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The Democratic Transition in Tunisia: Three Keys to a Still Fragile Success




Nidhal Mekki


The Tunisian transition has not finished making tongues wag. The reasons for this are multiple. Firstly, because this transition has not yet been consolidated so that Tunisia may be among stable and peaceful democracies. Secondly, because despite the dramatic failures of other transitions in the region, the Tunisian example is always there to tell us that all is not lost and that authoritarianism is not inevitable for Arab societies and countries. Recent uprisings in Algeria and Sudan confirm this. This shows that despite the setbacks and step backwards in other Arab countries, the seeds sown by the Tunisian revolution are not dead and they are ready to give life and bloom as soon as circumstances become favourable.

We need to understand what makes it possible to get out of the"time of the revolution" to enter the "time of transition" and break away from the long held view that Arab societies are unsuitable for democracy.

The study of the Tunisian transition should not only serve us to find out what the conditions conducive to the outbreak of a popular revolution in the countries of the MENA region are, but, also, it must serve us to understand what makes it possible to get out of the "time of the revolution" to enter the "time of transition" and not just any: a democratic transition that makes it possible to break with the essentialist view long held of Arab societies as unsuitable for democracy.


The objective conditions that could explain the outbreak of the first popular, civil, peaceful, social and democratic revolution in the Arab world in Tunisia are numerous and can be discussed (sociological homogeneity of the Tunisian people, existence of an educated middle class, existence of a long tradition of institutional and constitutional state). However, these elements explain the revolution, its nature and part of its trajectory: They are not enough to explain the whole trajectory of the transition-revolution. To state otherwise would mean that all Arab countries that do not have these elements (including sociological homogeneity) are condemned to an eternal dictatorship.


So there is something more than what is "given" by history and geography: There are the choices of women and men. Choices made of wisdom and affirmations but also of compromise, renunciation and openness to the other and to the world. The Tunisian democratic transition is the daughter of its time and therefore marked by its achievements and advances as well as its limits.


Our study is also situated in time: A few years have passed since the beginning of this transition. For the impatient it's too much time. For those who know that the life of nations is not measured in years or even decades, it is still a little early to apprehend the phenomenon as a whole even though it is possible to draw several lessons and conclusions.


It seems to us possible, in this regard, to summarize the elements of the success of the Tunisian transition in three. The first element is the strongly institutionalized nature of this transition. Indeed, the political institutions of the old regime have not been immediately repealed; They have even ensured the first period of transition until the creation of new institutions with revolutionary legitimacy. Furthermore, the attachment to the rules of law has made it possible to create new possibilities and regulate the play of institutional and political actors. An overly formalistic approach, but it was the case for everyone, which has put all the actors or almost on an equal footing.


A second element that strongly marked the Tunisian transition is the search for compromise. It was in some way the key word of the democratic transition in Tunisia. Outside the point of compromise, there is no salvation! This seems to have been the motto of most political actors to the extent that it has been sought in the law (in the constituent process above all) than outside the law (the national dialogue which has made it possible to unblock the consecutive political crisis following the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi) and in both cases civil society played a leading role and was the very heart of the transition and the guarantor of its democratic orientation.


Finally, the third, but not the least, element has been the international accompaniment of the Tunisian transition. The support was first legal at the level of the constituent process, where the international, regional and non-governmental organizations have put all the expertise acquired during previous transitions in the hands of Tunisian decision-makers. The result was not perfect but it is far from being disappointing.


But the accompaniment was also political and financial through support from international and regional organizations and several States. Obviously, the interests of the latter often did not overlap, which was without exaggeration one of the most difficult issues to manage in the transition process alongside the economic question. Indeed, one of the dangers that threaten the young Tunisian democracy is the deep economic crisis from which it cannot extricate itself. Faith in democracy and its virtues can be easily jeopardized if it is not accompanied by what first drove Tunisians into the streets: dignity and social justice.




Nidhal Mekki is a PhD candidate in Law at Université Laval. He is interested in the relationship between international human rights law and the new Arab constitutions (Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia)


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