What Factors Enabled a More Successful Democratisation in Tunisia than in the Rest of MENA after the Arab Revolts?

Benjamin Preclik


 

Introduction

The global tendency towards democratic regimes is arguably one of the most important features of the 20th century.  In the post-Second World War period and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ‘Liberal World Order’ has embraced the spread of democracy as one of its core objectives. Since the Second World War countries in most regions of the world have adopted democratic state structures and the number of authoritarian regimes has plummeted. Samuel Huntington (1991) identified this as the ‘Third Wave’ of democratisation in modern history. However, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) seemed untouched by the wave of democratisation that swept the globe and transformed many countries of the global South into democracies. According to the Freedom in the World Report (2016), the number of democracies in the MENA has hardly changed over the last 50 years, and the region has consistently had the highest count of authoritarian regimes in the world (Freedomhouse.org, 2017).

The tendency towards democracy did not seem to apply to the MENA. Politicians and academics alike were thus labelling the region an exceptional case. Culturalists argue that the ‘democratic deficit’ is inherently linked to Islam, alongside other cultural specificities. Khedourie (1992) suggests that the Islamic faith is irreconcilable with democratic principles because the religion makes claims on state authority. “Islam, ‘Oriental despotism’, patrimonialism, patriarchalism, ‘small group politics’ and mass passivity were all said to make the region democracy-unfriendly” (Hinnebusch, 2006: 375).

In 2011, the Arab Revolts challenged this Western (mis)representation of Middle Eastern populations as passive and lethargic, despite them surviving through long-lasting forms of oppression (Said, 2003). The revolts were a popular backlash against the region’s authoritarian regimes and their failure to address widespread discontent (Pollack, 2011a). The Arab Revolts, also referred to as the Arab Spring, was a transnational movement initiated in a small town in Tunisia. On December 19th, 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi – a street vendor in a small Tunisian town – set himself afire in an act of desperation and protest (Af.reuters.com, 2010). The young man had repeatedly been subject to police brutality and humiliation while selling fruit in his hometown. Bouazizi’s death was a catalyst that initiated a wave of protests. Tunisia’s population took to the streets to express their frustration with the lack of social justice, growing inequalities and despotism.

On January 2011, after weeks of unrest, Tunisia’s leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to leave the country and seek refuge in Saudi Arabia (Chrisafis and Black, 2011). The events in Tunisia inspired popular upheavals against authoritarian leaders all across the MENA. Protests erupted in Egypt, Syria, Libya and many other Middle Eastern countries. The nature of the revolts came as a surprise to many Western political analysts. Agency, for political change in the MENA, was assumed to be limited to Western-led liberalisation efforts or Islamist anti-western rhetoric (Bayat, 2013). Islamist groups supported the movement. However, the discourse of the revolts remained distinctively non-religious. Core demands were rather for more “freedom, dignity and social justice” (Bayat, 2013: 591). It seemed like the MENA was likely to experience its own wave of democratisation.

However, this initial optimism faded when the majority of revolts failed to oust authoritarian rule and civil conflicts emerged. Although some movements were successful in ejecting their authoritarian regime, few have managed to hold free elections and start the democratisation process. Tunisia has been the notable exception. Six years after the beginning of the revolts, the country has a new constitution and has successfully implemented democratic state structures (Freedomhouse.org, 2017). I seek to discuss what facilitated the Tunisian success. That is, what factors have been most influential in driving Tunisia’s democratic success?

Modernisation theory was one of the first theoretical concepts that tried to find ‘logical’ patterns that would explain the spread of democracy. The theory’s founding father, Seymour Lispted, observed that a country’s level of socio-economic ‘development’ and education coincided with their ‘democratic endowment’. Based on a comparative study of several countries, he then argued that modernisation and economic development have a direct link to democracy. Modernisation theory seem to offer a compelling and simple explanation of Tunisia’s successful democratisation. The country has one of the best per capita wealth ratios of the MENA, higher levels of urbanisation and better literacy rates than most other countries in the region (Hdr.undp.org, 2017). It is, therefore, tempting to attribute Tunisia’s democratic success to its higher levels of growth and development. But pro-market reforms, linked to modernisation and liberalisation, actually reinforced authoritarian rule, corporatism and regime clientelism in Tunisia (King, 2003). While there has historically been a strong correlation between economic development and sustained democracy, there have been many counter cases. Relatively poor states have managed the transition to democracy, and conversely, there are examples of well-developed states that have remained authoritarian (Bellin, 2015). Furthermore, by focusing simply on correlations, causal factors are evidently overlooked (Potter, 1997).

