Since 2011, every 14 January, Tunisians celebrate the annual anniversary of their revolution. This year, the celebration was different as it marks the passing of a decade after the toppling of former president Zine El-Abidine Benali’s regime. One decade is relatively enough time to provide a reasoned assessment of the transitional process and point to the achievements and failures of the revolution.

Although disagreements among Tunisians about the outcomes of this decade are numerous, there is certainly one point of agreement between them. Almost no one disputes the fact that, by the end of its first decade, the revolution succeeded politically in establishing a nascent democratic system but failed to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people. Beyond this high-level, undisputed shared assessment, the differences are countless regarding the reasons behind this failure and the way forward for the revolution’s future as it enters its second decade.

This paper provides a brief assessment of the Tunisian revolution after it first decade. It brings to light the main achievements and drawbacks of this experience, with special emphasis on the ongoing challenges Tunisia’s fragile democracy will have to face in the foreseeable future and the lasting political impacts of this historic development in the region.

Tunisian democracy: an evolving fragile process

Over the last ten years, Tunisians were called to cast their votes on six consecutive occasions, experiencing all sorts of elections, parliamentary, presidential and municipal. According to reports by national and international observers, all six elections were free, transparent and competitive. Considering the political environment in which these elections took place, notably the new constitutional and institutional framework, the multiparty system, the independent electoral committee, and the vibrant civil society, which served as a watchdog for the safety of the democratic transition, Tunisia succeeded in establishing a nascent Arab democracy. Whether Tunisia has indeed completed its democratic transition by the end of this decade and started what scholars of democracy call democratic consolidation, this remains an academic debate. What is more important to note though is that, despite the significant political success this experience has achieved, it is still fragile and vulnerable to a future reversal.

Among the apparent weaknesses Tunisia’s democracy suffers from is the failure of the political elites to translate the above-mentioned success into basic socioeconomic achievements that concern ordinary citizens. Unemployment rates rose from 14% before the revolution to 18% in 2020 and are expected to rise even further as a result of Covid-19. Over ten governments have been formed in the course of this decade, but all failed to address unemployment and introduce effective measures to bring these figures down. Poverty is also sweeping and reached 15.2% of the Tunisian population in 2020. The unequal economic growth, which for decades was in favor of coastal and urban areas, made the situation worse by hitting almost two-thirds of the country’s poor population living in rural, internal and agrarian areas. These are the same areas where the revolution started, gained ground and increased popular support in 2010. With the continuous erosion of purchasing power due to inflation, rising prices and devaluation of the Tunisian Dinar, poverty is no longer confined to low-income individuals and families; it has become a real threat to larger segments of the middle class.

The deterioration of socioeconomic conditions, which, to some extent, was manageable during the early stages of the revolution, as people still expected change whenever government changes, started to generate widening discontent and distrust of the post-revolution political class as a whole. These negative feelings and perceptions are spreading along with the unprecedented spread of corruption that none of the successive governments have managed to curb. The political elites, which succeeded in building democracy through complicated and difficult processes of agreements and disagreements over ten years, failed to deliver on what really matters to ordinary people. If Tunisia’s fragile democracy loses its social base, which seems to be shrinking over the years, the stability and sustainability of the new system are certainly at stake. It may not be realistic to expect a complete restructuring of the old economic system and a radical redistribution of wealth to be achieved in ten years but introducing targeted reforms to meet people’s basic needs and improve their living conditions is not impossible.

Changing tracks and prioritizing the social dimension of the Tunisian revolution after its first decade is no longer optional. It is the only way forward to move away from what looks like a looming crisis, which might jeopardize the entire process. However, this move can only be made after completing two missing links in the current political system: set up the constitutional court and amend the electoral law. Setting up the constitutional court is necessary to partly fix the fragile democracy and avoid dangerous situations where the three different branches of power might confront or dominate one another. Amending the electoral law is also necessary to avoid the recurrence of the fragmentation in parliamentary representation. With the existing law of closed lists and largest remainders, no single political party can emerge victorious with a clear majority to form and lead a strong and stable government. Following every election since 2011, competing parties have been compelled to enter into flimsy alliances to gather the required seats that allow them to form the government. The defections of this unnecessarily lengthy and complicated process are obvious as none of the ten post-revolution governments was stable enough to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the people or implement a clear vision of any particular party. Once the constitutional court is formed and the electoral law is amended, the Tunisian revolution will, once again, find itself on the right track. Only then can its political successes be complemented with achievements on the social and economic front.

