Tunisia’s Ongoing Struggle for Democracy

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 59-60

Waging Peace

The Arab Center Washington DC’s Aug. 13 online program addressed Tunisia’s attempts at democracy almost 10 years after the country ignited the Arab Spring.

Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out that jobs, dignity and freedom—the three main goals of the revolution—have all been largely unmet. Unemployment has increased since 2010, and is now estimated to rise to 20 percent due to COVID-19.

“The new governments have failed to root out corruption which really drove people into the streets,” Yerkes said. “It is difficult to point to progress that has been made in devolving power to the local institutions.” There also remains a tremendous divide in the quality of life between the north, which receives the majority of government resources, and the southern and central regions.

“To fully move toward democracy you need participation and one of the troubling signs is that people are turning away from politics to the street,” Yerkes lamented. “A vibrant civil society is absolutely essential to a healthy democracy, but what you need is a trust in politics and unfortunately the trust is declining.”

Poverty and regional inequality “are issues screaming for attention,” noted Qatar University Professor Larbi Sadiki. “The only certainty of the moment is the uncertainty that is spreading, especially in the south and in the center.”

Discussing the wrangling among Tunisia’s political parties, Georgetown University Associate Professor Daniel Brumberg claimed the government’s power-sharing system “essentially functions like a political cease-fire.” 

“People are close to one another not because they trust one another, but because they distrust one another,” he said. “Tunisia needs a system in which there is an actual majority and an opposition and a government that has authority to do things in the name of the majority.” Presently, there “is not a way to cobble out a majority and it is not clear that new elections—which probably will happen—won’t simply reproduce the same problem.”

University of Tunis Professor Raoudha Ben Othman was optimistic about Tunisia’s future, despite the failure of young people to organize into any powerful political force. While not agreeing on priorities going forward, Tunisians “agree they are against dictatorships and are really longing for freedom. They want dignity, employment, and think we will find a way,” she said.

Elaine Pasquini





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