Don’t lower the bar for Tunisia

I generally try to write more about political events in Tunisia and how they can be interpreted from various angles, staying away from political commentary. But lately, I can’t help but feeling a little bit disappointed at a lot of the commentary on Tunisia’s successful democratic transition. Since October’s elections, Tunisia has fallen once again by the wayside, used primarily as a reference point of relative success compared to the failures of the “Arab Spring.” Article after article talks about the carnage in Syria, the dashed hopes in Egypt, and the worry over Libya, before casually referring to the “don’t worry about a thing” success story that is Tunisia. I would argue that this attitude is one of the greatest threats to Tunisia’s democracy and to Tunisia’s democratic activists.

Tunisia's success should not be taken for granted

The irony of talking too early about the Tunisian success story is how closely it mimics western treatment of Tunisia under the Bourguiba/Ben Ali dictatorships

Driving the storyline of Tunisia’s success, both by Arab and western commentators, are the successful elections and transition process, the moderate strain of Islam in Tunisia (highlighted by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahdha), and many demographic factors, such as Tunisia’s homogeneity and lack of a resource curse. Truth be told, I wrote about this in the hyopethitical as far back as June in a piece at, 5 reasons why Tunisia will succeed and the rest of the Arab Spring will fail).

These approaches are valid and natural. Tunisia is blessed by many common factors endemic to democratic countries and Ennahdha has spoken like true democrats. But, this approach also risks lowering the bar for Tunisia compared to well functioning democracies. It will be tragic if Tunisia becomes a success, merely by ending up better than its Arab neighbors, and not based on its basic freedoms and institutions.

The irony of talking too early about the Tunisian success story is how closely it mimics western treatment of Tunisia under the Bourguiba/Ben Ali dictatorships, where the common refrain was: “of course they’re authoritarian, but look at the economy and the state of women.” Under Tunisia’s new rulers it may not be praise for women’s rights, but rather integration of Islamists into the democratic process, or greater press freedoms, while disregarding democratic backsliding on many other levels.

Overall, this strikes me as just as paternalistic as under the previous regime. If the new government does not enshrine political and civil rights into its new constitution, clean up the courts and the justice ministry, and reform the process of patronage between government and industry one cannot credit it for simply not being like Egypt. Tunisia’s smooth transition does not necessarily portend civil rights, merely a lack of civil war.

Tunisian civil society has blossomed in the past year. From the day after the elections, they have lobbied the government to ensure that their interests are protected in the new constitution. However, in Tunisia itself protests are often perceived as counter-productive – especially for a country that so desperately needs to get its economy back on track.  Activists so far have concentrated their efforts on lobbying for the most basic of civil rights: open government, freedom of speech (including internet freedoms), and the rights of women.

These activists need outside support to draw attention to their causes. Instead, what they are hearing is how well everything is going here in Tunisia. The government, after all, has promised to give Tunisians their rights and right the economy.

But students of history know better.

This is not a story of whether an Islamist government can be trusted. This is simply the effort to enshrine into law the rights that all Tunisians (and humans) deserve – whether or not they are in the streets or not. Without concerted pressure on the government, it risks backsliding on its democratic pledges – that’s nothing against Islamists or Ennahdha – that’s just the reality of political power.  We’ve already seen one example this past week of the government enshrining a discriminatory principle into the “petite constitution” that only Muslims can be president (a moot point in a country that is 98 percent Muslim, but troubling nonetheless).

Yes, it is normal to be hopeful for Tunisia. Yes, Tunisia has passed many tests in the past year. But the true battle for political and civil rights has not yet been fought. Officially, Tunisians have no more civil rights today than they did under Ben Ali. The constitution has yet to be written, justice has not yet been done against the former regime.

Tunisia’s success will not be known today, tomorrow, or a year from now. Until it is a success, one must continue to support the struggle in Tunisia.

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