Why does democracy have a shot in Tunisia? Less money.

In Tunisia, international donors like the World Bank aren't competing for influence with wealthy Gulf states, who have undermined democracy building elsewhere.

Anis Mili/Reuters
Protesters demonstrate to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition, outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis Sept. 7. Tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets on Saturday to renew their demands that the Islamist-led government step down and end a political deadlock threatening the North African country's fledgling democracy. The poster (r.) reads, 'Chokri Belaid six months ago.'

Everything seemed possible in early 2011. For millions of North Africans, the 2011 Arab uprisings offered a rare opportunity to transform their countries. For Western governments and institutions, they were a chance to ensure that troublesome dictators across the region were replaced with friendly democracies.

But for all its battalions, money, and good intentions, the West’s influence has proven starkly limited. In places, support for democratic change has clashed with the designs of interim leaders. Where it has made progress, it has done so in small steps, and largely because leaders have decided to play ball.

Egypt has become a showcase of Western impotence. Despite receiving $1.3 billion yearly in US military aid, Egypt’s generals have brushed aside American complaints at their July overthrow of the government, apparently emboldened by $12 billion pledged that month by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

The surge of Gulf largesse highlights a key contrast between Egypt and Tunisia, where the uprisings began. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt has loads of strategic value. Egyptian democrats and their Western partners have faced stiff opposition to their attempts to shape the country’s future.

In Tunisia, Western institutions have enjoyed unrivaled intimacy with interim leaders. The country’s democratic transition is incomplete, but is so far the most promising.

Cashing in on democracy

In the weeks after former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011, an interim government reached out to the World Bank, African Development Bank, and European Union, requesting loans and cash to support the state budget, plus policy advice, in return for steady progress on a mutually agreed reform agenda.

The three donors have given Tunisia about $2.5 billion so far in budget support. Yet the relationship goes beyond money, says Antonio Nucifora, the World Bank’s lead economist on Tunisia, who has worked closely with interim leaders. In fact, the country began its transition with decent cash reserves. What leaders lacked most acutely was experience.

An exception, says Mr. Nucifora, was Abdelhamid Triki.

A veteran administrator and technocrat, Mr. Triki was the only member of Mr. Ben Ali’s cabinet to remain in government. As interim minister of planning and international cooperation, he was crucial in forging a partnership with Western donors.

“He knew the international donors and he knew how to make use of us,” says Nucifora. “He was able to set the terms, but not in an arrogant way.”

Tunisia’s government laid out a reform agenda, which the donors helped refine. They began with big measures, such as new laws on freedom of information and freedom of association, referring to civil society groups. 

Ben Ali’s regime had tightly controlled public life, giving the new association law immense revolutionary importance. A commission of civic, political, and trade union leaders that served as an early interim legislature said it should handle the new law.

“[They] told us basically to stay out of it; that it was highly political and not something the government could do,” says Nucifora.

Instead, a compromise was reached. The donors paid for Swiss experts to advise the commission in drafting a law, which the government enacted.

The donors have also funded civil society groups, which are flourishing in Tunisia as never before.

“Civil society is a counterweight [to the state],” says a European diplomat in Tunis who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Who can defend freedom of expression, or an independent judiciary? Civil society.”

One example is the Tunisian Association for Democratic Awakening (ATED), founded in March 2011 to help monitor coming elections for a constituent assembly. Armed with EU funding, the group trained over 4,000 volunteer election monitors around the country.

At dawn on Oct. 23, 2011, the group’s president, a self-effacing economic consultant named Rafik Halouani, was in their Tunis operations room with other staff, waiting for polls to open. At any moment, computers would light up with activity and phones would start to ring.

“At first, it was like the silence before a storm, and we felt a slight sense of fear,” Mr. Halouani recalls.

Then updates from election monitors started to blip across computer screens as voting began, and apprehension gave way to excitement.

The 2011 elections created a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and brought to power a new government led by the Islamist Ennahda party, which formed a coalition with two secularist parties. As efforts to build a new system progressed, Tunisia’s reform agenda evolved.

“We started moving from quicker, more emblematic reforms, to putting more fundamental measures on the agenda, especially in terms of economic transformation,” says Nucifora.

However, donors say the government must work faster to overhaul restrictive laws on business, trade, banking, and investment that Ben Ali’s regime exploited to monopolize the economy. Doing so could help reverse an economic slump. And it would bring more profound renewal.

“The revolution that still has to take place is economic,” says Jacob Kolster, North Africa director at the African Development Bank. “It means creating as much freedom in the economic theater as in the political theater.”

Missing a lever

Meanwhile in Egypt, the Feb. 2011 overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak led to military rule, followed by legislative and presidential elections, both won by the Muslim Brotherhood's newly created Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). But while the army and the Brotherhood have voiced support for democratic transition, both have found ways to undermine it.

In Dec. 2011, military authorities shuttered the offices of prominent Egyptian and foreign NGOs. Egypt’s interim minister of international cooperation, a Mubarak-era holdover named Faiza Abou El-Naga, reportedly led the campaign against them.

In June, under the FJP, 43 NGO workers were convicted of operating and receiving foreign funding illegally. A new draft law on NGOs proposed last year has become steadily more repressive in rewrites, said Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch’s Egypt researcher, in a June 11 statement.

By July, anger over the Brotherhood’s high-handed style had reached fever pitch, and on July 3, Army leaders seized on mass protests to oust the Brotherhood. Several weeks later, security forces opened fire on pro-Brotherhood sit-ins, killing more than six hundred people. Western players that had showered Egypt in aid and loans have called in vain for democracy to be restored.

“Our aid isn’t really a lever at government level,” says a European diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Democracy disrupted

Back in Tunisia, secularist opposition parties took the Brotherhood’s fall as a cue to demand that the Ennahda party step down. The murder of an opposition politician triggered a political stand-off that has all but paralyzed the constituent assembly, delaying a new constitution. It’s unclear when fresh elections might be held.

Tunisians are increasingly pessimistic about democracy, unimpressed by their leaders, and fretting over economic malaise, says a Sept. 12 report by the Pew Research Center. While Tunisians no longer fear to speak their minds, courts still periodically use old laws to prosecute free speech offenses.

Yet while Egypt’s transition seems to have hit a wall, Tunisia’s may yet succeed. It has become an open society. While the government and opposition distrust one another, says Nucifora, they have argued and found compromise before, and the EU has urged them to try again. 

In an unusual foray into Tunisia’s political debate, the EU also praised a “roadmap” proposed by the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers that would put tight deadlines on drafting a constitution and scheduling elections, and calls on parties to agree on a caretaker cabinet of independents.

Then there are Tunisians like Mr. Halouani. He and ATED represent the degree to which ordinary people are now engaged in scrutinizing power. And their skills are growing.

“Now, we have the capacity to observe the entire electoral process from beginning to end,” says Halouani. “Campaigns, voter registration, things related to law.”

They, like their country, are evolving.

Louisa Loveluck contributed reporting from Cairo.

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