To understand why democracy has been established in Tunisia and failed to materialise in other Middle Eastern countries, one has to look at the forces that provide opportunities and constraints for the establishment of democracy. Structural theory is most equipped to do so as it looks to make sense of the changing structures of power. As Potter (1997: 22) explains, structural analysis finds that the “trajectory towards liberal democracy . . . is shaped by changing structures of class, state and transnational power”. The contrasting experiences of Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, must be understood in relation to the different power structures that shaped these countries’ trajectories.  Hailed as promising prospects for democratisation after overthrowing their despotic rulers, Egypt and Tunisia experienced drastically different political development in the following years. A structural approach, which looks to understand national power confgurations and their particular historical trajectory shaped by the nature of the preceding authoritarian regime, provides us with a more accurate understanding of the Tunisian success. In the following, I will highlight three factors that each played an important part in ensuring a fruitful transition to democracy in Tunisia. The Egyptian case will act as a useful contrast and will underline the importance of these factors.

The Military

Militaries have historically played a major role in Middle Eastern politics and continue to do so today. For Bellin (2004), the coercive apparatus is a crucial element that explains the robustness of authoritarianism in the MENA. The capacity and will of the military to repress popular democratic initiatives explains the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. The military’s involvement in the Arab Revolts heavily influence the course of events in many countries and explains the successful liberation from authoritarian dictatorship. The Arab Spring showed how militaries can be vehicles of government oppression, but equally facilitate the demise of authoritarian regimes.

In cases where the military is linked to the political elites along sectarian lines and reliant on the state to secure its interest, it chose to repress the revolts. The interwoven fate of the civilian and military leadership, also referred to as ‘commissarism’, explains the willingness of the Bahraini and parts of the Syrian and Libyan army to use force to repress the upheavals (Pollack, 2011b: 60). In Tunisia and Egypt, on the other hand, the military sided with the protesters and forced the abdication of the old regime. However, the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have drastically different legacies of political engagement within the state and thus a very different set of political ambitions (Bellin, 2015). The historically neutral character of Tunisia’s military establishment avoided the power struggles between civilian and military leadership evident in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak. Bellin (2015) has suggested that the institutional nature of the army explains these different trajectories.

The Egyptian military is a large institution with a long history of political engagement and a disregard for civilian supremacy. This has made it a powerful and ambivalent domestic actor (Bellin, 2015). The Egyptian military is respected by the population and has considerable influence in society. However, their decision to side with the protesters during the revolts in 2011 was not straightforward. The military was heavily involved in the domestic economy and was anxious to lose their institutional privileges (Anderson, 2011). Under Mubarak, the military was heavily involved in crony links to the regime. Bellin (2012) explains that many of the military’s economic ventures depended on the survival of the status quo. When it became apparent that this was not feasible, they opted to step in and to maintain their legitimacy with the Egyptian people. Although the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi won the subsequent presidential elections, the military remained influential and gained power with a military coup a year later. This led to a “complete military domination of the Egyptian state . . . [which set about] colonising huge swathes of the state’s civilian bureaucracy, local government, general intelligence and central security forces, and state-owned commercial companies” (Sayigh, 2014: 39). Roll (2016) explains that the Egyptian military was highly successful in managing the political transformation of 2011 in a manner that worked in their favour. They managed to defend the basic features of authoritarian order and capitalised from the transformation process by expanding their power. Furthermore, they managed to position themselves as guardians of the revolution (Roll, 2016). But in reality, the military has constrained democratisation significantly as Egypt is increasingly turning into a military dictatorship.

Tunisia, on the other hand, possesses a small professional army that is relatively independent of politics. It did not have any particular relationship to the county’s ruling elite and was not benefiting from Ben Ali’s ‘cronyism’ (Bellin, 2012). Under Ben Ali, the military remained a relatively unimportant institution with very limited influence and restricted funding. The coercive arm of Ben Ali’s regime was the country’s domestic police security forces, which were despised by the general population (Anderson, 2011). Contrary to other Arab militaries, the Tunisian army also had never experienced combat situations and were not involved in the national independence movement. This limited its relevance and standing amongst the wider population. Over the years the army thus developed an institutional culture that accepted civilian supremacy (Bellin, 2015: 5). For the Tunisian army, the demise of Ben Ali’s system was not linked to any losses in power or privileges, explaining the military’s willingness to assist the population in forcing the old regime out (Anderson, 2014). After removing Ben Ali from office, the army did not try to increase its influence, but instead transferred the power to interim civilian bodies that were charged with the responsibility of managing transition (Sayigh, 2014: 39). Sayigh (ibid) explains that the “army remains unlikely to play an overtly political role, but may well become the balance holder between the rival secular republican and Islamist camps”.

 

Ennahda’s Transition Management

Until the Arab Revolt Islamist parties had limited influence in the MENA. Authoritarian state repression limited the political relevance of the Islamic parties, as they were often perceived as threats to the regime. Despite these obstacles, Islamist parties remained active and relatively strong throughout the 2000s. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Moroccan Party for Justice and Islamic parties remained relatively successful but refrained their influence to the fringes of politics. In Algeria, Libya, Syria and Tunisia authoritarian rule totally repressed Islamic parties in fear of their strength (Cavatorta and Merone, 2015).

