Tunisia is the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”. It is the only country where these popular protests led to a transition to democracy after decades of dictatorial rule. The other countries where protests led to the toppling of long-stay rulers within the context of the Arab Spring, notably Egypt and Libya, have since seen a failed transition.
Tunisia therefore stands out as an example that shows that popular protests are indeed potent in matters regarding democratic transition as opposed to costly rebellions and external intervention all too often geared towards securing vested interests. However, the death of the Tunisia’s first democratically elected President, Beji Caid Essebsi, has opened a crack in this process and there are more and more warnings that its young democracy may die really fast.
The problem seems to come from the challenges the country is facing in ensuring economic progress. “As the time comes to choose a successor to… Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office at 92 in July, many voters are in a dark mood, frustrated by the government’s failure to improve the quality of life”. According to Democracy Digest,
There is still pride in democracy, and the country’s first televised presidential debates, spread over three successive nights this past week, were widely watched. But turnout in elections for local government last year was only 34% and came on the heels of widespread protests over living standards. Politicians have warned that a failure to show real progress could jeopardize the democratic project itself.
We should not forget that the discontent that sparked the Arab Spring was not only about liberty, but also economic dignity. Today, politics may have advanced, but the economy has not. Some may argue that continued economic stagnation and corruption are threatening the resilience of Tunisian democracy. However, if the Tunisian experience has shown us anything, it is the zealous commitment of its political leadership, despite ideological and policy disagreements, to a “Tunisia first” democratic course. And this is where hope lies.
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