Nobel Peace Prize Draws Attention to Tunisia’s Democracy: A Work in Progress

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by Viktoria Holler

This year’s Peace Nobel Prize was awarded to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet, whose efforts helped Tunisia achieve a peaceful transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy following peaceful elections in autumn 2014. It also established a secular-moderate Islamist coalition and agreed on a new Constitution. As such, Tunisia was the only country after the Arab Spring that successfully managed a transition of this kind.

After all, success was hardly assured. When, at the end of 2010, protests broke out over high unemployment rates and political restrictions, Tunisia became the starting point of revolutionary demonstrations that spread to a number of other countries in North Africa and the Middle East and became known as the Arab Spring. In many of these countries, however, the transition process to democracy and the fight for fundamental rights has suffered setbacks. But Tunisia has turned out to be an outstanding exception and appears to have managed a peaceful transition to democracy. The country has now entered the next challenging phase of development. These challenges include overcoming tensions within the country’s largest party, the secular Nidaa Tounes, and the timidity of the government to pass reforms. Given the nation’s struggling economy and rising insecurities, the nascent democracy will undoubtedly be put to the test.

Tunisian authoritarian ruler and former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who led the country for more than twenty years, was forced into exile in early 2011 amid continuing protests. Prime Minister Ghannouchi resigned shortly after responding to the demonstrators’ call for a clean break. In the following elections, the Ennahda Islamist party won but lacked a majority and was forced to form a coalition. Several clashes between Salafi Islamists and security forces as well as the new government’s intention to reduce women’s rights led to increased social unrest. The assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, an opposition politician, by radicals finally triggered mass demonstrations calling for the government to resign.

Considering the degree of public dissatisfaction, there was significant risk of a second revolution in 2013. In the wake of this troubling period, a group consisting of four Tunisian organizations stepped in as the self-fashioned Dialogue Quartet. Although the members of the Quartet, which consisted of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, represent such disparate sectors of society, they nevertheless succeeded in getting the government and the opposition together to agree on a “roadmap” to democracy. Gudrun Harrer, senior editor of the Austrian journal Der Standard, has argued that the well-established and institutionalized civil society in Tunisia was one major advantage for Tunisia during its transition phase.

In addition, the readiness and willingness of political leaders must not be underestimated. Their attitude contributed to the non-violent establishment of a new constitution and elections in the fall of 2014. The difficulties that ended the rule of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and the fear of a political authority by leftists and constitutionalists contributed to a change in the Ennahda Islamist party. Consequently, the Islamist party presented itself as a responsible political party giving priority to national unity over narrow political interests and willing to form a collation with the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Nidaa Tounes’ leader Beji Caid Essebsi, on the other hand, was also in favor of forming a coalition with Ennahda. From a strategic point of view, it was preferable to transform Ennahda from an opposer of the government into a supporter of the young democracy.

Nevertheless, the decision was not supported by the Nidaa Tounes party as a whole. Ever since Beja Caid Essebsi became president of the Republic of Tunisia the party has been drifting apart. Tensions within the party became even more severe when Essebsi’s son replaced his father as party leader. Such a move could be viewed as a hereditary transfer of power and an attempt to go back to the autocratic style of the Ben Ali era. This development would, however, be in contradiction to what he stood for during the democratic transition process of the North African country. Allies of the president, of course, dismiss the accusations of an authoritarian development. Regardless, the anti-Essebsi wing of the party accuses their new party leader of attempting to get control of the party. Tensions culminated recently when members got into a fight at a party meeting in Hammamet. As Reuters reported, the incident has resulted in speculation that Nidaa Tounes will eventually split up, thereby ceding its position to the Islamist party Ennahda.

Furthermore, legislators are lagging behind when it comes to passing much-needed economic reforms. Instead, the government is provoking the opposition of civil society with their draft of a bill that would end legal action against businesspeople suspected of corruption. Those who support such legislation argue that it should remove uncertainty for businesspeople and help to improve economic activity. This move has created public dissatisfaction and promoted the assumption that corruption is not taken seriously by government officials. As noted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, this reminds one very much of the issues which first provoked the revolution in 2010/11. On the other hand, the example illustrated above puts emphasis on the four organizations who stepped in together as a single entity when progress towards democracy in Tunisia was being threatened. Since that time, according to The Guardian, the members of the Quartet have each gone their own way. Given the difficulties within Nidaa Tounes and the slow-going of the reformation process, they should continue their bridging efforts in order to prevent further fragmentation of the political system.

Democratization in Tunisia is still very much a work in progress, but the new framework, based on consensus between several political streams, must be seen as the impressive beginning of a much longer reform process. It goes without saying that the roadmap to democracy – as was put forth by the Dialogue Quartet in the wake of the revolution – must not end with the establishment of a static framework. A dynamic, adaptable concept should be adopted which can support the government throughout the entirety of the reformation process. Ultimately, Tunisia’s success can also serve as a model, demonstrating that a peaceful transition in a pluralistic society is achievable and may serve as encouragement for other struggling Arab countries, in much the same way that the Norwegian Nobel Committee intends the Nobel Peace Prize to be an inspiration to all those desirous of promoting peace and democracy.  

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