Is Democracy in Tunisia, the First Arab Spring Country, Under Threat?


It has been more than one year since Tunisians toppled Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian ex-president who ruled Tunisia for 23 years. The government has since suspended the old constitution and set non-governmental commissions to install new democratic reforms in the country. On October 23rd, Tunisians had their first free elections in over half a century. The election resulted in an assembly that will draw up the country's new constitution, which should now respond to the people’s new aspirations of freedom and democracy.

Despite the legitimacy of the elections and the new government, Tunisia has accomplished little in terms of democracy.

The concept of democracy has grown in popularity since the revolution. Now all kinds of organizations – educational, associative, and industrial – in Tunisia claim the right to be led by elected figures and juries. Yet, the government does not seem content with this new concept. Last year, the assembly, mainly led by the Ennahda Islamist Party, voted to grant the successive prime minister new judiciary powers. The proposal was heavily opposed as it was suggesting the mixing of powers in hands of the prime minister that most of the political and judiciary systems condemned.

There was no consensus with other winning parties. The president – who is said to be the first freely elected – was elected by the ruling party, Ennahda. He was therefore the only candidate for presidency. Ennahda and its allies had already chosen him publicly more than a month before the elections. Ennahda used its wide representation within the assembly to appoint its officials as chairmen of most of the commissions within the parliament, too. 

Apart from Tunis, democracy can’t even happen on the micro level in none of any other cities. The constituent assembly didn’t pass any new laws that would organize any local elections to elect new city governors or mayors. The obsolete and old elections code of ex-president Ben Ali is still in effect.

Because of these unresolved problems, many Tunisians still can’t feel the effects of democratic change. Politicians were and still are untrusted by most Tunisians and this may explain why half of Tunisia’s population did not vote in the elections, despite their importance.

The newly-elected government has also done little to help Tunisia's economy.

Economists attest that foreign and national investments has both shrunk by 35% and 30% leading to the layoff of thousands of employees and the increase of the unemployment rate up to 20%. 

The rise in unemployment, the price inflations, and the sinking economic growth now makes Tunisians – especially the poorest ones – wonder about the success of the revolution in Tunisia at all.

Tunisia is an example of peaceful transition for other Arab countries to follow. Yet the country also highlights the problems many of these countries will face after their revolutions.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Medien