Tunisia: the perils of democratic complacency and popular discontent

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A mural painting from the Tunisian uprisings (2010-11)

How will Tunisia look in 2017? What challenges will define its evolution and future trajectory? The country experienced its first democratic elections in 2011, then another round (both legislative and presidential) in 2014, and is now awaiting a municipal electoral law before holding local elections in 2017 (or 2018 at the latest). In the meantime, it has successfully drafted a new democratic Constitution and recently passed key laws in areas ranging from the investment code, to the banking sector and de-centralization.

These legislative measures still need full implementation, but signal the determination of the Tunisian parliament and government to facilitate the emergence of an institutional setting favorable to foreign investments and an increased presence of international firms.

Tunisia is also negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU. This has triggered a number of criticisms and protests expressing resentment towards the continuation and intensification of “neo-liberal” reforms based on the paradigm of further opening key sectors of the Tunisian economy to European products in exchange for cheaper goods and favorable and stable conditions for foreign industries wishing to relocate in countries with cheaper manpower. The risk decried by several civil society organizations is that of losing competitiveness and jobs, according to simulations conducted across several economic sectors.

On the historical-political front, the country has started conducting hearings within the Truth and Dignity Commission, and yet several student associations, the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) in particular, have brought attention to the limited number of their members who have been recognized (and the hundreds ignored) as being discriminated against by the previous regime. The UGET protests in November 2016 have not only remained unanswered, but were harshly repressed by the police.

The Tunisian political elite wants, understandably, to portray the country as the posterchild not of a revolution, whose consequences have created destabilization and have slowed down growth, but as the model of an ideal transition based on national consensus, a responsible although ideologically polarized political class , a reformist attitude and World Bank-style economic plans. This narrative, while popular in Europe, falls on deaf ears domestically where different societal forces lament the lack of a true participatory approach in determining key decisions for the future of the country.

The typical example is namely the DCFTA, which is being negotiated with Brussels far from the spotlight, thereby exacerbating resistance and polarizing those strata of the population that consider themselves future losers of the agreement. While participation was encouraged during the first post-revolutionary phase when the Constitution was re-drafted, since 2014 this dimension of the Tunisian democracy, crystallized in the constitutional text, has been discouraged if not deterred. During the recent conference for international investments, Tunisia2020, which took place on November 29-30 in Tunis, protests were banned and silenced under the pretext of security reasons linked to the international gathering. And while most European countries are familiar with ad hoc curtails of freedom of association when significant international meetings occur, Tunisians have little sympathy for the shortcomings of their full democratic control of the political and economic process, and several civil society groups are asking for a much more transparent political process when it comes to assessing the choices the country stands to make in the economic field.

The impossibility to challenge the regime, under Ben Ali, and its neoliberal turn, which generated significant economic growth but was never coupled by systematic redistribution, neither across class nor geographical lines, remains today a painful reminder of the powerlessness of ordinary citizens. the lack of public debate on economic policy, the opaque nature of the debate among the two main parties when it comes to their (little) differences in economic platforms fuels discontent and increases mobilization, which the Chahed government should listen to, without imposing policies from the palace.

This is coupled with a recurrent complaint since the national government led by Youssef Chahed was sworn in September, following the July 2016 Carthage agreement, i.e. the limited legitimacy the government enjoys in the eyes of many. While the new Prime Minister’s rhetoric focuses on the sacrifices Tunisians will have to make in order to solidify public finances, Tunisians fail to see how the government’s main promises to fight corruption and restart growth will materialize.

Since the 2010-2011 uprisings, the story of the nascent democracy in Tunisia has been told time and again, and the pact-based consensus between Ennahda and Nida has depicted a responsible and mature political class able to forego immediate political gains for the greater good of a stable democracy. Tunisians have been asked to show patience and faith in the virtues of democracy, with a prolonged constitutional process that has stalled any other reform for three years. They have been asked to postpone their economic grievances and to celebrate the fruits of a pluralistic political life and the newly acquired civil and political freedoms and rights. The procedural elements of democracy have been emphasized and possibly mistaken for providing enough legitimacy to any ruling class, while subsequent Arab Barometer polls showed the decreasing trust in democracy by Tunisians, likely because it is considered as less capable of facing security or economic challenges.

Ethnocentric analyses tend to forget or neglect what Tunisians want, as their needs and wishes are presumed rather than ascertained. By sticking to a procedural vision of liberal democracy, we expect Tunisians to be happy about their free, fair and regular elections and the newly found civil and political rights.  This view however follows a strictly Western and liberal interpretation of what democracy stands for, while it underrates aspects increasingly relevant even in our countries, such as a socio-economic understanding of democracy and of citizenship, based on wealth redistribution and publicly-funded safety nets when individuals or the market fail.

If we changed our understanding of different kinds of democracy and citizenship we could grasp why turmoil looms large not just in Tunisia, but again in the Arab world, not in a dissimilar fashion as in 2010.