Tunisia in the mirror of the democratic transition in Latin America

A decade after the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11, these popular aspirations have largely faded. In Tunisia, the nation’s deepening economic crisis has disappointed citizens hoping that democracy would usher in a new prosperity. But both Tunisia and other nations undergoing transitions from authoritarian rule, particularly those in Latin America and the Caribbean, can learn from this decade and the Tunisian experience.

Tunis, January 14, 2023. Demonstration against President Kais Saied and what is considered a new dictatorship in the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings
Fethi Belaid/AFP

Obviously, there are important differences between Tunisia and Latin America, and Latin America is hardly homogeneous. But there are important common themes emerging from their recent struggles to expand individual freedoms. In this exercise in comparative politics, we will draw lessons relevant to fledgling democracies struggling against backsliding and to on-going efforts – in Tunisia and Latin America – to build more democratic societies.

First, some national characteristics that differentiate Tunisia from Latin America, and that rendered the North African nation’s democratic transition more problematic. To begin, the neighborhood: sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is in a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, some of which are actively hostile toward democratic experiments elsewhere. In Latin America today, democracies, however flawed, are dominant; the region’s premier diplomatic institution, the Organization of American States and its Inter-American Democratic Charter (2001), enshrines democracy as the only legitimate form of government. The regional hegemon, the United States, declares its democratic vocation, however uneven in its execution.

Second, many Tunisians harbor fond memories of their independence leader, Habib Bourguiba (1956 – 1987), who practiced a brand of enlightened autocracy, universalizing social services, separating religion and the state, and advancing women’s rights. His equally autocratic successor, Zine Abidine Ben Ali (1987 – 2011), arguably followed in Bourguiba’s footsteps, especially in his earlier years. And, although he hardened the state’s repressive apparatus, the economy performed relatively well under his reign. In Latin America, the experience with authoritarianism was varied but, in many cases, the collective memory is one of brutal military regimes that demonstrated little interest in the social welfare of their citizens.

Finally, Tunisian elites must cope with the schism between modern secularism and political Islam. Although this is more of an elitist concern, many Tunisians fear that democracy only opens the gates to an eventual theocratic takeover, and their perceptions of the behaviors of the Islamic Ennahda Party during the 2011 – 2021 parliamentary years did little to reassure them. True, Latin America also faces sharp divisions between the political Right and Left that in the past have led to political breakdowns, but in recent times these fault lines have somewhat blurred in many countries.

Notwithstanding these dissimilarities, we maintain that there are important similarities between Tunisia and Latin America regarding essential features of democratic transitions. Let us consider several here: the inflated socio-economic expectations too often dashed by deteriorating economic conditions; serious institutional weaknesses, including fragmentation among political parties, the debilitating perceptions of official corruption, as well as the tensions between political parties and emerging civil society; and the dangerous prevalence of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Neglected economy

The middle classes and intelligentsia may take to the streets in the name of liberty, but most of the rest of society are crying for more “bread,” for higher wages and more generous social benefits. Yet, periods of transition, by definition, involve uncertainties about the future, fraught moments often causing investors to delay rather than expand new employment-creating projects. Nor has the international economy been particularly buoyant and stable in recent years.

Transition governments must try to respond to popular expectations by producing quick results. There is no one-size fits all solution, but it is critical that governments concentrate attention and resources on a few high-productivity, high-visibility programs. Yet in Tunisia the political elites focused heavily on crafting political institutions – certainly critically important transitional measures – but to the relative neglect of economic innovation and job creation.

Some Latin American transitional regimes have done better. Examples of specific measures from Latin American experiences include targeted subsidies for a few basic commodities, free meals for school children, reductions in school or health care costs, job creation by building badly needed infrastructure, and expanded opportunities for skills training. Mexico and Brazil experimented successfully with small but meaningful cash payments to families conditioned on their children remaining in school. For medium-term results, various governments including Uruguay and the Dominican Republic have stimulated higher investment rates by improving the overall business climate, for example by engaging constructively with the private sector and by reviewing burdensome regulations.

