Merry Christmas Everybody! I’m heading out of town in a couple hours, but I’m super psyched to be able to fill one of the year’s biggest gaps by putting out a Christmas eve video on Tunisia! I intend to do a better job of keeping on top of Tunisian and North African politics in the new year. In September and October they held a series of elections that I am very late in covering. Tunisia is probably the most important country in the Middle East/North Africa region. There’s a distinct chance that what they’re doing now will be remembered long after the decades of nastiness further East have been forgotten. One can hope anyway…
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey There. In July of 2019, Beji Caid Essebsi, the President of Tunisia died. He had been a key consensus figure in the years after Tunisia ejected their 24 year dictator in 2011. Some commenters worried that this would have a destabilizing effect. Without this key politician, would Tunisia’s fragile democracy dissolve into chaos? Governments in the region usually depend on personal politics and strongman figures after all… Would Essebsi’s death lead to the same sort of chaos we’ve seen everywhere else in the region, and that Tunisia had miraculously avoided since they kicked off the Arab Spring in December of 2010?
Nope. They just moved the election up by a month or so. The election was quite straightforward, and even a little boring. Tunisia now has its second president in a row elected in a free and fair election. But presidents are a lot less powerful in the Tunisian system than they are in the United States. What probably mattered more in 2019, was the Parliamentary election that took place on October 6th. A lot of pundits, including this guy, were very worried about what might happen. Would Tunisia’s delicate balance finally tip over into violent disaster? Again nope. The parliamentary elections were kind of boring. But this boredom is thrilling!
In a region where constant chaos seems to be the norm, Tunisia has continued to stand out. In the first years after the Arab Spring, many countries looked to be embarking on serious experiments in representative government. Egypt got its first popularly elected President in 2012. Libya had elections in 2012 too. Yemen never managed an election with more than one candidate, but its national dialogue process looked promising. All of these experiments now look like failures. Egypt’s only democratically elected president died in prison and he’s been replaced by a dictatorship worse than the one that was toppled in 2011. Libya and Yemen have both fallen into civil war due to a combination of internal discord and greed and savage external proxy warring and invasion.
In 2013, it looked like Tunisia might be heading in the same direction. A series of assassinations, escalating protests and political gridlock between secular and Islamist leaning political forces looked to be tearing Tunisia apart. Instead, in 2014 a bunch of civil society groups got together and came to an agreement that kept the peace. Crucially Enahda, the traditional Islamist group, agreed not to use it’s position as the most powerful party to push it’s agenda through against the will of the majority. Tunisia was stable for 5 years, but I was not optimistic about the 2019 elections
CLIP “nobody is happy. The economy is a disaster. A series of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 almost killed the lucrative European tourist market. More and more Tunisians are beginning to wonder whether this whole democracy thing is worth it. Yippee, they’ve got free speech and assembly, but living standards have not improved significantly since 2011, and the pace of protest seems to be picking up. Even worse, under all this stress, it seems like the Islamist and secularist parties are beginning to do a slow motion version of what killed Egyptian democracy back in 2013.
The Islamist party is a little stronger in elections, so the secularists have been threatening to declare them a terrorist group. Even worse, the International Crisis group reports that the secular party is reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help them crush the idea of Islamic democracy. The Islamists are reacting to this poorly of course, and trying to consolidate power. The elections at the end of this year could be a disaster.” END CLIP
The elections were not a disaster. They were peaceful, featured unprecedented televised debates, and a high degree of voter participation. The Islamist and Secularist parties that I was worried about, both kind of fell apart in favor of outsiders. This dynamic of established party failure is something we are seeing across the Democratic world. Tunisia, is kind of a normal, boring Democratic country. Does this mean all their problems are solved? Hell no.
As I pointed out in the last Tunisia video, neither the world economy nor Tunisia’s region is helping them very much. The IMF continues to nickle and dime the world’s most important Democratic experiment, and the US and EU are loaning small fractions of the amounts they spend on making Libya and Syria worse. This is a disturbing pattern in Tunisian politics. The Democratic experiments tend to happen when the world economy is being rough on this small tourism dependent country.
An attempt by Tunisia’s first dictator to open up a little foundered due to terrorism and a soft oil market back in the 1980s too. The country fell back into authoritarianism just in time for the world economy to pick up again. It’s tremendously heartening that the Tunisians have held on to hope through another election cycle. The people they have selected to run the place could be worse.
Ennahda, the Islamist party that was the most powerful force in the early years of Tunisian democracy is still the biggest party in the Parliament, but their slice is diminishing, and their politics are moderating, in the face of a majority of fervently secular parties.
I sometimes worry that Tunisia’s coastal elite is too anti-religion and that they are risking a backlash. But I worry about that the same way I worry about elements of the Democratic party in the United States, not the way I worry about Egyptian dictators murdering religious people by the hundreds in the streets. On the other hand, I also find Tunisia’s new outsider president a little scary, with his conservatism and his support for bringing back the death penalty. But I find him a little scary the way I find the religious fundamentalist US Vice President scary, not Libyan strong man destroying the country scary.
All in all Tunisian democracy looks kind of normal, and kind of boring. And that’s thrilling. I hope and pray it lasts. Come back next time when we will ask whether or not Tunisia can serve as an example for the rest of the Arab world.
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