Western aid will help consolidate Tunisia’s emerging democracy

tunisia demoAn official under former hardline ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali appears set for a close run-off in Tunisia’s presidential polls with a rival who says he represents the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled him, Reuters reports:

Preliminary results in the country’s first presidential ballot since the uprising are expected later on Monday. But the parties of two frontrunners said initial tallies showed they would face off in next month’s second round…..One frontrunner, Beji Caid Essebsi, who was parliament chief under Ben Ali, has cast himself as a veteran technocrat. He will face off with Moncef Marzouki, the current president who has warned against return of “one-party era” figures like Essebsi.

Many Tunisians weighed security concerns against the freedoms brought by their revolution and by its democratic reforms, which have remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, AP reports.

Exit polls suggested that neither of the two leading candidates was likely to win an outright majority and that a runoff between them would be necessary. Official results were not expected for one or two days, The New York Times adds.

“The presidential election is the last milestone on Tunisia’s transitional path,” said Abdel Latif Hannachi, a professor of modern history at Manouba University in Tunis. It should herald a period of “democratic consolidation,” he said.

tunisia_ugtt(1)Outside the cosmopolitan coastal capital of Tunis, front-runner Essebsi, an 87-year-old politician who served under two autocratic regimes, is seen as an unsettling relic of the autocratic regimes that ruled Tunisia from its independence from France in 1956 until the 2010 uprising, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT: FPI).

“There is a guarantor of our revolution and it is our civil society,” said Ghazi Mrabet, a prominent civil-rights attorney and political analyst. “It has proved uncompromising in our transition to democracy and forced compromise and dialogue,” he tells the Journal:

Through a vibrant array of worker unions, legal associations and women’s rights groups, Tunisia’s citizens have held unusual sway in moderating between the dominant forces in the nation: Islamists who gained early support for their opposition to Mr. Ben Ali’s regime, and former regime figures who have recast themselves as experienced statesmen uniquely equipped to manage the nation during a turbulent period.

The next round is likely to see a framing of ‘democrats versus anti-democrats’ rather than ‘secular versus Islamists’ as in other countries, notes David McLaughlin, an election observer with the National Democratic Institute for the election.

This is because the second-place party in the legislature, the Islamic Ennahda party, did not field a presidential candidate. Their support for a coalition government led by a prime minister in the legislature remains a deep unknown in Tunisian politics, he writes for The Globe and Mail:

For democrats, Tunisia offers the prospect of stability and progress. But western democracies will need to pay it serious attention. Democratic progress must be accompanied by economic progress. Tunisia requires western aid and development beyond the significant democratic assistance countries like Canada have already given.

Monica Marks, a Tunisia analyst from Oxford University, told PRI that Essebsi is winning Tunisians over by strumming on very familiar chords.

“He’s offering a kind of paternalistic, big man approach to politics,” she says. “[Essebsi is a] highly charismatic personal leader who says to the people, ‘I offer you safety and security, I’m offering you state prestige. If you invest trust in us, the old political elite, the statesmen, we are going to solve your problems.’”

In what some analysts interpret as a setback for political Islam, Ennahda didn’t field a candidate or indicated any preference, a signal that the party can live with Essebsi and allowing it to avoid backing a losing candidate, said Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst for North Africa at Eurasia Group.

tunisia ghannouchi“Reaching this historic moment today is a proof the democratic experience was a success in Tunisia” Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, said while waiting to cast his ballot in Tunis. “Regardless of the results, the success of this election is in itself a victory.”

“People in the Arab world will watch Tunisia as a laboratory,” said political analyst Hammadi Rdissim. “We can do it, it’s not a myth, it can be a reality, and elections and democracy are possible in an Islamic country.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the Tunisian people for their success in holding presidential elections, POMED adds.

“Tunisia’s democratic path will remain an inspiration to all those in the region and around the world who are working to build the foundation for an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous future,” he said, adding that the U.S. will continue to provide Tunisia with economic and security assistance. A number of U.S. NGOs participated in observation missions, including the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute - the latter two being core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Tunisia at a Crossroads: Between a Nascent Democracy and the Old Guard

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

12:30pm – ICC 270, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Radwan A. Masmoudi  is the Founder and President of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based non-profit think tank dedicated to promoting dialogue about democracy in the Muslim world. He is also the Editor of the Center’s quarterly publication, Muslim Democrat. In April 2012, he was elected as a member of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

Seating is limited. Lunch will be provided. RSVP

Will Tunisia’s polls unleash Mediterranean tiger?

