The weekly seminar of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies on Wednesday, 10 January 2018 was devoted to studying the post-Arab Spring political transition in Tunisia. The meeting, titled “The Transition to Democracy in Tunisia Seven Years since the Arab Spring,” was timed to coincide with the 14 January anniversary of the “Jasmine Revolution” which toppled long-time dictator Zeinelabidine Ben-Ali. The meeting was moderated by Abdelfattah Mady, the Coordinator of the ACRPS program for the study of the Arab democratic transition; three separate authors presented their work.
The first paper, presented by one-time Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam, was titled “The Tunisian Revolution: Challenges of Transition”. Describing the 2011 uprising as “overdue,” Abdelsalam nonetheless viewed it as chiming in a new era of Tunisian, and wider Arab, history. Regardless of how intense the counter-revolutionary backlash may be, explained Abdessalam, it could never do away with the passionate drive for freedom and liberation which the Tunisian Revolution embodied. Abdessalam was also able to define the factors which made Tunisia more successful than other Arab Spring countries.
These included a cultural-social “homogeneity” which prevents sectarian or other fissures; a “lateral” spread of educational attainment; the non-alignment of the Tunisian military; an active civil society network which survived the period of oppression under Ben-Ali; and the reasonableness of Tunisian political actors the majority of whom were willing to come to some kind of compromise with their counterparts. Finally, said Abdessalam, Tunisia’s transition to post-revolutionary stability was also aided by a supportive international community who had worked to stabilize a democratic Libya. This was not, said the speaker, necessarily the result of a love for democratic ideals, but out of fear of what another failed democratic transition in North Africa could do to the world.
The second speaker was the Doha Institute’s Abdelhamid Henia. Henia’s paper, titled “Wither Democracy since the Tunisian Revolution?”. Henia suggested that the time had come to stop glorifying Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, singling out for particular criticism the group he described as the Tunisian political elite both abroad and within the country for praising a mythical “Tunisian Consensus” which Henia said would be more accurately described as a consensus limited to the political elite. This simplification and lumping together of the Tunisian people without regard to their own internal differences and divisions; this, he said, was the single greatest mistake in the description of Tunisian politics.
Henia posed a number of important questions to the audience at the seminar, including, most poignantly perhaps: how deep and genuine can Tunisia’s democratic transition truly be, given that the mechanisms and institutions which oversee electoral processes remain the same. Henia also asked what the revolution had achieved for the marginalized sectors of Tunisian society: “Those who went to the streets to chant ‘Jobs, Freedom, Dignity,’ what has the revolution done for them?” asked Henia. The speaker pointed out that the great demand of the Tunisian masses in 2011 was defined by achieving “citizenship” and not democracy, suggesting that the marginalization of individual rights within the Tunisian system meant that democracy took second place to other concerns.
Nizar Jouini was the third and final speaker at the seminar. Jouini’s presentation was titled “Ending School Dropouts as a Structural Foundation for the Economic Revival of Tunisia” and was an overview of the main economic indicators affecting Tunisian life since the revolution. According to Jouini, all of the main economic indicators in Tunisia—such as unemployment; public debt; and investment—paint a gloomy picture for the country.
For the rest of his presentation, Jouini focused on the question of attrition from schools. Jouini claimed that there were 160,000 students who had left Tunisian schools, a situation for which no comprehensive answer had been devised. Jouini further claimed that non-completion of education was contributing to Tunisia’s public indebtedness.