Three levels of lasting effects

Despite the challenges that the Tunisian revolution are still facing, the dynamics of change that it has unleashed ten years ago across the Arab region are still operative. They continue to have varying degrees of effects and will definitely have lasting impacts at different levels, internationally, regionally, and locally. At the international level, the lasting impact of the Tunisian revolution is mostly intellectual. This impact has been noticeable since the early days of Arab uprisings, when academics and scholars of democracy in particular, started to interact with these events and write about the transitional processes in concerned countries, opening an intellectual debate about the possibility of Arab democracy. Until 2010, literature on democracy and democratization was completely silent about the Arab region. Over the last fifty years, the successive democratic waves in Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, attracted plenty of theorizing about democratic transition, especially from comparative perspectives. Only Arabs were left out in this type of literature, and that is completely understandable. What is not understandable or justifiable is the unsubstantiated conclusion drawn by certain theorists implying that Arabs and democracy are fundamentally incompatible[1]. This is the basic assumption upon which the famous phrase ‘Arab exceptionalism’ was coined and a whole body of literature was produced.

What the Arab uprisings did is question this assumption, which, over the years, became a sort of ‘established wisdom’. The popular uprisings that stretched across the region demanding democracy and political participation renewed the theoretic debate about democratization, but this time, with the Arab world at its heart. The series of elections that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen during the first couple of years of the Arab uprisings sent the world a clear message that Arabs and democracy are not necessarily incompatible, and that Arab democracy has become a plausible thesis. In 2012, Alfred Stepan wrote, in the Journal of Democracy, “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations”[2], analyzing the conditions that allowed Tunisia to move forward with its democratic transition.

Earlier in 2011, Larry Diamond published an article in Foreign Policy analyzing the Arab uprisings from the perspective of the ‘democratic waves’ theory. In his article, he wondered if this sociopolitical movement could be considered as a fourth wave[3]. Interestingly, just a few months before the Arab uprisings, Diamond himself wrote about the reasons why democracy had been absent in the Arab world[4]. Most recently, Stepan edited a volume titled “Democratic Transition in the Muslim World” emphasizing and comparing Tunisia and Egypt’s transitions[5]. It is clear that since 2011 the Arab region has become an integral part of the debate about democracy and democratic transition at a global level. It is equally clear that this debate will continue as more contributions accumulate in various intellectual and academic forms. This is one of the lasting impacts of the Tunisian revolution.

At the regional level, it is fair to say that, by establishing an Arab democracy, Tunisia succeeded in writing one new chapter in modern Arab history. It is true that the quest for democracy and participatory politics in the Arab world dates well back before the Arab uprisings, but all previous attempts, since the Arab Renaissance and reform movements of the 19th century, failed to translate into democratic systems. The Arab uprisings, for various reasons, managed to break this cycle. If Tunisians overcome the fragility of their democratic process and stabilize their political system by consolidating it with some basic achievements on the social and economic front, their experience will serve as a success story and pave the way for more Arab democracies to emerge from the chaos.

The regional chaotic situation in which a large part of the Arab world has plunged during the first decade of the Arab uprisings is partly due the dynamics of the transformative process itself, but partly comes as a result of the counterrevolution strategies. The social, political and economic forces mobilized against the revolution in every country, soon transformed into a networked power operating at a regional level. They received financial, logistical and media support from conservative regimes that felt threatened by the revolution to reverse the tide and counter the various transitional processes. The dynamics of both the revolution and the counterrevolution have created an increasingly polarized atmosphere in which the region has become divided between those who support the Arab uprisings and those who oppose it; those who call for democracy and those who advocate for autocracy and authoritarianism. It is unlikely that this polarization will fade away soon, as more countries continue to push for change in what has been called the second wave. Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon were the last countries to join the revolutionary side in 2019 and 2020.

Even with the expanding scope of the Arab uprisings and the increased number of countries joining in, the Tunisian example still represents an exception. It is still moving forward despite the ongoing internal and external challenges. It continues to give Arabs in other countries hope and confidence in themselves, and provide them with an alternative to dictatorship, military rule, and civil war. This is an interesting impact of the Tunisian revolution, viewed from a regional perspective.