TUNISIA UGTTThe Call of Tunisia party, which emerged as the winner of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, would opt to form an alliance with “democratic” parties to secure a majority in the parliament, a senior group member has said.

“If we have to form an alliance, it would be with the democratic parties; the Popular Front, Afek Tounes and Social Democratic Path,” said Aymen Bejaoui, apparently rejecting the Islamist Ennahda’s call for a national unity government.

“In any other country I would say [the idea that they would cooperate or form a coalition] would be far fetched,” says Amy Hawthorne, a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “However this is Tunisia, and there’s a process of consensus-building and a real desire for stability and stable government.”

Yet it will be a challenge for Nidaa to bring all three parties into coalition, Nouri Verghese reports for Middle East Eye:

Free Patriotic Union is led by Slim Riahi, a wealthy businessman whose lavish spend in his the 2011 electoral campaign, along that of the Progressive Democratic Party, led to the introduction of spending caps on advertising by political parties. Like Afek Tounes, founded in 2011, Riahi’s party supports a free-market economic policy, which would put it at loggerheads in any coalition with the Popular Front. A coalition of 12 leftist parties, made up of communists, Marxists as well as Arab nationalists, the Popular Front’s internal makeup is as diverse as that of Nidaa Tounes. 

tunisia ghannouchi“It’s too early to write Ennahda off,” said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. “It’s still the second largest party. It will lay a strong role in the parliament and in the outcome of the presidential elections because their support for a candidate will count for a lot in the bargaining process.”

“Building a coalition of such diverse interests [with the smaller parties] will be difficult,” hesaid. “I don’t think Nidaa can form a government without Ennahda.”

The victory of Nidaa Tounes “represents a resoundingly negative verdict on the Islamists’ two years at the head of the government, between 2012–2013,” The Economist notes:

Senior Nahda figures concede that the job of running the country, and especially the economy, was more challenging than they had anticipated. The leader, Rached Ghannouchi (above), told party supporters that five years out of power could be salutary…..

Despite its victory, Nidaa Tounes has not been able entirely to shake off the reputation that it represents an attempt by members of the previous ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), to regain influence. In what was in effect a single-party state, the RCD built clientelist relations running from taxi-drivers and corner-shop owners, to non-governmental organisations, lawyers, senior civil servants and—importantly for its funding—business people. 

tunisia_ugtt(1)Although Nida Tunis includes figures from the old regime, the changes in the country since the revolution preclude a return to former repressive practices, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports:

Civil society organisations empowered after the revolution helped Nahda and its secular opponents forge crucial compromises that enabled the democratic process to remain on track. Last year, two assassinations of leftwing politicians by Islamist militants provoked an explosion of popular anger, deepened the polarisation between Islamists and secular groups and brought calls for an unravelling of the process.

“A lot of people will see the results as a setback,” said Brahim Rouabah, a researcher at the Tunis-based American Institute for Maghreb Studies. “But one thing that is sure is that civil society, and more broadly Tunisians, in the last couple of years have [become] used to certain rights and freedoms [on which] it will be hard to backtrack.”

So what changed between this election and the last one? asks Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

First, Islamism in general, and the Brotherhood in particular, including analogous parties like Ennahda, are in sharp decline in popularity in mainstream Arab societies. The past year and a half or so has registered a significant downturn in the fortune of Brotherhood and other parliamentary-oriented Islamist groups in the Arab world seeking power through elections. ….Arabs have had the opportunity to watch Islamists in power, and to register the fact that they aren’t any cleaner, more honest, more competent or more effective than other groups. Indeed, in some cases, considerably less so.

