Tunisia’s progress and peril

Next month Tunisia will hold parliamentary elections, with presidential elections following in November. These will be the first national elections held since the adoption of the new constitution in January. Their passage will represent a significant milestone in a country which represents the only success story of the Arab Spring. On Monday, Georgetown Democracy and Governance held an event on the topic of Tunisia’s 2014 Election: Security Obsessions in a Start-Up Democracy. Speaking was Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, Professor of public law and political sciences at the University of Carthage, Tunis. Daniel Brumberg, Professor at the Government Department of Georgetown University moderated.

Ben Mahfoudh is positive about many aspects of the upcoming elections. He notes that although the transition to democracy following Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster has been slow, and has at times been fraught with political impasses and even violence, the constitution passed on January 26 is durable and inclusive. He argues that short-cuts taken in Egypt’s and Libya’s attempts at democratic transitions have contributed significantly to failures in these countries’ revolutionary movements. While Tunisia had hoped to pass a new constitution within a year of 2011’s Constituent Assembly elections, it has found it necessary to take more time due to political disagreements. Though the drafting ultimately lasted more than three years, the extended process has helped to ensure robust, yet democratic institutions.

The process is not yet complete. For Ben Mahfoudh the greatest single concern in the weeks before the ballot on October 26 is security. As polling day nears the threat will increase exponentially, because these elections do not simply represent a single step in democratic process, but rather the culmination of the entire transition effort.

Since the Jasmine Revolution, which began at the end of 2010, Tunisia has struggled with its security challenges. Both the Libyan and Algerian borders are unstable, with significant uncontrolled movement of people, goods, and arms over both. Ben Mahfoudh estimates that up to 50% of the economy at present is black market, smuggled over the borders. There is also a burgeoning illegal weapons trade, a by-product of the Libyan civil war and ongoing conflict. The security forces have suffered from a lack of experience in dealing with these issues, and while improvements have been forthcoming there are still problems. Ongoing fighting with extremist Islamist groups in the Chaambi mountains has put further pressure on security forces. In July, 15 soldiers were killed in coordinated attacks, which have demonstrated that the insurgency in the western mountains is far from defeat.

Still more concerning is the movement of Tunisians to and from areas of unrest around the Middle East and North Africa. A large number of young Tunisians have gone to Syria in order to fight. The number of Tunisians currently in Syria is estimated at 2400, according to the Tunisian Interior Minister. Of these around 400 have already returned. Others are waiting in Libya. The threat of an attack by returnees radicalized in Libya and Syria is not something the security forces are well equipped to deal with.

This threat reaches beyond the upcoming elections. Even if they run smoothly and relative stability is maintained, many of these radicalized Tunisians still abroad will eventually look to return. In the long run Ben Mahfoudh believes a national dialogue must be held as to whether society should completely reject these young men, or whether it should try to reintegrate them. Regardless of the outcome of this future debate, their return cannot be allowed to foment violent unrest if Tunisia’s democracy is to thrive.

Security issues present a further threat to the wider democratic process ongoing in Tunisia. The country’s insecure borders and pool of potential radicals makes it unattractive to international investors. For many Tunisians the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammad Brahmi represented a positive turning point, through the refocused national dialogue brought about in response to the shock and national outrage that ensued. But for investors such events contribute to a sense that Tunisia’s stability is far from guaranteed. Absent significant investment, the economy is failing to pick up as fast as hoped and unemployment remains high. The Arab Spring revolutions were catalyzed by economic need as much as they were demands for greater freedom. Tunisia can bear economic hardship for a while, but if the democratic government fails to deliver in the long run there may well be a return to widespread social unrest.

In closing, Daniel Brumberg observed that Tunisia may look superficially stable from the West’s viewpoint, especially when compared to other countries in the region. There is much to be hopeful about concerning Tunisia’s political development, but if it is to succeed it must overcome its security problems – without ceding its nascent civil liberties in the process.

Watch the event here.

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