Is Tunisia a Successful Emerging Democracy?

Scholar Larry Diamond in a talk at the University of Denver stated that the world is entering a phase of ‘Democratic Recession’ and that out of the 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa 18 are classified as electoral democracies. He credits this to the early 1990’s democratic backsliding that occurred in places like Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Mali and Tanzania. He indicated that this set the precedence for a weak formation of electoral democracy and the diminished existence of a liberal democracy in the continent. However, Diamond surprisingly noted that the transition to democracy in Tunisia should lauded as a successful emerging democracy today.  Does this analysis seem premature? Does Tunisia really hold the institutional capacity to become a liberal democracy in the near future?

Analyzing Tunisia

Pre- Arab Spring Tunisia possessed low levels of political and electoral rights. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic regime limited civil society participation and created a lack of transparency or accountability within the state. Economic indicator signaled that the country was performing well based on classics economic measures (such as GDP per capita). However, further analysis of the individual’s well-being demonstrated that there was limited access to employment made worse by increasing levels of youth unemployment. There was a lack of satisfaction with basic infrastructure and access to institutional structures (like schooling and health facilities). This paradox between the rising national growth rate and diminishing Tunisian standard of living was what created the environment for Mohamed Bouaziz’s revolutionary protest and the eventual ‘spark’ of the Arab Spring.

For the past three years, Tunisia experienced crippling internal conflicts due to terrorism, corruption and lack of overall rule of law. And it wasn’t until January 25, 2014 that the newly elected Tunisian National Constituent Assembly approved the country’s first democratic constitution after 23 years of Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. This type of governance shift sends positive signals to the neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya. Beyond the regional impact this shift to democratic consolidation sends positive signals to the rest of the world. For the time being, Tunisia serves as a success story in the post-Arab Spring world.

Returning to Larry Diamond’s initial analysis about the lack of liberal democracy in Africa. If there are no true liberal democracies in Africa, then does Tunisia posses the necessary elements to become one? Or are there pre-disposed conditions within African states that limit the possibility of one existing? And why does Tunisia serve as the beacon of hope for democracy as opposed to Ghana or Senegal? 

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4 Responses to Is Tunisia a Successful Emerging Democracy?

  1. mattryanshade says:

    I think it is appropriate to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for a democratic Tunisia. More good news was released today actually, as the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki officially lifted the state of emergency that had been in place since the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011. This demonstrates a new level of political trust and, hopefully, will serve as a sign to the people of Tunisia that real change has occurred since the Arab Spring.

  2. sorensond says:

    I also agree that the recent announcement that Tunisia lifting its state of emergency is another positive sign. It demonstrates a depth to the current government’s commitment to democracy as they voluntarily self-limit their own powers. It will be interesting to see, however, if this statement is matched by reality.

  3. I concur with both authors’ comments to a certain extent, however, I’d suggest no democratic progress can be sustained without the establishment of a legitimate constitution. While the formation would probably fall short in solving any economic problems, it would bring a sense of core democratic entitlement and at the least curb the public’s negative political perception of the ruling parties.

  4. mjfarah says:

    Thank you for your great insights!

    And I do see the move to lift the state of emergency in Tunisia as a step in the right direction. However, as we have all come to learn, democracy is more than holding elections and approving a constitution. The path to becoming a successful democracy is arduous and requires the development of strong institutions and public support. Which why I was a bit surprised with the pre-mature label that Tunisia received.

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