Tunisia’s ‘start-up democracy’ again at a crossroads

tunisia transition

The United States will give Tunisia $60 million worth of military aid to help it fight Islamist militants who are threatening the country’s nascent democracy, Reuters reports

Protests in Tunisia in 2010 sparked subsequent revolutions that have transformed the Arab world and in many ways it is more stable and secure than other Arab Spring countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. But it is facing a militant threat of its own, mostly due to attacks mounted by the al Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia and to a flow of fighters and weapons unleashed by other conflicts in the region.

Demand for Democratic Dividends

Five months after the landmark passage of Tunisia’s constitution, and with historic elections expected in October and November of this year, a new International Republican Institute poll finds Tunisia once again at a crossroads in its democratic transition:

Since February 2014, unfulfilled expectations and the slow pace of economic growth have contributed to a 19 point increase (from 48 percent to 67 percent) in the percentage of people who think Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction.  Although reason for concern, this number is still better than the levels throughout 2013 when between 77 and 79 percent of respondents believed Tunisia to be headed in the wrong direction.

When asked about their highest priorities, Tunisians are unsatisfied with their government’s pace of progress on the economy and employment.  Fifty-eight percent of respondents described the current economic situation in Tunisia as very bad, and a further 22 percent said somewhat bad.

But not all the news is bad for Tunisia’s leaders.  Despite the growing frustration, 67 percent said the security situation has improved over the last year.  Overall, when asked if they were satisfied with the current government’s performance, 60 percent expressed at least some satisfaction.  This is down from 74 percent in February, but is still a strong majority and an indicator that people remain hopeful.

“Democracy does not lead to overnight prosperity, and Tunisians are coming to terms with this reality,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs.  “Yet the public’s commitment to democracy is evident in the face of mounting regional challenges.  Effective democratic governance is the ultimate path to long-term stability in Tunisia and those who want to see the country succeed must provide the tools of support needed now more than ever.”

Tunisia has a tremendous opportunity to provide a sound political and economic system that not only is for the benefit of Tunisians but reflects a greater possibility for the broader region. The U.S. has a shared interest with Tunisia in making its “start-up democracy” really take off, analyst Charlotte Florance writes for The Daily Signal (HT: FPI).

Tunisia’s race against time

TUNISIA UGTTThe birthplace of the Arab Spring is sometimes described as the only democratic nation in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to retain this distinction and uphold its new constitution, however, a legitimate voting process needs to be held this year, Christine Petré writes for Middle East Eye:

After a long debate between Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party over procedural issues (it is lobbying to hold legislative elections first), and the opposition’s preference (to hold the presidential vote first), the National Constituent Assembly has finally agreed: parliamentary elections will be held on October 26 this year, and the vote for a president on November 23, leaving time for a second round of voting, if need be, before the year ends.

So far, so good, but then began a hectic period for the country’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) in its fight against the clock. In the period of the month leading up to 22 July, new voters needed to register to vote. In a push to increase the number of registrations the ISIE has now announced that a second registration period will be held from August 5 to August 26. People who voted in the last elections in 2011 did not need to re-register, except for those among them allowed to vote at the last minute, principally to help boost official figures of the final turnout.

”Since the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, this small Mediterranean country has driven a bumpy road towards democratic stability, facing a number of security threats from radical religious fractions,” Petré notes. ”How the country is able to handle its next elections could prove an important indicator of how democratic its future might be.” RTWT

Tunisia’s dilemma in anti-jihadist campaign

Tunisia has hit back at a deadly jihadist attack on troops by closing mosques and media outlets seen as sympathetic to extremists, raising fears of a return to the censorship of the old regime, Agence France Presse reports:

In the wake of a July 16 attack which left 15 soldiers dead in Mount Chaambi near the Algerian border, the authorities have laid down a “red line” against criticism of the army and police. The government announced the immediate closure of mosques which had fallen out of the control of the religious affairs ministry. It has also decided to shut down unlicensed media outlets which had “turned into platforms for takfiris and jihad,” referring to apostasy charges against fellow Muslims.

With a growing challenge from jihadists, long repressed under Ben Ali, the government is facing a double challenge. The authorities are working to restore the “prestige” and “authority” of a state weakened by the 2011 revolution. They also aim to curb the Islamist rhetoric which has found an outlet in a media landscape that has exploded over the past three years, with many broadcasters operating unlicenced.

Rights groups are warning against curbs on liberties that were hard-won after years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, urging a balance between anti-terror measures and freedom of information.

“The country is going through a very difficult time and politicians are under pressure,” said Rachida Ennaifer of Tunisia’s audiovisual regulatory body HAICA.

“But the fight against terrorism should not be arbitrary or populist. If we want a state of law, we must respect the law,” she told AFP, pointing to the dilemma faced by authorities. RTWT

Tunisia’s political prospects

Although Tunisia’s democratic transition has been rocky, it presents the most promising scenario among the Arab Awakening countries. Looking ahead, parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year are important in their own right, but are also viewed as a litmus test for the future of inclusive politics. Please join a conversation with Hariri Center Nonresident Fellow Duncan Pickard, who will speak on the recently-passed elections law, voting procedures, and potential political alliances, and Fatima Hadji of the National Endowment for Democracy who will take a bird’s-eye view of the process and reflect on how external actors might help the transition.  

