In Tunisia – the regionʹs only democracy – an emphasis on consensus and strong governments has also led to the weakening of an effective opposition. Until the most recent divisions, the government had been comprised of a grand coalition of almost every party, few of which evinced significant differences on the policies necessary to confront severe economic and social problems.

Support for the government has eroded among Tunisians, leading to growing cynicism about a democratic process that seemed to prefer upholding the status quo rather than adjudicating options for managed change.

As the economic crisis has deepened, protests have mainly taken place outside of parliament, through general strikes, roadblocks, sit-ins and, most heartbreakingly, an increasing number of public suicides through self-immolation. As the country heads into an election year, its political and democratic future looks as uncertain as it has at any time since the 2011 revolution.

As a growing number of Tunisians become increasingly unhappy with the governmentʹs course, Tunisia, too, has found itself with a scarcity of credible political actors within its party system that are able to negotiate change. Like its neighbours, Tunisia desperately needs an opposition that can function as a "government in waiting."

Demonstration of young Tunisians in Tunis, January 2016 (photo: Z. Soussi)
Price of stability: EU representatives should not perceive the protest movements as a threat to the status quo, but as an indication that the latter is becoming increasingly untenable. The suppression of opposition movements by governments in the region is therefore not a "sad, but the necessary" price of stability. At the same time, however, it ensures that there are no partners to negotiate peaceful change – and the result is instability

An increasingly untenable status quo

Entering a new year, there are good reasons to believe that this issue will become more pressing across the region. That the elections in Tunisia and Algeria carry significant potential for mobilisation can already be observed. Elsewhere, Egypt may see a referendum on Abdul Fattah Sisiʹs presidency and the economic outlook is bleak across the whole of North Africa.

If the international community is genuinely interested in stability for the region, it should focus less on how to create strong governments and more on how to protect spaces in which strong representative opposition can emerge.

First, this means that social protests should not be perceived as threats to a stable status quo, but rather as indications of the pressures that make it increasingly untenable. As a consequence, state crackdowns on opposition movements should not be seen as a necessary cost of stability, but rather as the elimination of crucial partners for negotiating change, thereby directly and dramatically destabilising. Remaining silent about human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of expression in the region is neither ethical nor pragmatic.

Second, the ongoing support for "stability" – especially in the digital and security sectors – needs to be critically evaluated for its effect on opposition movements.

Third, the international community should aim to foster broader dialogue and a more diverse pool of voices, without getting so close that it risks co-opting or delegitimising them. Crucially, this implies remaining sceptical of the language with which regimes in the region at times characterise their opposition as being unruly, violent, or terrorist.

None of these approaches are new, but they are too often portrayed as conflicting with stability. The opposite is the case.

Max Gallien

© SWP | Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik 2019 (German Institution for International & Security Affairs)

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