The Perils Of Democracy A Decade After The Arab Spring In Tunisia

Recently in Tunisia, protesters and activists have taken to the streets to maintain pressure on the President, Kais Saied, to hold a referendum on the constitution. These activists, while they are indeed putting pressure on Saied, are more supportive of him than they are of the parliamentary system — a system that many feel has widely failed. In Tunisia, there is a parliament (with a prime minister), as well as a president, which makes Tunisia the only country to have come out of the Arab Spring with a democracy.

This democracy, however, is unstable and the biggest issue in Tunisia: the failing government has only entrenched divisions in the country. Within Tunisia, there are protesters who are supportive of the fact that Saied is anti-parliament, but there are also protesters who see this as a threat to democracy, and in turn support the Ennahda party — the Islamist political party that has had the most traction since 2011 and still has members in Parliament.

Internationally, there have been mixed responses. According to the New York Times, this situation is complicated for Biden’s commitment to democracy abroad because democracy is not working in its current form in Tunisia, and only Turkey and Qatar have voiced concerns about how this could potentially threaten democracy post-Arab-Spring. Turkey and Qatar supported the revolutions of the Arab Spring, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt countered them — also reported by the New York Times, the latter three countries have not vocalized anything in response to the protests, which is in keeping with the general sentiments at the time of the Arab Spring. Currently, the most common response to this situation is protesting because that is a globally recognized way of eliciting a response from governments. 

The government continues to fail because it is extremely fragile and does not or cannot serve its people properly. Tunisia overthrew its dictator in 2011, which gave many hope that the state of the country would only improve from there. However, feelings of discontent and frustration have accumulated over the past decade, as the political crisis has been building slowly. That said, while protesting is a very understandable way of demonstrating dissatisfaction, a failing government will likely not respond to demands the way people would like. 

Protests can sometimes only do so much to resolve very deeply rooted issues, and that is why the protests, including those that have occurred since 2011, have had limited success. Rather than criticizing the protests, it is more useful to criticize the government, because it is the problem. 

After the Arab Spring, it is true that a democracy emerged, but with that there was also a struggling economy and a corrupted government, and more recently, the bad response to handling the COVID-19 pandemic. After events like a revolution or a war in a country, the development process that follows is frequently difficult and messy — it takes time for a country to redevelop. The protests that are taking place in Tunisia right now cannot address all of this history — that would be too difficult. Even if the protests could address all of this history, there would only be true success if there were a legitimate, desired response from the government. 

While this may take a long time, the most promising strategy for improving this situation is through education of the youth in Tunisia. This means changing educational programs and curricula to teach students about why there have been divisions in Tunisia and about how the government has failed civilians. Essentially, the educational system in Tunisia should be transparent about problems in the country. In order for people to have the tools to create a government that can properly serve its citizens, they need to be given those tools via learning. The disclaimer should be made that there are perhaps some wrinkles in this solution and some fine tuning would need to be done, but broadly speaking, this is the most promising way forward. 

Changing an education system is not an easy task, but it is an important one. Education is the best way to address a large number of people by giving them the necessary resources they need to become active participants in society. Education initiatives allow for a ‘bottom-up’ method of transformation. Again, it is understandable to demand change from ‘higher’ levels of a community such as the government, but the most change will come when a new generation comes into power because that is a complete replacement of all officials and politicians right now.

Changing the system of education would ensure that the next generation will have all the right resources so that they can shape the future they want. Internationally, younger generations are usually more progressive than their older counterparts, but of course it is to be expected that even among a younger generation, there will be disagreements about what the future should look like. That is okay, because hopefully through education, there can be emphasis on working together across identities and beliefs, something that is missing when a country is very divisive. 

Complimentary to education initiatives, it could also be helpful for France to at least partially fund some resistance movements in Tunisia, as Tunisia was colonized by France. Many colonized countries face long-term difficulties in terms of development and redevelopment after a colonizing power is removed — mainly because colonizing countries can enter, take what they want, and leave the colonized country with few resources and extreme instability. Albeit unrealistic that France (a Western, pro-liberal ideology country) would help fund anti-government movements in Tunisia, as that would contradict the ideals that France claims to and wants to uphold, it would nonetheless probably provide a lot of desperately needed monetary support to grassroots movements. 

All in all, in many situations it is useful to criticize how a problem is handled and recognize the flaws in that response. However, in this case, it is more productive to criticize the root of the problem, which is that the Tunisian government has not done enough to lead the country, and even deeper than that, that colonization has lasting impacts that are noticeable. Both solutions offered in this article are not only non-combative but actually aid in the long-term creation of peace and stability in Tunisia. The protests that are currently happening are indicative of deep tensions and long-held frustrations with the government. Protesters want change — even if there are flaws to what people are protesting about and how they are protesting, the core motivation is still the same: the government is not functioning in a way that best suits society in Tunisia. 

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