No Need To Fear For Tunisian Democracy


The 10th anniversary of the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came and went without much celebration among the people who brought him down. The wider world may marvel at the fact that, alone among the Arab Spring countries, Tunisia has preserved the freedoms won in 2011, but few Tunisians were looking back with satisfaction.

Instead, thousands have been taking to the streets again, to protest against the failure of their revolution’s greatest promise: a more just and inclusive socioeconomic order. They see their democracy, rated “free” by the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House, as no more than a facade.

Tunisia suffers from serious problems of governability, the result of intense political fragmentation, sociocultural polarization and endemic corruption. Unsurprisingly, some now argue that things were better under Ben Ali, and many are attracted by populists.

But if Tunisia’s democratic order is weak, it is resilient. Yes, it seems unable to address the many socioeconomic roots of the 2011 revolution, like poverty and high unemployment and major disparities between the inland and coastal areas. Even so, the proliferation of socioeconomic movements and frequency of mass protests show the public sphere seized 10 years ago is still expanding.

Similar to the many cases of democratization in Latin America that started in the 1980s, freedom in Tunisia has meant greater space for political contestation and class conflict. Across the Global South, the transition to a democratic system allows for freer, more open social conflict. Workers, the young unemployed, women, residents of poor neighborhoods and shantytowns and rural communities all have more opportunities to organize and act in the newly-formed public sphere than they had under authoritarian rule.

Democracy in the Global South reframes rather than replaces social conflict. This certainly puts pressure on the new system, but it doesn’t mean that the grassroots movements and protesters are looking to bring down the democratic system in order to restore authoritarianism. Fledgling democracies can struggle to contain  socioeconomic contestation through formal institutional channels. Indeed, protests and violent demonstrations and rioting can rattle the political order even in advanced democracies — as we’ve seen in the U.S. recently.

In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule meant socioeconomic exclusion combined with intense security and political repression. It is not conceivable that ordinary Tunisians would want that back. It is a testament to the resilience of the evolving democratic system that, for all its weaknesses, none of the major actors — the military, the political elites or the groups storming the public square — seems willing or able to restore authoritarian rule.

However, given the socioeconomic origins of the 2011 revolution, it is entirely intuitive for Tunisians to keep pushing for more inclusion and better means to deliver development for the marginalized classes and regions. Essentially, what the protesters are seeking is a deeper redefinition of state-society relations that goes beyond the traditional liberal stress on elections and constitutions, where democracy is an end in itself.

The current challenges facing Tunisian democracy demonstrate the limits of political change without any prospect for economic change. The country’s economy is still dominated by old elite networks. Promises of the redistribution of income, the improvement of public services or the tackling of the structural hurdles to job creation and growth generation have largely been unmet.

There are no short-term fixes to such structural problems. But there is room for quick reforms in areas of taxation and state support for large businesses, making the first more progressive while removing old privileges.

Over time, social conflict should find expressions in institutional channels such as elections, political parties, civil society organizations and labor unions as well as extra-institutional channels like protests, campaigns and grassroots organizations making the new system more responsive and accountable. However, given Tunisia’s development status, social conflict will keep imposing itself on the political scene.

We have already seen this in parts of Latin America since the 1980s and until the present. On the one hand, there has been a consolidation of representative democracy: The coups and breakdowns of much of the 20th century seem a thing of the past. On the other hand, social conflict has found its way into formal and informal politics, characterized by sharp oscillations between the right and the left, the rise of populists of both extremes and the constant presence of protest, fueled by demands for the redistribution of income and wealth.

Tunisia may be on the same path. Demands for access to economic opportunities and the redistribution of income and wealth have grown louder since 2011. These will remain the basis for contestation in the foreseeable future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amr Adly is an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of "State Reform and Development in the Middle East."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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