Lessons From the Only Remaining Arab Spring Democracy

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Lina Ben Mhenni is struggling to keep faith with the revolution. When we first met, in the early, heady months of the 2011 Arab Spring, the charismatic blogger-activist, then 27, was widely hailed as one of the movement’s heroes. Her blog posts had helped galvanize protests that brought down Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first of several Arab tyrants toppled by their people. Back then, like millions of young people across the Arab world, she was still marveling at what had been achieved and was cautiously optimistic about what would come next: dignity, democracy, and jobs. If the leaders who came next failed to deliver those things, Ben Mhenni and other torchbearers of the Arab Spring were confident they could return to the streets in their youthful millions and force change once more.

When we meet again, in Zahra, a suburb of Tunis, almost eight years to the day Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia, she allows that many of the vectors that led to the revolution now point to another upheaval. “It feels like 2010,” she says. “The government doesn’t respond to the problems of the people, and people feel completely helpless.”

Ben Mhenni is hardly alone in her prognosis. “We were better off in 2010 in terms of the economy,” Finance Minister Mohamed Ridha Chalghoum told Bloomberg News recently. The economy is by most indicators worse than before Dec. 17 of that year, when a fruit vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself—and much of the Arab world—ablaze. Youth unemployment is worse now than eight years ago, when it served as the fuel for the conflagration. Corruption, another motivator for protests, is worse, too. Tunisia has slipped to 73rd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index from 59th the year before the Arab Spring.

And yet young Tunisians aren’t storming the barricades in front of government offices. When a journalist in the town of Kasserine set himself on fire late last December, the protests spread to a few other locations but didn’t last. In interviews and conversations with Tunisians of every political stripe and economic stratum, I hear many explanations for why not. Young people, some say, are simply too disenchanted with the poor returns from the first uprising to launch Revolution 2.0. Others suggest that where Tunisians once inspired other Arabs to rise against tyranny, the bloody consequences of revolt in Syria, Yemen, and Libya now serve as a cautionary tale. Still others say there’s no lightning rod for popular discontent. In 2010 the protesters directed their anger at Ben Ali, his wife, Leila Trabelssi, and members of her family for their lavish lifestyles, financed by wholesale embezzlement of state funds. Now the entire political class is regarded as corrupt as well as inept. Perceptions of widespread graft arouse disgust but don’t bring out the pitchforks.

The most persuasive explanation for why Tunisians aren’t in a revolutionary fervor is that, all appearances to the contrary, the Arab Spring did deliver on some of its promises—and a sufficient proportion of the population is sufficiently satisfied with that much. “We got democracy, real democracy,” journalist Zyed Krichen tells me. “Is that all we wanted? No. But is that enough? For now, yes.”

There have been two free and fair nationwide elections since the fall of Ben Ali—in 2011 for a constituent assembly and in 2014 for parliament and a president. A third is scheduled for October. There’s more to a democracy than the vote, and Freedom House reckons Tunisians enjoy fairly high levels of civil liberties as well as political rights. Indeed, the index in which Tunisia has made the most significant gains since the revolution is Freedom House’s Freedom in the World score. On a scale where 1 is the freest and 7 is the least free, the country jumped to 2.5 last year from 6 in 2010. It’s the only Arab nation to merit the rating of “free.” Of the two other Arab democracies, Lebanon, with 5 out of 7, is rated “partly free,” and Iraq, with 5.5 out of 7, is as yet “not free.”

The rankings and numbers don’t adequately capture the feeling of freedom you get in Tunis. The strong arm of the state is conspicuously absent, even where you’d expect it most. Security is scant at the parliament building in the Bardo neighborhood of downtown; leaning against one wall, amid a few desultory tendrils of barbed wire, students from the middle school next door pay no heed to the legislators’ comings and goings. The presidential palace, in the swank suburb of Carthage, is thinly guarded; it, too, shares a wall with a school. Never mind dictatorships, few democracies anywhere afford so little protection to their grandest edifices of state. If Tunisians wanted to storm the barricades, there’d be only a few to storm.

In much of the rest of the Arab world, even in states where Tunisia’s revolution didn’t inspire local outbreaks, rulers spooked by the prospect of popular uprising have reinforced the barriers—literal and metaphorical—against political change. The kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, which never tolerated opposition, have strengthened the traditional instruments of repression, such as the intelligence services, and added some so they can police nonconformist thinking online. In Egypt, the only other Arab Spring republic not currently convulsed in violence, the counterrevolutionary regime of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi doesn’t tolerate even the slightest expression of dissent; human-rights groups say tens of thousands have been jailed for political views.

In Tunisia, democratic freedoms allow citizens to express their discontent with a great deal of noise and occasional spasms of violence, but without threatening the stability of the political system. Protests are commonplace, giving voice to a wide range of complaints, from unemployment to the price of commodities to austerity measures. Because the government doesn’t respond to these with overbearing force, the anger doesn’t become bottled up and build to revolutionary pressure.

