Arab Democracy: The Tunisia Experience

2 11 2011

by Paula Bianca Lapuz

Mohamed Bouazizi would have been proud. Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself ablaze last December 10, 2010, which served as the precursor for the Tunisian revolution.

October 23, 2011 was a proud day for all Tunisians. This day saw democracy in practice; some 4.4 million registered voters cast their ballots for the constituent assembly that will draft Tunisia’s new charter.

The test of democracy in Tunisia is just beginning. The transition government is expected to deliver tangible results while the rest of the world waits.

Partial election results suggest the victory of moderate Islamist group, Ennahda, which has expressed its willingness to work with all different parties to form a coalition government that will push for the much needed reform measures in the country (Chrisafis 2011).

Many Tunisians are pinning their hopes on this election. Some say this is a proof that Islamist values can coexist with democracy (Fadel 2011), and some say that this is a historic moment for their nation, which they thought will never come (Ryan 2011).

The revolution ended the more than two-decade dictatorship of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali. From June to July this year, former President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Ben Ali were convicted of possessing illegal drugs and weapons, and embezzlement and misuse of state funds (BBC 2011). The couple was tried in absentia, after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which provided refuge to the ousted dictator and his family, failed to grant Tunisia’s extradition request in February (BBC 2011).

Prior to the extradition request, an international arrest warrant against Ben Ali and his family was already issued by the Tunisian interim government who sought the cooperation of all states via the International Police. Ben Ali was a military man and statesman who rose to presidency in 1987 following the coup against former President Habib Bourguiba (Newsweek 2011).

Many have set their eyes toward the Tunisian election. The European Union, particularly the United Kingdom’s David Cameron, praised Tunisia for leading the Arab region in transitioning to democracy. However many still state their reservations over the winning of, Ennahda, out of fear that progressive laws on women and families might be repealed once the group takes majority of the seats in the constituent assembly. Ennahda, on the other hand, dismissed the suspicions. It said that it will uphold the values of democracy and pluralism in their governance (Ryan 2011).


Boudreau said that state repression “shape institutional and political options available to people,” some engage in armed and underground struggle, some form civil associations, while others go through unpredictable waves of popular unrest (Boudreau 2004).

The long painful experience of the Arab peoples translated into violent, spontaneous, and radical forms of protests, which could only mean that the people are desperate for change. The test of democracy in Tunisia is just beginning. The transition government is expected to deliver tangible results while the rest of the world waits.

Democracy, as seen in other post-dictatorship countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, will probably be different in Arab countries. For instance, the Arab revolutions are not defined by personalities. There are no opposition figures that are strong or popular enough to pursue the transition to social order.

On the one hand, this is really a potent platform for genuine change, because the people are excited to participate in the political processes in their countries and are mindful of the next steps of their governments. Educated young people are now returning home and are eager to contribute to nation-building. There is so much hope and passion. On the other hand, the only sure thing in this part of the world is uncertainty. The culture of violence has permeated so deeply into the society that it stays as a threat to democracy and peace.

Transition governments must be extremely cautious on the roads that they are to take. The Arab people are adamant, and will not accept lapses in judgment and errors. But genuine lasting changes do not just happen overnight. It will take years. Civil war is a possibility, should the new governments fail to respond to the needs of the people.

Democratic institutions must be created and strengthened. Freedom of information and expression must be legislated. These are just some of the preconditions for stability which Tunisia and many in the Arab region must deal with decisively in the coming years. Nevertheless, the recent election in Tunisia is a hard-won victory for its citizens, and is worth commending. Indeed, October 23, 2011 was a proud day, not just for the Tunisians, but for all freedom-loving people in the world.

Works cited:

BBC. BBC News Africa. July 04, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).

—. BBC News Africa. February 20, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).

Boudreau, Vincent. Resisting dictatorship : repression and protest in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Chrisafis, Angelique. The Guardian. October 24, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).

Fadel, Leila. The Washington Post. October 25, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).

Newsweek. The Daily Beast. January 23, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).

Ryan, Yasmine. Al Jazeera. October 22, 2011. (accessed October 26, 2011).




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