Tunisia, a Success Story?

The Troubles Rattling Its Still Fragile Democracy

Demonstrators hold flares during a demonstration against a bill that would protect those accused of corruption from prosecution, Tunis, Tunisia, May 13, 2017. Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

On May 23, as U.S. President Donald Trump began his first Middle East tour, a less sensational but potentially more consequential development was unfolding in Tunisia. Following months of increasing social unrest, political deadlock, and murmurings of a second uprising in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced a “total war against corruption.” Chahed’s statement, which followed the arrest of three prominent businessmen and one customs officer, signaled the start of a much broader campaign against cases of graft that had been increasingly viewed within Tunisia as the leading threat to the country’s democratization. Since May 23, the state has arrested and seized the assets of around a dozen additional individuals implicated in graft, smuggling, and related crimes.

Tunisia has made remarkable progress since overthrowing its dictatorship six years ago. Still, rampant corruption since 2011 has made Tunisians weary of being labeled a success story of the Arab Spring. A poll conducted in April by the nonpartisan NGO, the International Republican Institute, found that although a plurality of Tunisians still believe that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, two-thirds of the population do not yet consider Tunisia a full democracy. Indeed, the transition is far from complete, and the tiny country faces a number of challenges that warrant international attention.


After the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, lawmakers opted for reconciliation by granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners who had run afoul of the Ben Ali regime. The post-uprising government likewise resolved not to exclude members of Ben Ali’s ruling party from the emerging political system. This was a politically risky and psychologically fraught decision, but it spared the country from the kind of retributive violence seen in Libya and elsewhere.

As the remnants of the police state fell away, mosques became places of open worship, and Tunisians welcomed the ability to wear expressions of religious identity in public for the first time in decades. During

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