Tunisia's democracy blooms as model for Arab Spring

Smooth elections, a coalition between moderate Islamists and secularists, and an explosion of civic life are propelling Tunisia forward as a model for the Arab Spring.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters/File
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks at a news conference in Tunis, Tunisia, in this June 27 file photo.

On the day that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from his quarter-century of rule, there were 9,600 associations – nonprofit groups such as charities and sports clubs – across Tunisia.

The number looked impressive from the outside; every conceivable corner of society seemed to have a voice.

Yet like so many freedoms during Mr. Ben Ali's regime, this pluralism was a facade.

“Unfortunately, the grand majority of them were under the control of the regime,” remembers Malek Baklouti, a lawyer who now works for the UN-funded Center of Arab Women for Training and Research. “We couldn’t really talk about a culture of [civic] associations.”

Now just 10 months since the former president fled and the Arab Spring began, civic life hasn’t just opened – it has erupted.

The political side of that story has been well told: more than 110 political parties registered in advance of Tunisia’s first democratic vote on Oct. 23. But behind the scenes, a parallel opening was emerging in the fourth estate.

Roughly 1,000 associations have also been created since January, ranging from women’s and human rights groups to youth initiatives.

“Under Ben Ali, nobody was talking,” says Bechir Bouraoui, founder of Generation Tunisie Libre (Generation Free Tunisia). “Now, everyone wants to talk.”

Citizen engagement

Simple as it may sound, this newly open conversation is perhaps the most important change Tunisia has seen in recent months. For democracy to work in this small North African country of 10 million, it won’t just be about building the machinery to cast votes – there were elections, though flawed, under Ben Ali. Equally important will be citizens’ desire to remain engaged with the process.

The civic explosion here stands in stark contrast to other countries touched by the Arab Spring.

In Egypt, community organizations are under fire: several dozen NGOs are under investigation for treason in what Human Rights Watch has called a move by the transitional military government to “restrict rights and democracy groups.”

In Yemen and Syria, still in the throes of revolution, nongovernmental associations are still largely ad hoc and underground. And in Libya, immediate humanitarian needs and reconstruction efforts will likely trump organizations’ priorities in the short term.

New groups, new voices

By contrast, Tunisia looks well on its way to a vibrant, participatory democracy.

In the lead-up to the vote to elect a body that will write its new constitution, countless new associations worked to educate voters, enumerate the issues, and push causes.

They traveled in caravans of buses and vans across the country; they set up websites and organized meetings. Activists say they’ll keep up their conversation in the government formed by the Islamist party Al Nahda, which took 40 percent of the seats and is expected to govern in coalition with two secular parties.

The influx of new voices has impressed even the most experienced activists here. Khadija Cherif, secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights in Tunisia, says she has been astounded by the change. “People who had never done anything before now all want to invest and play their role as a citizen,” she says. “That’s extraordinary.”

“There is a lot of cacophony. But that’s natural … and it’s fantastic to see,” says Philippa Neave, who works with local associations through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). “We had zillions and zillions of civil society associations just come out of nowhere.”

Twenty-somethings come to life

Many of the newcomers are 20-something.

After the revolution, the thousands of young men and women who had taken to the streets had two choices: go back to their normal lives or organize. Countless chose the former, returning to studies or work with a calm that has allowed the country to function despite obvious vacuums of power. But there were some who had lived the changes so vividly that they couldn’t go back – including Bouraoui and his peers. 

They worried that their peers might lose hope or interest if concerns weren’t addressed quickly.

Forty percent of the population is under the age of 24, and in the south and west, farthest from the developed coastline, opportunities are few. “We all thought that if Tunisia is to step out of this very hard phase, it’s going to be through our culture, through opening minds,” Bouraoui says. “There were a lot of initiatives to go around the country and say to people, ‘go vote.’ ”

Organizing in just months wasn’t easy – especially for groups that, like Generation Tunisie Libre, were scrambling for funds. Bouraoui and his colleagues have poured their own money in. In July, Bouraoui quit his marketing job to work at the new association – which won a small international grant, but only enough to fund a bus trip to several marginalized areas. Now the money’s gone, and paying for a staff, a website, and outreach activities himself isn’t sustainable. “People have their own lives,” he says. “If we have funds, we can make these associations permanent.”

In addition, they will need to get better at navigating government procedures, organizing activities, reaching out to the communities, and remaining transparent.

Perhaps the greatest test of Tunisia’s expansion of civic life is how it fares in a region where the public space seems to be shrinking.

In Egypt, human rights and other nongovernment organizations say that their operations are, if anything, more complicated today than they were under Mubarak. Unlike Tunisia, which took pains to reform laws governing civic organizations, there have been no changes to the legal regime in Egypt. Then, over the summer, conspiracy theories about foreign influence in Tahrir Square reached fever pitch after the U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson suggested that $40 million of American money was dedicated to funding democracy promotion. Almost immediately, Egypt’s transitional military leadership announced an investigation into the NGOs receiving foreign money.

There is also history to fight against. The number of civil society groups worldwide expanded rapidly after the end of the cold war – nearly doubling in the two decades since 1985, according to data from the Union of International Associations, an umbrella group based in Belgium that monitors global NGOs. Yet there have been relatively few transitions to democracy over the last decade in particular. As one of the first countries to abandon dictatorship in recent years, Tunisia could set a precedent for how new democracies balance the debate between politicians and the people.

"The role of civic groups in facilitating further democratic reform augurs well for the country, primarily because these civic groups represent a cross section of diverse interests," argues Rollin Tusalem, a professor of political science at Arkansas State University and expert in non-government organizations in democratic transition. He believes this puts Tunisia's democratiziation well ahead of Egypt and Tunisia.

What seems clear from Tunisia so far is that the new, very public conversation has already attracted too many participants to simply disappear. The expectations riding on Tunisia’s new government will be sky high and growing. Just when it’s needed most, economic growth plummeted this year amid the uncertainty of swift political change. And while many particularly young Tunisians are willing to give their new leaders the benefit of the doubt, they also feel real pressures to keep food on the table.

Politicians have also taken note of the associations’ growing power—and they have so far looked willing to tackle the country’s challenges together. The current transitional government consulted activists when drafting new laws governing the creation of associations and political parties. In November, UNDP also plans to assemble community organizations to draft a list of their priorities for the new Constitution.

If such a spirit continues, believes Bouraoui, democracy will too. “If we maintain the free debate, I think things will only get better.”

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