In this article we discuss the current Tunisian government, and the recent political events in Tunisia that have led to the current political state. We shall examine what led to the Tunisian democracy in the country. Scholars have spent a lot of time analyzing the events in recent years, and comparing them to other cases such as Egypt, where we do not see a democratic governance structure.
How was Democracy in Tunisia Established?
Tunisia is experiencing a great democratic system a few short years after the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East. Following the removal of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali from office in January 2011, the Tunisian political leaders, and civil society alike have been able to establish conditions that have allowed for various political parties, an open democratic space, and legitimate and respected elections.
The beginnings of the post-Ben Ali Tunisian democracy began in the days and months following the overthrow of Ben Ali. Immediately after the power vacuum, the Tunisian political groups came together under an interim government. This new government then brought in 19 of the 24 overall ministers because of ties to the former Ben Ali regime (this move was due in large part to activist and civil society pressure) (Coupe & Redissi, 2012). After removing former Ben Ali politicians, the Tunisian government then began the difficult task of writing a national constitution. This new Constitutional Assembly began working on the document in March of 2011. At the same time, the government also discussed the holding of democratic elections sometime later in 2011, which eventually were held in October of 2011.
The top vote-getters from these elections were the Ennahda Party (winning 89 seats/217), the Congress for the Republic (29), Ettakatol (20), and the Progressive Democratic Party (16) (Coupe & Redissi, 2012) (which in turn led to the formation of a secular counter-coalition, Nidaa Tounes) (Reidy, 2015). Ennahda, instead of looking to govern without the voice of the secular parties, did reach out to secular currents in the country. However, due to critiques about the effectiveness of the Ennahda party to govern, and to ensure security within Tunisia (there were a number of political assassinations), Nidaa Tounes and others demanded that Ennahda step down, which they did in late 2013. This led to a caretaker government in December of 2013, followed by a new constitution in 2014. However, due to criticism against Nidaa Tounes
What was different about the Conditions in Tunisia?
There exists relative domestic political stability (of course there still have been terror attacks (March and June, 2015), political organizations are able to operate and run freely in elections, and secular and Islamist parties have been working together in a unified government. And while political differences exist (as is the case in every country), Tunisia is flourishing as a democratic state. The question that many people have asked is: how did Tunisia become a democracy, whereas countries like Egypt did not? What factors led to a successful and stable Tunisian government, whereas one did not flourish in Egypt (particularly with the coup by current leader Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi.
Scholars have looked at this question in detail. For example, Sharan Grewal, in a February 4th article in Monkey Cage and the Washington Post entitled “Why Tunisia Didn’t Follow Egypt’s Path” examines whether a lot of the arguments that are made for the differences are really what led to democracy in one and not the other. However, of the various arguments given, namely, that Tunisia is more homogenous than Egypt, and that no significant ideological differences existed, did not hold up under scrutiny. For example, there was not any more agreement about the political ideological groups in Tunisia than in Egypt; the secularists were as concerned about the Islamists in both countries. In addition, Grewal argues that regardless, secularists wanted them out of power; so it is not as if they were more tolerant of Ennahda than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and thus, more willing to have them stay in the government. Others argued that the socio-economic grievances were strong in Egypt than in Tunisia. People there were less wealthy, more religious, and less educated, which could have negatively affected democracy in Egypt, and not in Tunisia. However, Grewal says that the evidence doesn’t support this as well. Namely, in both countries, people were rather equally pessimistic about democracy.
The key difference with regards to Tunisia and Egypt was the government response to any tension within the state. For example, after Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood each won in their countries elections, citizens began to protest the new governments, they were each often criticized for what was seen as ineffective governing on social and economic issues. The different between the two was not that civil society was protesting the state, but rather, what the state in turn could actually do to the ruling government. For example, “In Egypt, the military and judiciary heeded and even welcomed these calls. The opposition in Egypt was able to appeal to the judiciary to dissolve the democratically elected parliament and to the military to oust the democratically elected president. In Tunisia, by contrast, the judiciary was unable and the military unwilling to perform these functions. Without state institutions to partner with, the Tunisian opposition ultimately had no choice but to come to the negotiating table with Ennahda, facilitating consensus” (Grewal, 2015). And herein lies the reason as to why Tunisia moved to democracy, and also why Egypt did not.
