Democratic transition in crisis?

Building Tunisia from the ground up

While Tunisians remain committed to democracy, they are feeling the painful lack of economic and political progress. Much has been achieved in the way of personal freedoms, but some major reforms are needed if everyone is to lead a dignified life. By Jake Walles

Tunisia is widely admired as the only success story of the Arab Spring. Its democratic achievements are indeed admirable. The country held free and fair elections in 2011, 2014 and 2019. It enshrined basic rights in a new democratic constitution in 2014. And Tunisia overcame serious security challenges between 2012 and 2015. In contrast to the other countries in the region that faced popular uprisings in 2010–1011 – Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen – Tunisia is the only one that emerged as a functioning democracy.

However, today the country seems adrift, unable to move forward either economically or politically. The economy has been stuck for years in a pattern of low growth and high unemployment. And the political system has so far been unable to translate the results of the parliamentary elections of 2019 into an effective government. While popular support for the democratic system remains strong, the lack of progress in the economic and political spheres is putting the country’s democratic transition at risk. Further efforts to address these weaknesses are needed to put the country back on a more secure path.

Much freedom, minimal dignity

Tunisians generally describe the essential objectives of the 2011 uprising as "freedom and dignity". The "freedom" goal has seen much success. Political parties of all stripes compete freely in elections, the press operates largely without restrictions and a vibrant civil society keeps tabs on the political process. But when it comes to "dignity", most Tunisians express disappointment in what has been achieved.

Tunisian women chant slogans as they wave national flags during a demonstration to mark Tunisia's Women's Day and to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women in Tunis on 13 August 2018 (photo: AFP/Getty Images/Fethi Belaid)
Tunisia's women may have much to celebrate in the way of improved freedoms. After all, the country has made huge strides in terms of gender equality, with men and women now on a par when it comes to inheritance law. Yet what about career prospects, job security, social welfare?

While the search for dignity has many aspects, a key underpinning is the ability to gain the economic resources to live a life in a dignified way – getting married, owning a home, raising children. Yet Tunisia’s economy has not produced the jobs and economic opportunities that are necessary to enable such a life for many people, especially in the country’s impoverished interior.

Turning this situation around will require significant changes to the Tunisian economic model. Addressing endemic corruption in the system is essential – this was a major theme in the recent elections – but it is not enough. The environment for starting or operating a private business remains much too restrictive. The next government must tackle the web of regulations that stifle the private sector and facilitate corruption.

In addition, it needs to create incentives for entrepreneurs to expand beyond traditional export sectors and markets. Tunisia needs to do more to leverage its well-educated workforce and prime location between Europe and Africa to expand the volume and value of its exports.

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