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamic parties did extremely well in many MENA countries, going from repressed political parties to election winners and state leaders. In Egypt and Tunisia, Islamic parties won the first elections after the Arab Spring, transforming into massive political movements seemingly overnight. Bayat (2013) explains that this success comes back to the well-established networks of Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Their well-organised campaigning tactics help them to capitalise from the political vacuum in the post-revolution period. With established structures around the country, good media campaigns and efforts to provide a cohesive political manifesto, they managed to effectively mobilise voters (Cavatorta and Merone, 2015: 30). Furthermore, Islamists used populist methods to further their esteem amongst the population with handouts and food distributions (Bayat, 2013). Islamist movements capitalised from the revolution’s lack of leadership and their opposition status during authoritarian rule (Marks, 2015a). Although the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisian Ennahda were both Islamist parties, they were different in many ways. Their approach to governing and developing democracy was, therefore, very different. While the Muslim Brotherhood took a “majoritarian approach to power in the wake of Egypt’s revolution, Ennahda adopted a number of farsighted, participation-oriented positions that evinced a much thicker understanding of democratic politics” (Marks, 2015b: 46).

Under Ben Ali, Islamist political activists had been ostracised and thrown into prison. The authoritarian leadership feared their strength and banned all Islamist political movements. Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannounchi, a well-respected Islamic thinker and intellectual, had been in exile in London since the 1990s. Ghannounchi only returned to Tunisia in the aftermath of the revolts. His moderate vision of political Islam shaped Ennahda’s rhetoric and eased the conflict potential with the country’s secularist forces. Despite substantial scepticism by secularists and old regime supporters, Ennahda demonstrated an important ability to compromise and look beyond its Islamic principles (Cavotra and Merone, 2015). As Cavotora and Merone (2015: 31) explain, Ennahda’s “success is in large part due to the fact that al-Nahda has given up on its core Islamist principles and accepted the liberal-democratic game and rules”. The party managed to successfully change the authoritarian structure of the state and opted for more democracy. Ennahda and secularist forces even met before the fall of authoritarianism to anticipate the challenge of the democratisation process (Stepan and Linz, 2013: 23). In the transition period towards the first elections Ennahda also argued against a Westminster style ‘first past the post system’ (FPTP) (Marks, 2015a). Although a FPTP system would have probably resulted in a landslide majority victory for Ennahda, its leadership supported a proportional representation system to provide a more democratic outcome.

After winning the elections Ennahda went into coalition talks and ultimately teamed up with two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties known as Ettakatol. In 2013, Ennahda ultimately helped to de-escalate an intensifying political conflict by agreeing to step down. Before doing so, they signed the new constitution despite numerous concessions on their part, such as the absence of reference to ‘sharia’. Cavatorta and Merone (2015) argue that Ennahda’s compromises and coalition willingness should be understood as a strategic behaviour, which was accompanied by internal struggles and debates on the nature of political Islam. This effort was a crucial element in the peaceful transition.

 

Civil Society

The active engagement of Tunisian ‘civil society’ throughout the transition and democratisation process has been crucial in steering the country towards democracy. Civil society organisations were the vanguards behind the initial upheavals, mobilising people against and uniting opposing groups to overthrow Ben Ali’s regime (Deane, 2013). The strength of civil society in Tunisia is an important element that explains the organised and large-scale mobilisation that provided a united front against Ben Ali and initiated a change in regime. “Despite regime regulations and repression, Tunisia’s civil society groups benefited from the relatively cohesive, tolerant make-up of Tunisian society, a society free from ethnically driven conflict” (Deane, 2013: 8). During the Ben Ali era, civil society organisations had limited freedom and had to operate within the structures approved by the regime. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s civil organisations had considerable relevance within Tunisian society and had a long history of political engagement (Netterstrom, 2016). Their history of collective action and commitment under a repressive regime provided the needed experience for successful collective action (Deane, 2013: 15). Their most acknowledged contribution has been their vocal post-revolution engagement to uphold the revolutions core demand for meaningful change. After the uprisings, these civil organisations became more influential and took an important role in the transition phase. Although civil society groups were far from unified, they provided an important counterbalance to the new political forces that emerged from the first elections.

The most important civil organisation in the country is the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). The UGTT is one of the country’s oldest and most respected institutions. It was established during the Tunisian independence movement and has since been an integral part of Tunisian political life (Yousfi, 2015). Under the authoritarian rule of presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the UGTT was linked to the regime but remained relatively independent (Netterstrom, 2016). Entirely sovereign civil society did not really exist throughout this period since “mobilisation and interaction with the state cannot be analytically separated in an authoritarian context” (Netterstrom, 2016: 398).