In Egypt, the judiciary not only had a history of nullifying elections, but they did so again months following the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory. In addition, the judiciary was heavily in favor of the former regime, as well as being one that was very much opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists (Grewal, 2015). This is evidenced by statements some made not only asking for a delay in the elections (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Noor Party were expected to do well (although many did not see the Noor Party winning as many seats as they did)). In addition, others also spoke out saying that a Muslim Brotherhood win would be bad for Egypt. However, this did not happen in Tunisia. Why did the judiciary not stop the new Tunisian government, the majority party being the Islamist Ennahda party? Well, they did not have the power to do so. As Grewal (2015) explains, “there was no judicial body in Tunisia with the jurisdiction to nullify elections. Tunisia’s Constitutional Council had gained that power in 2002, but having been notoriously weak under the former regime, the Council was dissolved in March 2011. The highest judicial body in Tunisia during the transition was thus the Court of Cassation, which did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of electoral laws. Even if the Tunisian judiciary wanted to undermine Ennahda, it was unable to do so to the same extent as its Egyptian counterpart.”
One other related factor was the power of the military in each country. In Egypt, the military had a history of political and economic influence, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood challenged their supremacy at least politically, and, with time, possibly economically (as some feared). The military was not used to not having power. However, this was not the case in Tunisia, where Ben Ali invested more in the police in terms of closeness to the regime. Thus, when Ennahda came to power, the military had much less to lose than in Egypt (Grewal, 2015).
So, while some want to argue that the conditions were vastly different in Tunisia and Egypt, it seems that the reason for democracy in Tunisia today, and not in Egypt, really has to do with the powerful actors in the judiciary and the military in Egypt; they had the power and motive to change the political situation, where in Tunisia, these actors could not do much, nor did they want to replace the Tunisian government.
However, and this is something that Grewal does not spend time discussing, we also have to give credit to the Islamist Party Ennahda. The reason? Following protests against their governance, instead of holding still and challenging the protesters and other challengers by staying in office (which most would do, given the assumption that people want to stay in power), they decided to step down from office and allow technocrats to run the country. They recognized the importance of ensuring that Tunisia needed to be run effectively. Then, “Last October, when the secular Nidaa Tounes party triumphed in Tunisia’s most recent parliamentary elections, Ennahda’s leaders calmly accepted the result. And when the anti-Islamist Beji Caid Essebsi won the country’s presidential election two months later, his chief rival gracefully acknowledged the voters’ decision and conceded defeat” (Boston Globe, 2015). This was important, as it continued to establish the important of recognizing the electoral results, and the people’s will in Tunisia.
And again, none of this will be enough for Tunisia, or any country, if other key issues such as economic concerns are not addressed. However, the developments in Tunisian democracy are clearly excellent news. At the same time, it is hard not to be pessimistic when thinking about the current political situation in Egypt, where democracy seems to be a distant memory.
Tunisian Government and State in 2016
As mentioned earlier, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was instrumental in pushing forward Tunisian democracy. Because of their work, things are well politically in the country. As Caryl (2016) notes:
Tunisians have chosen parliaments and presidents in three rounds of national elections and adopted a new constitution that guarantees citizens a broad array of rights and freedoms. They’ve exulted in the newfound freedom to organize, agitate, and express opinions, and basked in the attention accompanying a Nobel Peace Prize. (Technically the award was bestowed upon four civic groups that played prominent roles in the revolution, but Tunisians don’t take that all too literally; they know that it was really recognition for their collective success in dumping an autocrat — and managing the aftermath.) Add it all up, and the 11 million people of this country have experienced a tumultuous journey without its analog anywhere in the rest of the Arab world.
However, there are still problems in the country that the Tunisian government will have to address if the politically prosperity is to be seen in other aspects of society. One of the largest challenges still facing Tunisia is the economy. Unemployment is still high, and socio-economic gaps between the have and the have-nots are increasing (Caryl, 2016). In addition, concerns of corruption–something Ben Ali was known for–are present in the post-uprising Tunisia, but where “Throughout the years of dictatorship, politically connected insiders managed to protect their interests by erecting protective walls of red tape designed to ward off newcomers” (Caryl, 2016).
It is imperative that Tunisia work on fighting corruption, all the while working on economic programs, at the same time continue to fight radical groups within the country (Caryl, 2016).
Additional Tunisian Government References
Caryl, C. (2016). Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion. Foreign Policy. August 7th, 2016. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/tunisia-glorious-confusion-180025944.html?nhp=1
Reidy, E. (2015). Tunisia unity government stirs crisis in leading party. Al Jazeera. 20 February 2015. Available Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/02/tunisia-unity-government-stirs-crisis-leading-party-150215125404882.html