Which brings us to the second big change between this Tunisian election and the last one: the rise of Nidaa Tounes. Last time around Ennahda got a much larger percentage of the vote than it did this time, but it still wasn’t a majority. The majority was secular, or at least non-Islamist, but it was spread among at least 20 parties. Ennahda faced virtually no significant Islamist opposition, so all of the votes accruing to that faction went to them….

The third big difference is that in the last election Ennahda campaigned on social and economic issues, presenting themselves as the authentic representatives of “the revolution.” Most of its secular and non-Islamist rivals focused on trying to spread fear of Ennahda. It was never going to work…..RTWT

Representatives from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Tunisian civil society watchdog Mourakiboun–all of which, combined, deployed over 4,000 independent observers to monitor polling stations around the country–presented their findings on a broadly positive note, TunisiaLive reports.

“To all those who pronounce the end of democracy in this region, I urge you to visit Tunisia,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.

An observer mission from the International Republican Institute described the electoral process as “credible, transparent and allowed for genuine political competition among political stakeholders”.

Polls have indicated that the economy is Tunisians’ highest priority, FT analyst Main Ridge reports:

A recent World Bank report describes how rigid red tape and misconceived policies – introduced by the ousted president but still in place – have stultified the economy, preventing investment and job creation. That report says that:

Tunisia presents an economic paradox. It has everything it needs to become a “Tiger of the Mediterranean”, yet this economic potential never seems to materialize.

Since Tunisia obtained a two-year, $1.78bn loan from the IMF on the understanding that it would pursue economic reforms last year, the country has cut fuel subsidies and more recently has imposed new taxes. It has also been allowing the dinar to depreciate in order to rebuild foreign reserves from low levels.

Capital Economics said in a note that the election was “another important step in Tunisia’s long and bumpy road to democracy” and that there were two obvious outcomes to Tunis’s win, Ridge adds:

The peaceful nature of the elections suggested that political stability was returning to the country which may prompt firms to resume investment projects as well as attract foreign investment. Moreover, an easing of security concerns would help to lift the tourism sector out of its recent slump. This should lay the foundations for a gradual acceleration in growth over the coming years – GDP growth has languished around 2.5% since 2011. Note that a return to political stability in Egypt has helped to support a sharp pick-up in growth there.

Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot, a member of the IRI delegation:

But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

Parliamentary Elections 2014: Tunisia’s Political Landscape


TUNISIA UGTTOn October 26, Tunisians will cast their ballots to choose a parliament, marking the first major step out of the interim phase of the democratic transition. Tunisian stakeholders successfully negotiated their way out of a political crisis last year, but questions remain as to the leading political parties’ ability to translate rhetoric into action and address serious security and economic challenges. What social and economic policies are the parties proposing? And what do these elections mean for consolidating Tunisia’s democratic evolution?

Please join a conversation with representatives from the two main political parties in Tunisia—Zied Mhirsi of Nidaa Tounes and Osama Al Saghir of Ennahda—who will offer insights about their respective parties’ platforms and postures in the midst of campaign season. Scott Mastic, director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute, will set the scene and share his assessment of the current political landscape. 

DATE: Thursday, October 16, 2014 TIME:12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.  A light lunch will be served.  LOCATION: Atlantic Council 1030 15th St NW, 12th floor Washington, DC 20005 RSVP

The Project on Middle East Democracy and the Congressional Tunisia Caucus invite you to attend a public panel discussion in conjunction with the release of a new POMED publication, Previewing Tunisia’s 2014 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections. This report offers a detailed look at the context for the upcoming elections, the parties running for parliament, notable presidential candidates, and potential concerns facing the elections. With few success stories coming out of the Arab Spring, Tunisia stands as an example of the power of the democratic will of its people, and its elections represent the potential for peaceful, consensus-based transfers of power in the region.

This discussion will focus on several key questions: What steps has Tunisia taken in its transition to arrive at these elections, and in what political and economic context are the elections occurring? Who is running for parliament and president, and how are they expected to perform in the elections? What should we expect to see from political actors should they be elected to office? And why should these elections matter to U.S. policymakers?

