Tunisia: the power of example

The pioneering role of Tunisia in the Arab awakening is being sustained a year on as it negotiates its democratic transition, says Vidar Helgesen.

A year ago Tunisia set an example for the Arab world - and the world beyond - in demonstrating that no autocracy is ultimately immune to the popular demand for democracy. A year on Tunisia is still an example-setter: although challenges abound, the first year of its long democratisation process has been remarkably successful. Here are five key reasons why.

First, the security apparatus has refrained from interfering in the political process. While evidently the military leadership did play a key role in forcing Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali’s departure, the Tunisian security sector has fundamentally accepted civilian control over the armed forces. This has enabled the democratisation process so far to be determined mainly through power-struggles and negotiation between civilian political actors.

Second, since there was no "power behind the throne" in Tunisia, the remnants of the old regime were not able to retain too dominant a role after Ben-Ali’s downfall. On the other hand the old forces have been allowed to fully participate and form new parties, and did not fare too badly in the elections. This enhances the potential of a successful reconciliation process in parallel with the transitional-justice process.

Third, the political actors have done well in designing the electoral and constitutional process. The drafting of the legal framework for elections was inclusive and participatory, and the chosen electoral system allowed a representative and pluralist - but not unruly - assembly to be elected. The introduction of quotas for women’s representation was a good starting-point for increasing gender equality. The elections timetable was too optimistic (as is so often the case in democratic transitions), but the postponement was decided with little drama.

The constituent assembly elected in October 2011 has a one-year deadline, but there seems to be a pragmatic understanding that more time might be needed. Too often in the transition process, deadlines are extended at the last minute, thereby creating political tension around such decisions. Being realistic and pragmatic up front is much better.

Fourth, the leading political force, the Ennahda (Islamist) party, has been a voice of moderation and has taken an inclusive approach to governing after its election victory. The fact that it has formed a coalition with two other parties is hopefully a sign of willingness to shape a broad national consensus on key issues. This is not least important in view of the constitution drafting over the next year.

Fifth, Tunisia has been open to international engagement and support in its electoral and constitutional process, while firmly retaining national ownership and leadership of the process. The "autocrat" storyline so often heard about foreign conspiracy is not in frequent use in Tunisia.

As Tunisia embarks on the second year of its transition, the biggest challenge is the economy. The advent of democracy has come with expectations of economic and social progress. While Tunisia is struggling with the legacy of a corrupted elite economy, the tourism industry has plummeted and investors are still shying away. If the international community is serious about its pledges to support democracy, it should accept that Tunisia has made enough progress last year to justify significant international support in rebuilding its economy.

About the author

Vidar Helgesen is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He formerly served as special advisor to the president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva (1998-2001), and as deputy minister of foreign affairs of Norway (2001-05) 

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Vidar Helgesen is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He formerly served as special advisor to the president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva (1998-2001), and as deputy minister of foreign affairs of Norway (2001-05)