As Arabs mark the tenth anniversary of their uprisings, scholars find endless interpretations of how to read them. Transitologists are yet to find their Godot – Arab Spring “democracy”. Ten years have been fraught with more counter-revolution than revolution? And of more authoritarian rule than democracy? To muse over this binarism that more or less animates most of the narrative on the fate of Arab uprisings is a tall order without the benefit of systematic and in-depth comparisons, which is beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, this essay makes its mark on the first question, with special reference to Tunisia. In so doing, it seeks not definite answers on still an unfolding “revolution”, as can be gleaned by the protests of the past weeks in various parts of Tunisia. The idea is to highlight the specificity of the Tunisia’s democratic transition and “revolution” whilst recording parting notes of generalizable value for other Arab Spring contexts.
One idea that may be of value here is how through constitutionally executed transition, aided by a robust civil society, including a century-old labor movement, Tunisia seems to have engaged in a hit-and miss process of dually “pacted-revolutionary transition”. Pacted because it has the imprimatur of constitutionality and democratic rules of engagement. Revolutionary because democratization has failed to tame the revolution. Contests and protests are continuous. Institution-building alone is not sufficient – as the Tunisian experiment demonstrates – to routinizing politics and normalizing state-society relations on the basis of popularly democratic processes, cadres, and institutions. The missing link in the chain is instituting parallel processes of distributive justice – i.e. leveling the playing field economically too – which are germane to the reproduction of “pacted-revolutionary” democratization.
Reifying “revolution” and/or “democracy”, universalizing it, i.e. giving it a human face after its long abstraction by authoritarian rule, may not prove human enough. Not for its detractors from without the Arab world who have reduced it into doom and gloom and narratives of “terror” and failed states and societies – as if revolutions are ever smooth or linear. Nor for its critics from within the Arab world who lament bygone putative “order” (and for some, even bygone dictators).