Tunisia, the road to democracy. Scars from the past and path for the future

Back from a Study Mission organized by the Eastwest European Institute, a group of students report on Tunisia today

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Tunisia is a strategic country for its history and its geopolitics. While walking the streets of Tunis, we observed and were amazed by the French colonial cultural influences making the country a cultural bridge between Africa and Europe, between past and future.

“We, as representatives of Tunisian people and members of the general assembly, proud to fight for the independence, the state building of the country and the oppression of the tyranny, we give, in the name of the Tunisian people and in the name of God, the current constitution”.

This is the opening of the 2014 brand new Tunisian Constitution. The Tunisian adopted it after 3 years of protests. But do words matter?

In 2011, massive protests swept the Arab world, starting when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man, set himself on fire for protesting against corruption, poverty and political repression. Tunisia was the only country that experienced some positive effects following the protests: it avoided destructive consequences, but could not take the big step forward.

As time passed, a state of emergency was declared. President Ben Ali left the country and Ghannouchi became Prime Minister. In 2014, the General assembly adopted the new constitution that replaced the sixty-four-year-old politician.

But the democratic path of the country took a severe blow on 25 July 2021, when President Kais Saied declared ‌he would assume the executive power in the country. Since he seized power using the military officers and he blocked the parliament using a tank, we can talk of a constitutional coup and the country risks turning back into an authoritarian regime.

"The sole democratic success story of the Arab Spring" pressured Tunisia, and the country ended up being the centre of attention. However, despite the good starting point, such as the constitution and not being devolved into a civil war, the country's democratic transition stopped. Why? As we have been told at different times, a democratic path is not linear, and a decade is a brief time for achieving democracy. But the political and economic struggles have influenced the progress. Power battles between parties have resulted in split and dysfunctional political forces. The national economy's downturn has exacerbated socio-economic problems and fanned civil discontent. For many Tunisians, the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring for jobs and better living circumstances remain unfulfilled.

The economy is performing worse now than during 2011. Higher debt and inflation rate, associated with a lower GDP and a rising unemployment are key factors that exacerbated the faith in the Parliament. A faith that is based on promises of economic prosperity and redistribution. The country made steps forward in institutionalization of democracy and its effectiveness, but not in economy. The new institutions preserved the old administrative ruling class, which controls access to credit and the formal economy. Clientelism and corruption are obstacles to economic reforms. Also, they protect the old established economic elite from Sahel and from major cities, and new entrepreneurs feel marginalized and confined to informal trade. This system undermined economic development, faith in democracy, and intensified regional conflict.

The civil society's role is becoming important for helping the country economically and politically. The first step was to help drafting the 2014 Constitution. Their influence is visible in transparency law, independence of the constitutional commission, women’s rights, anti-racism laws, and procedural democracies. And this was possible thanks to the protest of 2011. But as our meeting at the Jasmine Foundation taught us, their work is only at the beginning. The model on which the foundation is working differs ‌from others: they want to involve young people. The youngster felt like everybody was lying to them. They start by doing research on empowering young Tunisians: the foundation creates a framework to give them tools to be active.

The protests of 2011 started a democratic transformation in Tunisia. A decade later, the process is ongoing, but the political and economic situations are not performing well. Empowering young people is the key, not just in Tunisia but everywhere. Democratic transformation is slow. Only time will tell if policies work!

Giovanni Calissano [Genova] laureato in Sviluppo e Cooperazione Internazionale presso UNIBO.

Francesco Andrea Rossi [Arezzo]: Scienze politiche e Relazioni Internazionali: Università degli studi di Perugia.

Valentina Zerbini [Leiden], Leiden University College, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs.

Bilel Baazaoui[Ancona] Magistrale di Biomedical Engineering presso UNIVPM.

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