Ten years ago, Tunisia made history when Tunisian youth decided to take their fate into their hands and ignited the revolution of freedom and dignity. Tunisia began a pioneering but challenging transition from authoritarian regime to democracy. Since then, Tunisia has become a beacon of hope for those who believe in Arab democracy, holding successive peaceful elections, establishing democratic institutions and enacting progressive social change.
Yet, despite this progress, we are witnessing the rise of regressive movements that invoke nostalgia for the old regime and seek to return to an authoritarian past of one-man rule rather than the pluralism and compromise of a democratic system. The reasons for this are manifold. First, much of our world, including the United States, is grappling with the rise of populism. Populists have a tendency to thrive in moments of economic crisis and social turmoil, both of which are plentiful in the current climate. Their dangerous narratives are built around an opposition between a virtuous homogenous group of people against a vilified “other” – whether it be elites, minorities or any alternative viewpoint. In Tunisia it takes the form of attacking democratic institutions, elected officials and political parties, disrupting their work, and feeding the notion that complex and deep-rooted social and economic challenges can be addressed by returning to a more “efficient” strong man rule, or installing a “benevolent dictator”. Secondly, any revolution is followed by counter-revolutionary movements and discourses that seek to block and undo any progress achieved and preserve their own privileges and interests.
A democracy still in the making
Tunisian democracy is still in the making. The riots in some Tunisian cities in recent weeks have highlighted just how much there is that is still to be done. The Tunisian people are frustrated at the slow progress of economic reform since 2011 and have yet to see the jobs and better living standards they rightly expect. Our progress has not kept up with people’s expectations. The revolution inspired huge expectations among us all, with little awareness of how complex change would be. Looking back to other modern transitions not so long ago, like those in Eastern Europe, we can see that it takes several decades to see benefits from difficult reforms. This explains how nostalgia for the past order is a common feature of all transitions.
Nevertheless, we can be proud of Tunisia’s remarkable achievements in the last 10 years. We have established new democratic institutions, resolved conflicts peacefully, set a culture of political inclusion, introduced protections for human rights, gender equality, rule of law and set new standards for state accountability and transparency. Tunisia has made unprecedented progress, placing it among the fastest democratic transitions in history. This is even more remarkable given that past transitions, such as Eastern Europe’s, took place in a more favourable regional and global climate for democracy and economic growth than Tunisia has faced.
However, the feelings of disenchantment are understandable and Tunisians’ continued demands for dignity and prosperity promised are entirely legitimate. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, unemployment has increased from 15% to 18% in 2020. Over a third of small businesses are threatened with closure. The tourism sector, which represents 10% of Tunisian GDP and employs almost half a million people, is among the sectors most affected. The government has provided support to those affected by the repercussions of the pandemic and continues to strive to achieve a fine balance between protecting the lives of Tunisians and preserving their livelihoods.
After decades of dictatorship, inequality and corruption, Tunisia’s economy is in need of deep-rooted reforms. We believe a stable government that has the support of the largest possible number of political parties and social partners has the best chance to to enact delayed but necessary reforms. What is urgently needed is to embrace once again the values that won Tunisia a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 — compromise and dialogue between political parties, trade unions, business leaders and civil society around a shared economic vision for the country. The coronavirus crisis creates even greater urgency for undertaking these reforms. In addition, agreement must be reached on reforming the electoral system to enable the emergence of majorities that can provide stable and accountable government for the people.
Tunisia needs help from its international partners
Tunisia cannot do this on its own. It needs support from its international partners who believe in democracy. The difficulties of our democratic transition must not engender a loss of faith in Tunisia’s democracy. We have crossed uncharted territory in our region, in the face of regional challenges and an unfavourable and volatile global environment. Tunisia needs to be supported as its success will send a message to all nations that democracy can prevail and is, as we believe, the best system of government for delivering freedom and dignity for all. The alternative to democracy in our region is not stability under dictatorship but rather chaos and intensified repression.
Continued support for and belief in Tunisia’s transition to a strong and stable democracy is not just in the interest of Tunisians but for all our neighbors and partners. Despite all challenges, our democratic system has stood firm and, with the necessary commitment and support, will deliver the fruits of democracy that Tunisians have been awaiting.
Rached Ghannouchi is the speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, the Assembly of People’s Representatives.