of autocratic regimes in Egypt, Yemen and Libya as well, the other autocrats in the Arab world very uncomfortable. The pro-democracy uprisings that western countries termed The Arab Spring, put an end to decade long dictatorships in these countries.
However, more than a decade later, the hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to the region seems to have been abandoned. Authoritarian regimes are back in power in some countries, while others are going through decade long civil wars. However, the ones who were not affected drastically by it, have also spent heavily to create anti-democratic forces amongst their people.
Tunisia is the only country that went through the people’s uprising and yielded durable results, a fitting result to Bouazizi’s protest that led to the region-wide revolution. However, after a decade, people are now back in the streets protesting, not just the officials in power, but questioning the system of democracy that has been followed.
Tunisia emerged from its revolt with a fragile but genuine republic, of which its citizens are justly proud. The decade that followed saw the country witnessing a free and fair election, adopting a new constitution, gaining freedom of speech, establishing a free media, and publicly holding the old leaders from autocratic regimes accountable for their crimes. However, it also erupted into political chaos, crippling economic failures with high prices, and the return of corrupt officials. Tunisians then started asking the question, whether the country would be better off with a single ruler, one powerful enough to get things done. Hence, when the democratically elected President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister in a power grab and vowed to attack corruption and return the power to the people, Tunisians greeted it with joy. The birthplace of the Arab Spring is now ruled by a one-man decree.
Eleven years since the revolution to oust a dictator is remembered well in the country but is also followed with regret. The same grievances that led the citizens of Tunisia to protest, like corruption, unemployment, repression of speech and expression, and high prices making it difficult to make ends meet, still exist. Except for freedom of speech and expression, the citizens believe the current situation is worse off than before.
Being in this situation is what led to the power grab by the President, which has left the Tunisians conflicted on whether to condemn or embrace it. Tunisians are frustrated with their leader’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic amid a deep economic crisis crippling the nation. On one hand, President Kais’s action has been cheered and welcomed by some, while the others, who are determined to preserve Tunisia’s sovereignty and keep the goals of the 2011 revolution alive, are back on the streets protesting his action. This divided opinion is not a result of recent events, but a culmination of failures of various democratic governance and principles over the last decade. This has led to the citizens, irrespective of their stand on the President’s actions, questioning the system of democracy adopted by the country after the Arab Spring.
Past Regime Legacy
Post the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government set up The Truth and Dignity Commission, to investigate rights abuses and corruption under the former regime. The Commission which seeks accountability, reparations for damages incurred, and national reconciliation by digging in deep into the roots of authoritarian rule and oppression of the past, received more than 62,000 complaints, of which some of the most high profile hearings were televised live. Even though the Commission was welcomed with open arms, its work has fallen short of the victims’ expectations.
The reason for this is what triggered the Tunisians to question the system of democracy in the country. In 2019, when the Commission’s mandate was coming to an end, the government started criticising the autonomous Commission even before the final report was released. This is because the Commission was formally launched in 2013, and in the following national elections in 2014, many members of the old regime were brought back to power, most of whom would be found guilty by the commission’s report of various wrongdoings. Two ministers had been brought back to the same portfolios they did under Ben Ali in 2011, while at least two others served as ministers under Ben Ali in other capacities. The government even passed a corruption amnesty bill in 2017, that grants amnesty to officials accused of corruption under the regime.
Terrorism on Tunisian soil has seen a rise since 2013. Terrorist attacks on civilians are their biggest security problem, impacting the critical tourism industry while threatening the country’s investment prospects. Instances of mass shootings in resorts, beaches, museums, malls have been a regular occurrence since 2011. A major reason for this security failure in the country can be attributed to political instability. Post-2011, extremist groups outside of the country have tried to carry out an aggressive take-over of public space. When they were arrested, they were given amnesty in the prisons under the Ennahda government, which only increased the number of potential recruits.