Please join us for opening remarks by:

His Excellency M’hamed Ezzine Chelaifa

Ambassador of the Tunisian Republic to the United States

And a discussion with:

Alexis Arieff

Africa Policy Analyst, Congressional Research Service

Jeff England

MENA Deputy Director, National Democratic Institute

Stephen McInerney

Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy

Moderated by:

Cole Bockenfeld

Advocacy Director, Project on Middle East Democracy

Click here to RSVP for the event.

Is the Ukraine crisis the West’s fault?


ukraine euromaidanJohn J. Mearsheimer’s article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” shows his contempt for democracy, national sovereignty, and international law, says a leading analyst.

His thesis is that Russia has the right to decide the fate of the countries in its neighborhood in its own interest, the Petersen Institute’s Anders Aslund observes:

Mearsheimer invokes the role of popular will in two instances in his article. In one case, he claims that most of the people in Crimea “wanted out of Ukraine.” But the evidence is missing. Opinion polls before the “referendum” under Russian military control showed nothing of the sort, and the referendum was a blatant fake.

The other case is when Mearsheimer, again without evidence, claims that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted through a “coup.” He lost his parliamentary majority on February 20 after having ordered the killing of 100 citizens, and he was voted out with a constitutional majority of two-thirds. One may complain that a more complex impeachment procedure should have been applied, but Mearsheimer’s hero Putin is not even democratically elected.

Aslund might also have noted that Mearsheimer exhibits a rather mechanistic conception of political change in his suggestion that the National Endowment for Democracy and similar democracy assistance groups are able to foment regime change through some form of political engineering. Similarly, his suggestion that the popular mobilization which led to Yanukovych’s resignation was a ‘coup’ effectively delegitimizes any citizen action to counter government corruption, misgovernance or authoritarian rule.

Indeed, Mearsheimer misrepresents the NED’s Carl Gershman’s reference, in a Washington Post op-ed last fall, to Ukraine as “the biggest prize,” when it was clear that the phrase referred to Russia’s proprietary attitudes towards its neighbor.

Mearsheimer also defends Putin’s rationality, which is a tall order, Aslund continues:

Putin clearly believes, as former US Ambassador Michael McFaul has so eloquently put it, that no popular uprising can happen anywhere, and that everything is instigated by security services, notably the US services. Therefore, it could not have been the Ukrainians who ousted their corrupt dictator Yanukovych—it had to be the Americans. Only a conspiratorial and paranoid mind like Putin’s can take that at face value, but Mearsheimer bolsters him.

With Mearsheimer’s arguments, any crackpot military aggression anywhere in the world could be defended. He could use the same arguments to justify Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, which suggests that these arguments in defense of Putin might not be of much value.

UKRAINE POLLUkrainians’ attitudes toward Russia have changed significantly (July 2014 NYT). In 2011, which was the last time Pew conducted a poll there, more than eight in 10 Ukrainians had a favorable opinion of Russia. Now only 35 percent of respondents have a positive view. Within Ukraine, there are deep divisions based on geography and language. Residents of the western part of the country were most unfavorable toward Russia, while Russian-speakers in the east were less unfavorable.

According to a recent poll from the International Republican Institute, a majority of Ukrainians support closer ties with Europe:

Fifty-two percent of respondents now favor joining the European Union over the Russian-led Customs Union, up from 41 percent in February.  Although divisions remain between the east and west of Ukraine, 53 percent said they would vote to join the European Union if a referendum were held.  When asked the same question about joining the Customs Union, 28 percent said they would vote to join.

According to the principal findings from the latest survey in Ukraine (above) by the Pew Research Center:

Ukrainians are far from satisfied with the involvement of foreign powers to date. The European Union fairs best in the eyes of Ukrainians, with a 45%-plurality describing its influence in Ukraine as good. Meanwhile, assessments of the U.S. impact on Ukraine are split: 38% positive, 38% negative.

Russia is viewed with the greatest suspicion. Three times as many Ukrainians say Russia is having a bad influence on their country as say it is having a good impact (67% vs. 22%). At the same time, overall confidence in Putin’s handling of world affairs has plummeted from 56% in 2007 to 23% today.


Why autocrats should fear protest-led revolts more than ever

carapicoNew research investigating the fall of dictators has uncovered some interesting data: in the past decade, autocratic leaders have become more vulnerable to popular revolt and less so to insider-led coups, the most common way dictators have exited power in recent history, says the International Republican Institute’s Brian Braun.

