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Three Years Later, Democracy Remains Elusive in Tunisia

  • Lisa Bryant

A Tunisian boy waves a flag as he runs during a rally to mark the third anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, in Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 17, 2013.

A Tunisian boy waves a flag as he runs during a rally to mark the third anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, in Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 17, 2013.

The North African country of Tunisia marks today, Tuesday, the third anniversary of the start of a revolution that triggered the wider Arab Spring uprisings. Still, the democratic transition remains incomplete, and many Tunisians are dissatisfied with the results: insecurity, a struggling economy and political gridlock. There also are positive signs, though, as wrangling parties agree on a new prime minister.

Not so long ago, Sidi Bouzid was just another nondescript Tunisian town surrounded by olive and orange groves. That changed on December 17, 2010, when vegetable vender Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire there as an act of protest. Today, Sidi Bouzid symbolizes the largely frustrated hopes of many Tunisians - and political activists across much of the Arab world.

Tunisia's January 2011 revolution ousted the country's longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is now in exile. But it has failed to produce a stable democracy.

Bickering political parties still haven't completed a new constitution, much less organized new elections. This year, two secular politicians have been assassinated, rappers have been jailed, and the morbid economy has prompted an exodus to Europe.

Hopeful accomplishments

The snapshot of Tunisia, however, is not uniformly bleak. Human Rights Watch's Tunis director Amna Guellali said the country today is full of contrasts and paradoxes.

"On the one hand you have some achievements since the revolution. Tunisians have gained much more public freedom, in terms of freedom of speech, freedom to demonstrate, freedom to express their opinions," said Guellali. "They have also initiated a democratic process, which is hailed internationally as inclusive, bringing together parties from across the political spectrum."

On Saturday - and after months of statement and popular protests - Tunisia's Islamist-dominated government and opposition parties agreed on Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa to become the country's new prime minister. Jomaa has little political experience, but some see that as a plus, calling him a hope for the country.

Still, if he takes office, said International Crisis Group's senior Tunisia analyst Michael Bechir Ayari, Jomaa and his caretaker government will face daunting challenges.

"They have to [complete] the constitution, they have to prepare the elections, they have to depolarize the security question, they have to build dialogue and they have to appoint the new institution that will supervise the elections," he said.

Political violence

Insecurity is one of the biggest challenge, Ayari said. The government blames radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia for the deaths of two opposition politicians. Other attacks by radical Islamists and ordinary criminals have led to political finger pointing - and would have been unheard of during Tunisia's old dictatorship.

"If there is no security crisis, the process will be able to advance... if there is another security crisis, there are going to be more political tensions," he said.

Free expression also is under fire. Artists have been hounded and rappers have been jailed - along with members of the militant international feminist group, Femen.

In addition, HRW's Guellali said the old judicial system largely remains in place.

"This is a lethal combination for human rights in Tunisia and it has led to a spate of prosecutions and even sentencing of people for very lengthy jail sentences," he said.

Of course, Tunisians are impatient for rapid change. After all, they overthrew their government just a month after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Not surprisingly, they are disappointed with today's results.

Analyst Ayari said Tunisia's fumbling steps toward democracy, though, are normal in a transitional period. With countries like Libya, Egypt and Syria undergoing far bloodier transitions, Tunisia still offers hope for a more positive political future in the Arab world.