Every so often, a large protest threatens to bring the country to a standstill. Usually this is the work of the Tunisian General Labor Union, known as the UGTT, which recently has been agitating for higher salaries, especially for the civil service. But such strikes are common in free societies—they’ve long been a feature of the world’s largest democracy, India. Politicians and economists say the union’s demands are impossible; some complain about the UGTT’s clout. “They have the real power in Tunisia, and they will get what they want,” says Hachemi Alaya, an economist and founder of Tema, a think tank.

Nobody is suggesting the unionists represent any danger to Tunisians’ freedoms. On the contrary, the UGTT played a vital role in protecting the gains of the 2011 revolution. Along with three other organizations, known collectively as the National Dialogue Quartet, it helped monitor and referee the post-Ben Ali political process, ensuring counterrevolutionary forces couldn’t make a grab for power. The quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for helping “to find consensus-based solutions to a wide range of challenges across political and religious divides,” according to the prize committee.

Those divides persist in the political arena, where the main contest is between the Islamists of the Ennahda Party and a grab bag of secular parties that agree on little other than the need to keep Ennahda from power. In 2012 many secular groups came together to form a single party, Nidaa Tounes, led by the octogenarian Beji Caid Essebsi. In the 2014 general elections, Nidaa Tounes won a plurality in parliament; two months later, Essebsi became the first directly elected president, which is a largely ceremonial position. Lacking a clear majority, the secularists and Islamists formed a governing coalition. But feuds within parties as well as among them have fractured the coalition, resulting in a minority government of political journeymen led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, himself a Nidaa Tounes outcast. This means the government has no real mandate from its people, while its president, who does have a mandate, has no governing authority.

Is it any wonder that Ben Mhenni is dubious about the democracy she helped to midwife?

Like her, many of the young protesters of 2010-11 have withdrawn from active politics. Some have found other outlets for their passion, working for social change through nongovernmental organizations. Ben Mhenni’s most recent cause was building libraries for Tunisia’s prisons. She recalls her father’s frustration at not having enough to read when he was a political prisoner under the Ben Ali regime, and she’s proud her efforts have added more than 30,000 books to prison libraries.

I ask her if this feels a little unsatisfactory after the exhilaration of bringing down one of the world’s longest-serving dictators. She shrugs. “Many young people got involved in the 2011 election as independents or as members of some parties,” she says, “but we found that politics was very corrupt.” She feels putting books in the hands of prisoners is a tangible contribution to society in a way that the mess of parliamentary politics may never be.

Like the Arab Spring activists, many ordinary Tunisians are turning their backs on their hard-won democracy. Barely a third of the electorate turned out for last summer’s municipal elections, down from almost 60 percent in 2014. Another telling sign: Independent candidates won more votes than any single party. “Voters are tired of parties playing tricky games,” says Osama al-Saghir, an Ennahda member of parliament.

There’s a good chance that distrust will carry into the general election in October. Al-Saghir acknowledges a low turnout would “threaten the legitimacy of our democracy.” Yassine Brahim, president of the secularist Afek Tounes party, goes further. Anything less than a 50 percent turnout would be disastrous, he says. “We need people to vote, because this will be a defining election.” He says the 2011 election for the constituent assembly was “about what kind of country we are,” and the 2014 contest between the secularists and Islamists was over “what kind of people we are.” The vote in October, he says, could be the first to address the future. “We need this election to be about what kind of economy we want to have.”

I’m skeptical. With the exception of some small, far-left parties, there’s a broad political consensus about the economic direction Tunisia should take. Ennahda and most of the secular parties agree the country needs more private enterprise and fewer state-owned businesses. Even the union concurs, although it would like the government to retain a role in what Mohamed Ali Boughdiri, general secretary of the UGTT, describes as “sensitive sectors” such as phosphates, the country’s largest export.

With little daylight between them on economic issues, there’s every chance the election will once again split the parties along secularist-Islamist lines. Ennahda’s leaders have been at some pains to redefine themselves as Muslim Democrats. “We find the term ‘Islamist’ too vague, since people use it to include everything from the [Islamic State to] our party,” al-Saghir says. “We have more in common with Europe’s Christian Democrats and should not be lumped into the same group as terrorists.”

Ennahda’s rivals aren’t buying the rebranding. “They want to be accepted by the West, and then they will deploy their real agenda,” Brahim says. Ben Mhenni agrees, but her faith in the secularists is no stronger than it is in the Islamists. As long as they keep balancing each other out, she says, their capacity to do harm will be limited. To that extent, she’s satisfied that power is far from being concentrated in one pair of hands. If parliamentary democracy is unedifying, it is at least unthreatening. “It is messy and confused, and it is all quite normal,” she says. I ask if she’s ever heard of the acronym “snafu.” She hasn’t. When I spell it out for her (“situation normal, all f---ed up”), she laughs for the first time in our meeting. “That’s it! That’s exactly the word.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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