At the domestic level, the lasting impacts are more visible. The changes that the revolution brought with it concern the political system in particular. They are profound, irreversible and can be summarized as follows:

– The new constitution deconstructed the old autocratic political system and established a democratic one. It builds on a long constitutional tradition that goes back in history to Phoenician Carthage. The Carthaginian constitution guaranteed citizen participation through a bottom-up electoral system that functioned at all levels of the polity, including the king’s office[6]. In 1861, Tunisia had its second constitution and the first in the Arab and Muslim world. As part of a larger reform movement prior to, and during the reign of Mohamed as-Sadiq Bey, this constitution separated the three branches of power, imposed limitations on the ruler’s prerogatives, and held the Bey accountable before the Grand Assembly (parliament). The third landmark in Tunisia’s constitutional history is the 1959 post-independence constitution. Drafted by the Constitutional Assembly three years after the departure of the French colonial powers, the 1959 constitution brought the political system of the Beylik era to an end and established the new republic of modern Tunisia.

As the most recent link in this long tradition of constitutionalism, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution breaks away completely with all sorts of autocratic tendencies as it decentralized power and set clear mechanisms of checks and balances between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary components of state power. The success of the democratic transition, so far, cannot be understood separately from this new constitutional framework. The 2014 constitution is important not only because of its democratic and progressive content, but also because of the procedures and the way in which it was drafted. Over the course of three years (2011-2014), almost the entire political and civil society spectrum was actively involved in the process and contributed to its drafting. This combination of progressive content and inclusive procedure resulted in a wide acceptance of the constitution and a clear sense of appropriation and ownership. This sense unites Tunisians today despite their differences, and makes them proud of their collective achievement. They feel that this constitution is theirs and not the constitution of a particular party or faction or elite.

– The atmosphere of freedom in post-revolution Tunisia is another aspect of the profound changes that will have long lasting impact domestically. Freedom of expression, organization and political activism have become an integral part of Tunisians’ daily life. In the absence of socioeconomic achievements, and as time passes, these freedoms acquired more importance and became so precious to defend and maintain. With the numerous legal and constitutional guarantees, and the continuous vigilance of civil society, this atmosphere can only extend and improve.

– Another achievement that will have a lasting impact on the Tunisian political sphere is the multiparty system that grew exponentially after the revolution. Benefiting from the atmosphere of freedom and the constitutional guarantees, this system continues to mature and gain awareness and preparedness. The democratic transition for the last ten years equipped political parties from different affiliations and ideological backgrounds with valuable practical experience. As it is hard to imagine a working democracy without a competitive multiparty system, it is equally difficult for political parties to grow and evolve in the absence of a real democratic framework. In addition to the constitutional guarantees, the atmosphere of freedom and the democratic framework, the fourth factor that makes the multiparty system in the Tunisian political sphere a profound and sustainable form of change is the nature of the system itself. It is true that the current number of political parties in the official registry is excessive[7], but the actual number of active parties with constituencies on the ground and political representation is around a dozen. Regardless of their sizes, which change according to the changing dynamic political situation, these parties indeed reflect the social, political and ideological diversity in society. Contrary to the situation during Ben Ali’s regime where the party system was designed to play specific roles and serve specific goals of the dictatorial agenda, post-revolution parties grew naturally in a completely free environment. This is why the current system is widely representative and inclusive of all the components of the political spectrum. It is unlikely that the effect of this radical and profound change in the Tunisian party system will be reversed or diminished in the near future.

[1] Examples of theorists advocating this approach include Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedouri, etc.

[2] Alfred Stepan, “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2012.

[3] Larry Diamond, “A Fourth Wave or False Start? Democracy after the Arab Spring”, Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2011.

[4] Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2010.

[5] Alfred Stepan (ed.), Democratic Transition in the Muslim World: A Global Perspective, Columbia University Press, 2018.

[6] See for example, chapter II of Aristotle’s Politics, where the Greek philosopher believes that ‘many of the Carthaginian institutions are excellent’ and that the Carthaginians ‘have an excellent form of government’ and a ‘superior constitution’ compared to those of Crete and Sparta.

[7] As of November 2020, the total number of registered political parties in Tunisia reached 282.