A discussion with Duncan Pickard, Nonresident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council and Fatima Hadji, Program Officer for the Maghreb, National Endowment for Democracy.

Moderated by Karim Mezran, Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.

DATE: Wednesday, July 30, 2014. TIME: 10:30 a.m. -12:00 p.m. LOCATION: Atlantic Council 1030 15th St NW, 12th floor, Washington, DC 20005.

Political Aid and Arab Activism: ‘no such thing as democracy promotion’

carapico“There is no such thing as ‘democracy promotion,’” at least when it comes to the Arab world, according to a new analysis.

“Instead, professionals specialize and projects are narrowly targeted” on law, elections, and civil society, Sheila Carapico writes in Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation.

My task is to describe and analyze the dynamics of Western or multilateral organizations’ programs “promoting” Arab transitions from authoritarianism in the context of national, regional, and international politics in the Middle East during two tumultuous decades, she writes:

The main research question is not whether political aid “worked,” but rather how it worked, in actual practice. What work gets done, how, by whom, to what effect? Who gets what, when, where, and how? What were the actual channels, mechanisms, and institutional practices—inter-governmental, for instance, or non-governmental? Where are the sites of interaction inside or beyond national boundaries? Who are the agents, intermediaries, and audiences?

Carapico hopes that her new book will provide “insights into the workings of Arab judiciaries, elections, women’s institutions, and public civic spheres as well as the varying and complicated roles of foreign experts,” she tells Jadaliyya, an independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sheila Carapico (SC): After the Cold War, European and American professional democracy brokers flocked to formerly Warsaw Pact and Third World states with projects to monitor elections, promote civil society, train human rights activists, and so forth. They played a conspicuous, indispensable role in establishing the Palestinian Authority, and were increasingly visible in several Arab capitals. I began visiting the foundations that sent these delegations and gathering data on their activities, and published some preliminary findings in a Middle East Journal article. It came out in 2002, when the US was brandishing a new “freedom agenda” for the greater Middle East and gearing up for the occupation of Iraq. To a considerable extent, the research and the book were impelled by events.

All the while, I did not find much systematic analysis of the repercussions of political aid (either worldwide or for the Middle East). The dominant narrative was what I call Uncle Sam’s soliloquy, about a lone actor on the world stage introspectively (perhaps schizophrenically) trying to reconcile ideals with insecurities. Scholars and pundits debated American and sometimes European intentions. The industry self-publishes authoritative, often high-quality research tracking various countries’ progress as measured by ever-refined rubrics.  Ethnographers provided some valuable micro-level case studies of donor projects.  And there were some good country studies, particularly about civil society promotion in Palestine and in Egypt. But political scientists had not mapped the professional practices, institutional pathways, or actual outputs of political aid, or explored, for instance, the implications of working with law schools, criminal justice systems, national women’s machineries, pan-Arab bar associations, UN conferences, different human rights organizations, or other national or transnational agencies. So I was also writing to fill a gap in the literature, specifically about the praxis of political aid.

What is both exhilarating and frustrating about studying Middle Eastern politics is that it won’t sit still for examination. Just as I thought I was wrapping up this book (from Cairo, no less), the 2011 uprisings confirmed my hunch that none of the hypothesized donor objectives—genuine political liberalization, the stability of autocratic allies, a lucrative investment climate, effective penetration of activist networks—were achieved. Meanwhile Egypt’s military-bureaucratic apparatus wielded more legislation and lawsuits against foreign agencies and their domestic counterparts (based on the implausible premise that American agents had been fomenting revolution). We can be skeptical about democratic evangelism without succumbing to either teleological trajectories of hegemony or Vladimir Putin’s populist ravings.

So I wrote this book to explore the practices, paradoxes and contestations of political aid. It tells stories about the ironies widely recognized by practitioners, activists, and observers, and offers an analysis of seemingly antithetical trajectories simultaneously in play.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: Beyond the broad foreign policy debates, it turns out there is no such thing as “democracy promotion” writ large. Instead, professionals specialize and projects are narrowly targeted. I identified three key sectors—law, elections, and civil society—and one overarching theme—gender empowerment. These are my four main chapters, each of which confronts distinctive issues, literatures, and contradictions…..

There are overarching themes, like notions of international institutional regimes and/or regimes-of-truth; questions about how stories are documented; and transcendent dilemmas facing activists who often feel caught between national and post-colonial forms of domination. I cannot begin to claim to “speak for them,” but I cite a lot of commentary from bilingual, bicultural intellectuals grappling with these quandaries.  

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: ….. I hope researchers will consider whether and how to factor presumed ‘Western pressure” to democratize/ respect human rights/ empower women into studies of political continuity or change; and that students will gain insights into the workings of Arab judiciaries, elections, women’s institutions, and public civic spheres as well as the varying and complicated roles of foreign experts.  

