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The Tunisia Model

Lessons From a New Arab Democracy

Good news: a merchant in Tunis, May 2017 Danielle Villasana / Reuters

The story of how the Tunisian revolution began is well known. On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire outside a local government building. The man’s self-immolation—an act of protest against repeated mistreatment by police and local officials—sparked protests that quickly spread across the country. Within a few weeks, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down and fled the country after 23 years in power, offering Tunisia an unprecedented opportunity for a democratic opening. A massive wave of uprisings soon swept the country’s neighbors, reaching all the way to the Levant and the Persian Gulf. 

Less well known is what happened inside Tunisia next. Even though the country had become ground zero of the Arab Spring, its transition was quickly overshadowed by events in more populous Arab countries with deeper ties to the United States and more patently cruel rulers. But nearly a decade on, Tunisia remains the only success story to have come out of the many uprisings. Across the Arab world, countries that looked as though they might follow in its footsteps have become mired in civil war, as has happened in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Others, such as Bahrain and Egypt, have returned to repression and authoritarianism. Tunisia, by contrast, has drafted a progressive constitution and held free and fair elections at the presidential, parliamentary and local levels. In July, when President Beji Caid Essebsi died at the age of 92, the transition to a caretaker government was smooth and unremarkable. Several problems persist and continue to hobble the country, in particular a long track record of economic mismanagement and a disconcerting lack of trust in public institutions. But for all the unfinished business Tunisia still faces, its example remains a source of hope across the region. 

In achieving this feat, Tunisia has helped dispel the myth that Arab societies or Islam is not compatible with democracy. But the country’s story also offers

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