Tunisia: Will the birthplace of the Arab Spring be its deathbed?

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Mhamed Biygautane
Mhamed Biygautane

When politicians prioritize their ideologies over public welfare, all one can expect are endless debates and disputes for which the public pays a high price. While political parties with ideological differences and aspirations strengthen the democratic nature of a nation, they can also create lethal deadlock.

When this happens, perhaps the best alternative is to form a government led by technocrats, politically independent individuals selected for their experience in their fields. This will potentially mitigate political and ideological differences among government officials, to allow them to focus on sustainable growth until new elections are held.

This is precisely what has happened in Tunisia. The Ennahda party is accused by the opposition of pushing an Islamist agenda, and trying to establish a government characterized by Islamic law, in a nation that is principally secular and liberal. Confrontations between the governing coalition parties, and their disagreements on various clauses in the constitution, resulted in a long political deadlock and economic stagnation.

The situation was exacerbated by the assassination of two opposition leaders within five months: Chokri Belaid in Feb. 2013, followed by Mohamed Brahmi in July. The assassinations were blamed on members of extremist Islamist parties, and Ennahda was held accountable for not being able to secure the country from such groups.

A few weeks ago, when people took to the streets calling for the government to resign, Ennahda took the most reasonable decision and agreed to step down to avoid replicating in Tunisia the scenario of Egypt’s ousted government.

On Saturday, Ennahda, the other parties in the coalition government, and members of the opposition held the first in what is to be a series of meetings mediated by the UGTT trade union. This is a historic event given the results. A roadmap was signed, albeit with hesitation and dissatisfaction by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, that comprises three features:

1) Ennahda stepping down by the end of October, creating a government of technocrats, and nominating an independent prime minister.
2) Forming a committee that will finalize the constitution by the end of November.
3) Setting a clear timetable to hold parliamentary and presidential elections by early next year.

Ennahda took a wise decision not to resign until the technocratic government is finalized, thus ensuring a smooth transition.

Replacing a democratically elected government with a technocratic one is similar to replacing the government of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi with the military. It means that elected Islamist parties could not deliver, not because they did not want to, but because they did not know how.

While Ennahda was good at rhetoric before being elected, it was not so good at delivering afterwards. That is why it agreed to relinquish power. It failed to reform state institutions, trigger economic growth and attract foreign direct investment.

Elected Islamist parties could not deliver, not because they did not want to, but because they did not know how.

Mhamed Biygautane

In fact, it achieved the contrary. The budget deficit and unemployment are skyrocketing, and the public is seriously questioning the effectiveness of the revolution. Some Tunisians have gone even further by saying the days of dictatorship were not that bad after all.

Does all this allude to the failure of democracy in Tunisia, as well as the Arab Spring? Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki told CNN last week that he does not think so, and that the country is more politically stable than Egypt, where the army dominates the decision-making process.

In fact, it is not the failure of democracy, but the failure to make the right choices in the absence of better alternatives. Reference to the Egyptian experience is inescapable in this context. Mursi’s government was ousted, even though it was elected democratically by half of the Egyptian people, because it was not the right choice.

His government dramatically failed to deliver, not only because of a lack of experience and knowhow, but because of internal and external pressures while Mursi was arrogantly imposing his party’s agendas. Taking into consideration political, social and religious systems is a must when drafting public policies and trying to implement a certain party’s agendas.

Romanticizing the Arab Spring

One of the main lessons that can be learnt from the political upheavals in the Arab world is that revolutions per se do not really matter. What matters most is how they are designed, shaped, directed and implemented. It is not people screaming slogans of freedom, breaking the wall of fear and resisting authorities that are needed to reform the region, but people who have a coherent political goal, and a clear vision of what they want their countries to be after the collapse of regimes.

This is easier said than done. Political maturity requires generations of well-educated and prepared people to embrace democracy, which is not a magic recipe that fits all contexts, but an incremental one that needs to grow in fertile soil that is ready to nurture equality, transparency, justice and equity.

Transition to democracy is not a process that evolves overnight. Organic models are subject to trial and error. They need time, effort and trust in the elected government. Arabs tend to follow the current rather than the logic. They tend to look at what others do and try to imitate them. When Ennahda was elected, it was rehearsing what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was saying, “to replicate the Turkish model.” They have both dramatically failed to do so.

The Turkish model works best in Turkey, with its homogenous political and economic factors. What is needed is a model that is compatible with the political and social realities of a country. Tunisians need their own unique model, as do Egyptians in a context in which the military plays a substantial role, and Moroccans in setting to what extent the king directs public policy-making.

Tunisia is headed in the right direction, creating a model of democracy in the Arab world. It is undeniable that Ennahda did not deliver, but it can take credit for acknowledging its poor performance and prudently stepping down.

Mhamed Biygautane’s research focuses on the political and economic developments of the MENA region with special focus on the Maghreb countries. He has published more than 70 studies on political economy of development, knowledge Management in the Public Sector, modernization and reforming of public sector and improving its performance, governance challenges in the Arab world. He also serves as a Middle East and North Africa Expert in the European Geopolitical Forum where he provides strategic advice on the economic development of the MENA region. Mhamed has been featured in international and regional TV channels such as the BBC, Dubai One, Kuwait TV, Dubai TV and newspapers like the New York Times, Gulf News, Al-Khaleej and other prestigious outlets.

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