Political Aid is a book for non-Middle East specialists interested in political transitions, democracy promotion, and global aid regimes, and a contribution to the field of ‘transitology’ that often overlooks the region. The examination of the politics and paradoxes of political aid complicates reasoning about the path-dependency of guided liberalization, Arab exceptionalism, and/ or American hegemony.  I also argue for specific attention to interventions in the distinct spheres of justice, representation, gender, and civic activism.  

The third potential audience is comprised of policy analysts, practitioners and activists including employees, short-term consultants, counterparts, and grant beneficiaries – most of whom are very conscious of the complications and contradictions inherent in the work they do. …


Tunisia: troubled transition ‘a lesson in modesty’ for West

TUNISIA UGTTWhile much of the world is focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, a slow and steady counter revolution is taking place in Tunisia, reports suggest.  

Four Tunisian soldiers were killed in a landmine blast yesterday, Reuters reports, in the latest sign of growing jihadist militancy.

Despite growing concern over the political resurgence of former regime elements, prime minister Ali Laarayedh believes the majority Islamist party, Ennahda, will be a major force in the forthcoming elections.

The Ennahda Movement and other parties have a wide and stable electoral base, but the fear today comes from the possibility of Tunisians staying away from the elections, and this is a danger for us all,” he said, noting that estimates suggest that some 40 percent of voters are still undecided.

Outdated ancien-régime thinking

At a meeting of Ennahda’s governing council last month, party leader Rached Ghannouchi expressed his determination  to prevent the party from fielding a candidate in the presidential election, the Guardian reports:

He advocates backing an “independent”. “People’s power is more important than the central power, which is why the parliamentary election is more important than the presidential election,” he says. “The revolution transferred power from just one person to a whole people, and the parties that focus their attention on the presidency are still governed by outdated ancien-régime thinking.”

However, Hamadi Jebali, who headed the first government after Ennahda’s victory in October 2011 and is the party’s general secretary, still harbours ambitions and has not yet made his plans clear. The internal differences will soon be settled. The party leadership may go even further and give up any claim on government or the job of prime minister. For Ghannouchi and his supporters, this is definitely on the agenda.

tunis-flag“It’s a possibility,” says Ali Larayedh, who took over from Jebali as prime minister and is the deputy general secretary. “It’s not an easy decision for a party with an ideological basis, but exercising power in a nascent democracy inevitably requires pragmatism and compromise. What happened in Egypt has strengthened this tendency towards compromise.”

The major parties must reach a consensus on reform if they are to save the country’s troubled transition, say analysts.

“Ultimately, the economic, political and social transformation of Tunisia will require a myriad of parties working together to steer the country forward,” one observer suggests. “With elections on the horizon, the prospect of financial reform and the security situation calming, there is hope for its people that permanent change is coming.”  

Other observers point to a growing climate of intolerance.

Buffeted by political tumult, the country’s tiny Jewish community feels besieged, the New York Times reports.

“Amel Karboul, the tourism minister, is one of the leaders defending her country’s inclusiveness,” notes one observer. “The fact that she was subjected to a no-confidence vote in parliamentary debate was regrettable. The fact that she prevailed, with the prime minister’s support, was encouraging — a rare positive signal in a troubled region.” 

Remarkable achievements

If the EU were to get a grade on its actions and policies on each country affected by the Arab Spring, it would probably score a “pass” on Tunisia, writes Carnegie Europe analyst Marc Pierini:

But that would be more by default than by design, since it was the Tunisians themselves who pulled off a success, rather than the EU giving them decisive support. Even though Tunisian citizens today are impatient, dissatisfied, and worried about their future, the achievements to date of their country’s three-and-a-half-year transition are remarkable….

tunisia_ugtt(1)Throughout Tunisia’s transition process, the strength of civil society was remarkable. Trade unions (left), judges and prosecutors, and women’s organizations were the decisive engines that pushed political parties to compromise and condemn violence. Ultimately, these groups obliged Ennahda to leave the government in January 2014. A collective preference for dialogue and compromise was imposed on political parties. This tendency was reinforced after the assassinations of two opposition politicians in 2013. The sorry example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which came to power after that country’s 2011 revolution before itself being overthrown within a year, may also have enticed Tunisia’s political actors to exercise moderation.

Has Tunisia’s transition progressed irrespective of the EU being involved? Yes and no, Pierini adds:

In addition to the many visits by the EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Bernardino León, and the EU special representative for human rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU did what it promised to do: the European Commission, the union’s executive, doubled its financial support to Tunisia between 2011 and 2013 from an annual average of €80 million ($109 million) to some €150–160 million ($204–218 million). In addition, EU support for civil society projects, which were officially welcome but in practice always blocked under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, are now operational.

The three-year-old transition in Tunisia is a lesson in modesty for the EU and other Western partners, he adds:

The revolution was not inspired, let alone triggered, from outside; it came out of a citizens’ uprising. Outsiders simply voiced their political support, and the EU tried to steer its increased funding to the most meaningful projects under the circumstances.

Whether the EU can do more in the future will not be a decision for EU institutions to make. Rather, it will essentially be up to Tunisian citizens and political stakeholders to indicate where they need most EU support and engagement.

The EU would do well to share with Tunisia—not teach—more of its experience in inclusive governance, civil society development, media freedoms, and transitional justice.