UGTT also maintained credibility in the eyes of the population for its struggle for workers rights and social justice (Chayes, 2014). With 750,000 members in a country of approximately 11 million, the organisation is a powerful force in society (Mars, 2015). Chaynes (2014) argues that the union actually represents the population better than any other political party in the post-revolution era and as such, enjoys more legitimacy. She adds that UGTT’s real strengths are its negotiating experience and economic leverage. A general strike called out by the UGTT has the ability to bring Tunisia to a virtual still stand. During much of the transition and constitution making phase, the UGTT acted as checks and balances to make sure Ennahda and its coalition partner would deliver on their election promises. However, for Mars (2015) the UGTT’s involvement was not always constructive. She explains that UGTT, secularist opposition and the governing Ennahda party spent much of 2012 in a destructive circle that eventually culminated in a political deadlock. UGTT and other civil society organisations feared Ennahda would try to dismantle unionism and were wary of its Islamic inspired programme. Ultimately, the Tunisian political crisis of 2013 was the result of mistrust between these powerful political and civil society actors.

The crisis in the summer of 2013 was Tunisia’s most fragile moment since the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution and the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. The crisis was preceded by aggravating development that exacerbated tensions between the ruling Ennahda and secularist supporters linked to the old regime (Stephen, 2015). Ennahda were accused of politicising the bureaucracy by reinstating around 30,000 Ennahda civil servants who had been ostracised during Ben Ali’s rule. The opposition and civil unions voiced their discontent. They argued that Ennahda was trying to colonise the bureaucracy in an effort to consolidate their power and infiltrate state structures (Chayes, 2014). Further controversy emerged around a constitutional draft that made Islam the state religion, limited certain freedoms of assembly and had an ambiguous definition of women’s equality (Chayes, 2014).

Following the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, a vocal secularist and delegate of the Constituent Assembly, the UGTT called a general strike (Stephan, 2015). After massive demonstrations in front of the parliament building, the Constituent Assembly was suspended, and the Assembly’s president Ben Jafaar called for national dialogue. A union of several civil society organisations, led by UGTT president Abbassi, came together to form the National Dialogue Quartet in an effort to “facilitated dialogue and compromise across the political divides when the normal course of politics in Tunisia’s formal political institutions hit an impasse” (Bellin, 2015: 6). The three other members of the Quartet were the Employers Association, the Bar Association and the Human Rights League (Mars, 2015). The Quartet negotiated a so-called Road Map with representatives from all parties. The Road Map included the resignation of the current cabinet and the adoption of a revised constitution (Brumberg, 2015). In 2015 the National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011” (Nobelprize.org, 2015).

Civil society organisations helped to mitigate the conflict potential that threatened stability and democratisation. Furthermore, they pushed for the creation of a “robust representative Tunisian parliamentary assembly capable of managing the negotiation and formation of formal codes, rules and regulations [thus] provid[ing] a greater opportunity for Tunisian civil society to sustain new norms of civil engagement” (Deane, 2013: 6). Mars (2015: 62) agrees that the National Dialogue has a positive impact in creating mutual recognition and a fragile consensus amongst Tunisia’s three biggest powers in a time of crisis: the UGTT, Ennahda and the traditional political and economic elites of the Ben Ali era. But she hastens to warn that the conflict and its resolution were part of political power play amongst the county’s most influential civil institution and political parties.

Conclusion

Tunisia’s democratic success has been a fragile and uncertain development. The factors highlighted above all contributed in making the Tunisian experience more resolute than that of other MENA countries. Understanding the country’s different power structures and powerful actors has helped to explain their effect on the transition process. This paper has sought to situate them within the historical framework of the preceding authoritarian regime, in order to understand the effects that the changing power configuration within the country has had for different actors. To some extent this can explain the trajectory and reaction of diverse actors in the transitional period.

A military that perceives itself as a servant of the Tunisian people, rather than a political player, created the platform for civilian and democratic rule in Tunisia. The relatively moderate Islamism and cooperative efforts of the election winning Ennahda party enabled a good transition period. Ennahda describe their diplomatic and compromising political efforts between 2011 and 2013 as their “national responsibility” (Cavatorta and Merone, 2015: 31). Last but not least, civil society’s import role in the transition. Unions and other civil society organisations played an important role in holding the government accountable and facilitating a peaceful resolution in times of deadlock.

This demonstrates that the Tunisian ‘successes’ are not just a story of more politically representative parties than in Egypt or Libya. “More accurately, it is one of the breakdown and widespread disavowal of standard political processes, and the ability of external actors to step in and serve as bludgeons and mediators” (Chayes, 2014). Importantly, the political elite did not have the ability to govern coercively. Instead, they opted for “compromise that preserved the state and the potential for further democratization instead of defection, conflict and potential state collapse” (Heydeman, 2016: 198).

 

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