To meet expectations, to show results that matter to the average citizen, in the longer run there is no substitute for growth, as the Latin American experience demonstrates. . Throughout the region, the widespread, tangible improvements in living standards -in job creation, higher wages, and greater access to social services- during the 1990 - 2010 decades were made possible by growth in per capita GDP. In contrast, Tunisia post-2011 failed miserably in this regard. In 2010, when Tunisians took on the street and toppled Ben Ali, the country’s GDP was around $44,05 billion, GDP growth was at 3%, and GDP per capita was $4,345. Apart from a short V-curve recovery in 2011-12, Ben Ali’s 3% figure was rarely surpassed. On the contrary, GDP growth remained static and slightly declining, until the shrinking of the economy with Covid in 2020 ($42,5 billion GDP, -8,7% GDP growth, and $3,597 GDP/capita).

Managing expectations is also critical for transition governments to maintain support and to buy time for longer-term reforms to take effect. In a competitive democratic system, this is a tough order, for opposing politicians will likely promise more and better benefits and accuse their opponents of not doing enough while in power; in Tunisia the repeated failure to deliver on these campaign promises has widened the gap between the political class and voters.

In some cases, a politically astute social agenda emphasizing greater equity and inclusion could focus on legal and social rights which do not necessarily require immediate, additional resource allocations. Advancing an “equal opportunity” economy, where the ingrained privileges of elite families and groups are severed – but without bombastic polarizing rhetoric - can also provide immediate psychic rewards which eventually are translated into economic benefits for the majority. There is a smorgasbord of experiences with successful high-impact programs to choose from – there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Expectations can best be managed when short-term needs are folded into attractive visions for a better future.

Preventing popular disillusionment

Each country will find its own balance between the executive and legislative branches. But the failure in Tunisia to find a workable equilibrium led to chronic instability and inaction, fed popular disenchantment with democracy itself, and opened the gates to President Saied’s power grab and dismissal of the dysfunctional parliament. In Latin America as well, and mirroring Saied’s new constitution, the malfunctioning of legislatures is creating pressure for strengthening presidencies (El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele and Peru’s deposed Pedro Castillo share similarities with Tunisia’s Saied), even as constitutional designers seek to maintain effective checks and balances. The key is to delineate powers among government entities and to avoid frontal clashes that entail chronic constitutional crises.

Another issue is that of political party affinities vs. bureaucratic efficiency. After so many years in the political wilderness, Tunisian political leaders and parties rewarded many of their followers with jobs and other perks, understandable in limited measure but when taken to an extreme proved destructive of both official finances and public confidence. The answer is to grant job security to most civil servants, focus on quality recruitment, and clearly cap the quantity of political appointments.

And always with regards to the economy, building strong central banks and finance ministries remains of utmost importance. In recent decades many Latin American countries have managed to build strong, independent central banks and complimentary finance ministries staffed with expertise. These institutions serve as bulwarks against financial profligacy; at a minimum, they can provide transparency to government revenues and expenditures. In Tunisia, the central bank gained autonomy, but finance ministers continue to be the victims of political turbulence.

Corruption – actual or perceived – is the Achilles heel of democratic transitions. With their accusations of malfeasance in high places, authoritarians smear not just the accused politicians and political parties but democracy itself. For example, in Brazil the populist authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro made use of the corruption accusation against not only his political opponents but against democratic norms to proclaim the superiority of military rule. There is an extensive literature on anti-corruption campaigns, that typically argue for bringing some high-profile criminals to justice but most importantly to building strong public institutions and effective regulations that root out systemic corruption. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and experienced NGOs such as Transparency International, stand ready to provide expert assistance drawing upon their worldwide experiences.

