Anis Mili / Reuters People gather outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government, in Tunis, July 28, 2013.

Democracy Derailed?

Tunisia’s Transition Veers Off Course

Over the course of just one week, the Tunisian government has made three concerning moves that, taken together, signal a major backsliding in its democratic development. The first occurred on September 11 when Tunisia’s Parliament approved a government reshuffle that enabled the replacement of 13 of 28 cabinet ministers. It was an alarming move, as some of the new ministers have ties to the former regime of dictator Zine el Abidene Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring.

The second incident took place three days later. After a divisive, years-long debate over President Beji Caid Essebsi’s controversial economic reconciliation law (dubbed the “administrative reconciliation law”), Parliament passed it 119 to 98 with 90 members boycotting the vote. (Many of those who abstained joined protesters outside of the Parliament building.) This law grants amnesty to civil servants who facilitated corruption under the Ben Ali regime without putting them through any sort of legal process. It also overrides the authority of the official body for transitional justice, the Truth and Dignity Commission, whose mandate is to investigate corruption and other economic crimes. The law allows the government to overturn the convictions of civil servants who have been found guilty of corruption through the transitional justice process.

Then finally, on September 18, the government announced that Tunisia’s first-ever municipal elections, scheduled for December 17, would be postponed for a third time—likely until the end of March 2018. The elections were originally scheduled for October 2016, but were postponed to March 2017 and then again to December 2017 due to a variety of logistical and political factors. The government postponed them this time because the head of the elections body resigned over the summer, slowing down the election preparation process.

Although each of these actions is troubling by itself, the series of actions as a whole suggests a calculated attempt by the Essebsi government at scaling back the country’s democratic progress.

I was in Tunis while all of this unfolded. The tension there was palpable. Through conversations with civil Arab Barometer, a polling organization, the number of Tunisians who say they “trust the government to a medium or a great extent” fell from 62 percent in 2011, just after the revolution, to 35 percent in 2016. Tunisia’s most popular political figures, such as Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, are lucky to get an approval rating above 35 percent. Indeed, some of the Tunisians I spoke with said they think that the government is selling out. (Government officials, conversely, said that they see these measures as moving the country forward economically.) Additionally, although several of Tunisia’s early democratic reforms involved an inclusive public consultation process, these latest measures did not, signaling that the government is uninterested in public buy-in.

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