Tunisia, which is known to be a pragmatic Islamic country in the Gulf, does not approve of the extremist group, however, during the Ben Ali era, a lot of people were wrongfully convicted for various reasons, and Ennahda was the only organisation that gave money to the families of those who were jailed. However, given the security instability and lack of willpower to act on extremism led to them losing power in the 2014 elections. The new governments since then have also not been able to curb terrorism in the country as well. The country has put forward better countermeasures in place but still saw 29 terrorist attacks in 2019, which was down from 40 in 2016.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for the citizen’s lack of trust in the government and systems is the inability to manage the crippling economic crisis. Tunisia faces a looming fiscal crisis, with billions in debt. Declining agriculture, stagnating manufacturing, and a growing informal service sector cumulatively depleted the capacity of the economy to provide gainful employment, thereby reinforcing the exclusive nature of the system. Moreover, it promoted displacement and migration, leading to the informalisation of the economy. More than a third of young people, who make up over 28 per cent of the population, are unemployed. The International Monetary Fund is prepared to bail out the country but demanded unpopular spending cuts, including cutting down public jobs, cutting wages and subsidies, meaning negotiations with them have reached a stalemate. This led to various demonstrations and nationwide strikes. For many people in the country, it has been a decade of economic disappointment, unimproved unemployment, deepening poverty, and inability to afford day to day amenities. The lack of adequate government’s response evokes a sense of negligence by the leaders, which further infuriates the citizens.
The final straw was the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the weeks leading up to President Kais Saied’s power grab, the virus had shaken the government and the health systems even further. The country’s Covid mortality rate was among the highest in the world, which led to intensifying protests calling for the dissolution of Parliament.
It is not that President Kais is a popular figure himself, it is the people who are fed up with the incumbent political elite. It is the rejection of the system and not the embracing of a one-man rule. Even though his power move was celebrated in many circles, his seizing of the sole authority to make laws and arresting of opponents have made people uncomfortable. This means the country still believes in democracy, but for now, has settled for a short-term dictatorship.
This led to the enchantment of the perception that democracy hasn’t delivered, that there are no revolutionary dividends since the Arab Spring. A plausible argument against that is the empowerment of freedom of expression, but one cannot eat that when deep in poverty. While many demonstrators demanded democracy, others chanted for more tangible outcomes: an end to corruption, lower food prices and employment.
This brings some important questions to the forefront. Can democracy work in the West Asian and North African countries? Was the Arab’s Spring of any value? Will the only democratic country go back to being under a dictatorship? Do people in this region want to be democratically governed?
An opinion poll was conducted by Zogby Research Services, which surveyed 8,628 adults across Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan. Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE, showed that majorities across the Arab world still support democracy, but almost half of the respondents say their own countries might not be ready for it. Tunisians in particular associate it with economic deterioration and dysfunction.
It is important to note that in Tunisia, it is the rejection of the kind of democratic system adopted that the citizens have a problem with and not with democracy itself. This is particularly true for young adults who have grown up in a democratic state and will find it difficult to give up their freedoms should the country go back to dictatorship. Further, 10 years is a very short period to judge a country’s transition into a democratic governance system. Arab intellectuals have often pointed out how long it took France to transition to democracy after its revolution. The same can be said about parts of Eastern European countries that have had their ups and downs coming out of a dictatorship.
Hence, it is too early to say that the Arab world and democracy cannot mix. Arabs are as keen to choose their leaders as anyone else. What they lack are the independent institutions, from the courts to the media, which are essential for an engaged, informed citizenry—and for democracy to take root. It would help if Arabs had more freedom to debate, for schools in the region to emphasize critical learning than rote learning, and if not then foreign democracies should accept more Arab students.
When it comes to the success of the Arab Spring, in the last 10 years there have been more protests in places like Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, showing that the fear barrier that was broken with the uprisings 10 years ago has emboldened so many to call out their governments. There is a belief in countries like Bahrain, Libya, Sudan Algeria, Lebanon and even Tunisia that the Arab Spring is still not over and in many ways, it has just started. History has shown us that not all revolutions are successful and that authoritarian leaders can also win. Hence there is no way of saying that the next uprising will yield a positive result, but also there is no way of saying that the autocrats can prevent themselves from being pushed off their positions.
Rakshan S Kalmady, 2nd Year MA in Public Policy Student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.
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Image credits – Holly Pickett, New York Times