A policy without parties

There is also the dilemma between freedom and security. In democratic transitions, there may be strong reactions against law enforcement agencies infamous for their repressive and corrupt behaviors. Again, each country must search for its own transitional justice. But it is a mistake to so debilitate law enforcement such that street crime and/or political violence endanger public safety. Otherwise, the securocrats will use violence and insecurity as excuses to close public space and tarnish democracy. In Chile as in Tunisia, the inability of law enforcement to contain anarchistic violence has rekindled nostalgia in conservative circles for the eras of Augusto Pinochet and Zine Abidine Ben Ali.

Finally, we note the importance of political parties and civil society. Political parties are essential to electoral democracy, or so it has been presumed. However, Tunisia built a democratic parliamentary system without effective political parties. Actually, these are entities that are called political parties, but their followers are temporary members; their programs are vague, often alike; their sources of funding are opaque and changing; and they turn around their leaders’ egos, not projects or visions. Looking forward, in Tunisia and any aspiring democracy, political parties that are grassroots-based must be built if democracy is to endure.

Where political parties have fallen short, democracy advocates have been turning to civil society organizations to fill the gap, to give voice to popular aspirations, to organize and channel citizen demands. In Tunisia, the Arab Uprisings ushered in a period of exciting grassroots activism for NGOs, sometimes encouraged and funded by external donors. Many remain pertinent, laboring at the local, municipal level, striving to engage with executive branch entities, and forming a strong check against the current authoritarian turn.

Similarly, in Latin America civil society is in full bloom. But as is becoming evident in Haiti, Chile, and elsewhere, NGOs can complement but cannot substitute for political parties and certainly not for government itself. In Haiti for instance, international donors have by-passed government entities to lavish assistance on local non-profits; yet it has become all-too-evident that civil society, by itself, is incapable of guaranteeing citizen security and ensuring a stable economic climate. In Chile, the constituent assembly, populated by civil society representatives, was unable to aggregate demands into a coherent vision capable of gaining majoritarian support, such that the proposed new constitution suffered a stunning rebuke at the polls. In the next effort to draft a new charter, political parties will likely play a more strategic role.

Democratic transitions are about building democratic institutions, a process which everywhere requires periodic renewal. Political parties need to be more than empty shells. Framers of constitutions should consciously craft legislative-executive relations which respond to local political realities. Civil society organizations can complement but not substitute for effective public-sector entities. Law enforcement agencies must have the authority to guarantee public order, while operating within constraints that also guarantee public trust and respect for basic human rights. And corruption in high places must not be tolerated.

Democratizing Media

Democracy has many necessities, and one of them is independent media and social media. It is through these means that citizens know of what is happening in their country, what their politicians are doing, what party they should vote for, etc. Citizens who watch TV or connect to Facebook and Instagram will develop a certain idea about the situation in their country -that would have been different if it was based solely on a direct encounter with politics and politicians. Media and social media are being used by a multitude of groups, including non-democratic ones, often with anti-democratic goals. In the case of Tunisia, some rich individuals pay journalists or hire influential Facebook pages’ administrators to attack their foes. Political parties and organizations resort to similar tactics. Foreign countries (namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt) with interests in Tunisia have mobilized media and social media outlets to channel their message or discredit their critics. Some of these outlets resort to outright disinformation and conspiracy theories, exploiting a fragile terrain.

The media landscape impacts how citizens think of politics and how they regard democracy. For many, democracy became synonymous with corruption, scandals, personal gains, selfish egos, and other woes. Surprisingly, more than a decade after Tunisia’s transition to democracy, there is not a single major outlet that has a clear pro-democracy mandate. Exceptions exist at the level of social media and online media, but these are not mainstream ones that influence citizens’ perceptions. For democracy to survive, there needs to be strong media outlets that are based on fact-checked reporting and qualified authorities, not the venues that attract uninformed populists and loud-mouthed opportunists. Also, fact-checking against disinformation and conspiracy theories should be institutionalized, so that fake news become known to a majority of people as fake, which would limit their reach and corner their propagators.