Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Tunisia's Morning After

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Tunisia's Morning After

Article excerpt

Where does Tunisia, the unlikely igniter of the Middle Eastern upheavals, stand on the democratic transition scale three months after the overthrow of the long reigning autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali? And can the country, which stood (mostly by choice) at the margins of Arab political life since achieving independence in 1956, serve as a democratizing exemplar for other Arab states?


The answer to the second question seems fairly clear. As early as 1991, Samuel Huntington identified what he termed one of the most important global political developments of the late twentieth century-a third wave of democratization among thirty previously nondemocratic states. 1 There was no Arab state on his list, yet he identified Tunisia as a prime candidate for future democratization owing to its pace of economic growth, educated middle class, and concurrent liberalization measures undertaken by the country's new president, Ben Ali.

In the end, however, it was the self-immolation of a struggling 26-year-old vegetable seller in a dusty, provincial Tunisian town on December 17, 2010, 2 rather than Ben Ali's fleeting political reforms, that ignited a steadily rising tsunami of popular protests, which cascaded across the Middle East and North Africa. Still Huntington's prognosis was, on the whole, on target. For notwithstanding its own long history of bureaucratic-oligarchic rule, Tunisia enjoys a unique mix of factors, not much present elsewhere in the region, that increase its chances for a relatively successful democratization. These factors include:

1. a compact, well-defined national entity with a particular history as an open Mediterranean trading country, and thus a strong collective sense of self;

2. a modernization process that produced a substantial, educated middle class, the highest rate of female literacy and lowest rate of population growth in the Arab world, and a systematic effort to raise the status of women, including the banning of polygamy (no other Arab country has dared to explicitly do so, as it contradicts the Qur'an);

3. a tradition of active civil society, particularly labor unions and the bar association; and

4. a small-sized, non-politicized military, whose chief of staff, Rachid Ammar, pointedly refused Ben Ali's directive to fire on protestors, instead acting to control policemen, security and intelligence personnel, and affiliated thugs. He also turned aside any suggestion that he and his fellow officers, and not civilians, assume control of the country.3

All this, of course, by no means ensures that Tunisia's democratizing experiment will succeed, for there are any number of countervailing factors and likely obstacles ahead. Tunisians have been quick to point, for instance, to the violent actions of provocateurs, carried out by members of the security services of the old regime or under their instruction. Although these accusations could not always be substantiated, they did seem to make sense at times: Indeed, Huntington identified this as a common threat to newly democratizing regimes. Nonetheless, Tunisia's possibilities for success remain considerable, and developments since Ben Ali's overthrow do not suggest otherwise.


In comparison to Egypt, Tunisia maintained a greater degree of constitutional legitimacy and continuity during the fashioning of a new order. Upon Ben Ali's departure, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, 77-year-old Foued Mebazaa, assumed the role of interim president in line with article 57 of the Tunisian constitution. The sitting prime minister, 71-year-old Mohamed Ghannouchi, a former finance minister and World Bank official, remained in his post until his forced resignation on February 27; he was succeeded by 84-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi,4 who had held a number of senior cabinet posts in the governments of Ben Ali's predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, but not those of Ben Ali. …

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