The Tunisian model faces immense challenges

The Tunisian model faces immense challenges
4 min read
03 Jul, 2015
Comment: Tunisia, the democratic success story of the Arab Spring, faces serious challenges from economic recession to radicalised youth. Many want to see it fail, says Fatima El-Issawi.
The achievements of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" are in danger [Getty]

The relatively successful Tunisian democratic model is reeling from severe economic crises, acrimonious political coalitions, disagreements on the meaning of citizenship and repeated terrorist attacks that have proved the state's inability to combat radical Islamist violence.

The massacre of foreign tourists in one of the country's most prominent beach resorts was a harsh blow to the Tunisian model and the hope it continues to represent.

Tunisia sums up the contradictions of democratic transition in the Arab region, as it is the most advanced in terms of political reform, but at the same time the country has contributed the largest number of foreign fighters to the Islamic State group (IS).

The population is also divided between those who support a strong state and others who fear the return of a police state.

This in itself is a damning testament to the ineffectiveness of those reforms, which it seems have not affected the lives of the youth who join the IS. The perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Sousse was one of those youths, and according to officials, was merely a student with no prior criminal record.

A Tunisian success

The Jasmine revolution provided a completely different experience to that of Tunisia's neighbours, as it was able to overcome intense political divisions through free and fair elections without resorting to violence or the marginalisation of any party.

However, this political tolerance has given birth to incoherent and ineffective political coalitions and was not able to unite Tunisians who are divided between secularists and Islamists, liberals and radical leftists, elites and popular classes, Francophones and Arabists.

The population is also divided between those who support a strong state and others who fear the return of a police state. Some want a strong state repose against Islamist extremism while others fearing a return to the former regime's repression.

A video of a school play depicting a police officer successfully apprehending "terrorists" caused wide-scale criticism as the children acting as terrorist were dressed in Islamic attire. According to critics, the play paints everything relating to Islam as "terrorist", while others have responded that the direct calls for jihad in some schools are far more dangerous than a school play.

The Tunisian media does not really deal with the increased divisions in society, as it does not investigate the socio-economic background of the youth who shot their bullets at the Tunisian economy in revenge for the country's democratic success, perhaps because that nascent democracy was not able or willing to include them in its ranks.

A New York Times investigation reported that rural Tunisian youth openly talked about their desire to join the IS, because of the general lack of jobs and life prospects. Anti-western rhetoric resonates with those youths.

According to the article, published in October 2014, freedom did not change much in the lives of those unemployed youth, except for allowing those who want to recruit them the freedom to spread their message about jihad without question.

A mixed response

The model of the 'strong leader' like Sisi is, according to many western states, the best response to combat Islamist extremism.

The international position towards the success of the Tunisian model is no less contradictory. The world does not cease praising the achievements of the country as representing the hope in comprehensive and peaceful democratic transition, which could be used as a model for other countries in the region.

However, this high praise does not translate into actual initiatives to support the continuity of this fragile democratic experience and prevent it from falling into violence and dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the transition to military dictatorship in Egypt is given ample international attention, reflected by numerous state invitations addressed to Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, the person who stopped the political transition in Egypt, and praise for his "future vision" for a "modern" Egypt, according to the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Sisi's continuously appalling human rights record did not stop the Austrian foreign minister praising Sisi's efforts, which he considered to be a better option than Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Perhaps the detention of al-Jazeera journalist Ahmed Mansour by German authorities in what was seen to be a German-Egyptian agreement to exchange suspects in criminal cases lacking the most basic standards of justice and credibility is an indicator to the level of support enjoyed by Sisi, while these "democratic states" brush off legal and rights issues as unimportant.

The model of the "strong leader" like Sisi is, according to many western states, the best response for combatting Islamist extremism. As for the democratic model represented by Tunisia, it is a less desirable model and in behind the scenes conversations, it is hinted that it might be unwanted.

Today, Tunisia stands alone to face immense challenges with our hopes pinned on its success, so it can be a source of light in an area increasingly darkened by destruction.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website.