A number of academic studies have identified the downward trend in coups since their height in the 1960s and 70s, but academics have only recently begun to investigate the modes of exit that have replaced them, he writes for Muftah.org.

The research, authored by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, not only presents insightful data on the prospects for democracy in post-autocratic societies, but also offers democracy assistance implementers new ways of thinking about how to best support reform-minded activists living in authoritarian societies.

Adapted from a study conducted by Milan Svolik, the authors’ research examines whether revolts that overthrow dictators are short-term exceptions to conventional wisdom that autocrats are most susceptible to coups. The data reveals that, while regime insiders forced out the majority of autocrats from the 1950s to the present, uprisings against autocratic regimes now remove a greater proportion of dictators than coups. Astonishingly, the percentage of autocrats ousted by revolts has tripled from four to twelve percent since the end of the Cold War and accounts for a quarter of all overthrows between 2010 and 2012.

Kendall-Taylor and Frantz’s research not only found that protest-led exits are more likely to result in democratization than exits resulting from civil wars, coups, resignations, term limitations, or deaths in office, but also that popular uprisings are more likely to sweep away the institutional structures of autocratic regimes, which, if left intact, are likely to lead to new dictatorships. Other research (Debs and H.E. Goemans) offers similarly insightful data: the less violent the fall of a regime, the more likely democracy will follow. Where dictators believe they are likely to be killed or imprisoned, they are more likely to respond to popular protests with violence (think Ceaușescu in Romania, Qaddafi in Libya, and Assad in Syria), thereby decreasing the chances of democracy taking root.

Together this research offers democracy assistance practitioners sage advice at a time when the number of reform-minded activists standing up against corrupt and abusive governments seems too many to count. As autocrats find clever new ways to suppress dissent and prolong their regimes, the democracy assistance community can employ this knowledge as it helps local activists promote transparency and accountability in their own governments.

Investing in open-source and data collection platforms is one of the most promising avenues to equip activists living under authoritarian systems with the tools to engage their governments in open and public dialogue on matters of civic and private life. Twitter and Facebook, both social media sites, were key forums for public discourse and important tools that helped to mobilize the masses that brought down long-time autocrats Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and helped coordinate the mass demonstrations against the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential elections.

Other online platforms are equally important. By developing and promoting free crowd and open-source software like Ushahidi, which promotes transparency and raises public accountability by performing functions like mapping polling places and documenting institutional corruption, democracy assistance implementers can provide activists with accessible, low-cost tools designed to hold governments accountable. The FixMyStreet website, which uses similar interactive mapping software to report potholes and broken street lights to make municipal governments responsible for repairs, is one of many innovative and popular ways for cell phone users across the globe to monitor the activities of city administrators.

Since violence is likely to hamper the transition to democracy, international implementers should also prioritize conflict mediation programs that help mitigate the likelihood acts of violence will thwart the path toward a peaceful and democratic transition. Search for Common Ground, one organization that focuses on conflict resolution programming, works with political and religious leaders, civil society organizations, militaries, media, and minorities on conflict sensitivity, reconciliation, and mediation issues to cooperatively resolve sometimes deadly disputes in conflict-prone countries. This approach has been successfully applied to volatile regions such as Sudan, Yemen, and Timor-Leste. In countries where different camps within a protest movement seek divergent outcomes (think Egypt), it can help ensure that competing parties work together instead of against one another after an autocrat is overthrown.

Finally, democracy assistance practitioners should be committed and prepared to work with democrats abroad long after autocratic regimes have been overthrown. Although Kendal-Taylor and Frantz suggest a brighter prospect for democratic movements in the future, implementers must also be aware that protest movements that succeed in replacing autocratic regimes with democratic systems are still highly susceptible to undemocratic relapses. Even after a revolt has led to democratization, the country is still vulnerable to autocratic backsliding. Democracy assistance implementers must, therefore, maintain a strong and supportive relationship with activists well past the transition to help realize the dream of establishing a stable and democratic society.

Brian Braun is a program assistant with the International Republican Institute’s Middle East and North Africa division.