Elected parliament has been suspended – with majority support. After a decade, Tunisia’s young democracy faces serious challenges, why?
The implicit assumption in the US and western support for pro-democracy movements and transitions around the world is that, given a free choice, people will always prefer a system of elected, representative government. What if, on the other hand, this premise is incorrect? What if a majority of people believe democracy is ineffective?
According to emerging testimony from Tunisia, the latest country to face a governance crisis, many citizens welcomed the forcible suspension of a democratically elected parliament that had failed to address citizens’ concerns and was widely derided as a self-serving oligarchy.
Mohammed Ali, 33, of Ben Guerdane, appears to epitomize this perspective. “What happened, I believe, was beneficial. I believe that is what the majority of people desire,” he told the Guardian following Tunisia’s president Kais Saied’s surprise seizure of power and imposition of a state of emergency last week. Local officials and western critics referred to it as a coup.
Ali backed Tunisia’s 2010–2011 uprising against former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which sparked a wave of pro-democracy revolutions dubbed the Arab spring. However, a decade of disillusionment has followed, as Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations suggested – and opinion has shifted.
“Many Tunisians – or at least those who have taken to the streets in recent days – appear to have a more ambivalent view of democracy. They appear to desire a more effective state capable of providing jobs and a social safety net regardless of the political system’s composition,” Cook wrote.
While the quest for a more just, democratic society continued, he added, “it is possible that after a decade of increased personal freedoms, Tunisians’ lack of prosperity has made a big proportion of them more willing to give some form of authoritarianism another try.”
That is an extremely unsettling and unfashionable thought for western proponents of global democracy, who are fixated on grandiose concepts such as peace, values, and fundamental rights. Nevertheless, democratic transitions frequently stumble over more mundane issues – economic distress, inequality, a lack of opportunity, inadequate education, and insecurity.
“Despite all the crises, we made tremendous progress on the freedom and political fronts,” Tunisian economics professor Fadhel Kaboub told the New York Times. “However, you have largely preserved the economic development model that resulted in inequality, the debt crisis, and the social economic exclusion against which the populace rebelled.”
This exemplifies another widespread flaw. As was the case with the democratic uprisings in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, Tunisia’s revolution received scant (if any) support from western countries more concerned with Islamist terrorism and instability than with the aspirations of the Arab street.
Western governments’ commonplace, pusillanimous behavior tarnishes democracy. Citizens of Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Belarus, all of which have seen pro-democracy movements brutally crushed in the last year, may reasonably wonder: if the west is unwilling to fight for democracy, is it even worth the trouble?
This line of thought delights authoritarians the world over. President Xi Jinping assumed dictatorial powers without ever soliciting the opinion, let alone the vote, of the Chinese people. Perhaps they are unconcerned. China scholar Ian Johnson writes in a review of Bruce Dickson’s new book, The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the Twenty-First Century, that state repression explains only a portion of the absence of overt opposition.
“At least as significant is the fact that, according to surveys and anecdotal evidence, a sizable proportion of the Chinese people appear to be quite content with the way the CCP runs their country,” Johnson wrote, citing Dickson’s research. “Many critics may wish this were not the case – but then how are dissidents to gain such a small following?”
According to Dickson, the majority of Chinese define democracy – minzhu in Chinese – in terms of outcomes that benefit the people, not elections or personal liberty. By these standards, Xi is arguably doing well. Similarly, President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to publicly champion Russia and Russians may help explain his consistently high approval ratings – despite his lack of genuine democratic legitimacy.
The broad message from around the world appears to be that if authoritarian or illiberal regimes keep people safe, fed, housed, and employed, they may be willing to forego the relative “luxury” of high-end, western-style democracy. Additionally, it is self-evident that autocrats who deny liberty in exchange for security frequently fail to deliver both. Consider North Korea or Turkey.
In other words, political liberty, like everything else in the modern era, is transactional – no longer a universal principle expounded by Enlightenment philosophers and founding fathers, but a clumsy bargain. For vote-stuffing, ballot-fiddling US Republicans who attempted to derail an investigation into Donald Trump’s aborted 6 January coup attempt last week, democracy is fine – as long as it produces the “correct” results.
Given the GOP’s heinous example, it’s unsurprising that democracy as a governing system is in trouble throughout the world. According to a recent Economist survey, less than 8.4% of the world’s population lives in complete democracy, while more than a third lives under authoritarian rule. And the problem is escalating.
As the British have discovered to their detriment, democracy frequently fails to function smoothly even in its heartlands. This sorry state of affairs did not happen by chance or as a result of a bully-nouveau vintage year for despots and tyrants. It is the result of widespread public indifference and collusion, global inequality, and widespread political malpractice.
If President Joe Biden is serious about reversing the authoritarian trend, the US and Europe must do more to convince Tunisians and others that economic prosperity and security, as well as collective and individual democratic rights, are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing. They can have both – and both are deserving of a fight.
Photo copyright: Tunisian protesters lifting a national flag and a bird cage, during a rally against the Ennahdha party and the Tunisian government. Jdidi Wassim/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images