By Ayoub AlBahri
Almost a decade ago, the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 broke out. Seeing the outcome of it, several other Arab nations followed course in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
This latter is by far the most important event in the Arab World since Arab nations got their independence after the Second World War.
Since then, Arab countries have embraced different political ideologies that shaped their political systems and influenced public life.
But in the midst of these ideologies, there has been a chronic absence of democracy. This total lack democracy caused a divergence between statesmen and their citizens.
On one side, statesmen remained archaic, authoritarian, and even totalitarian. On the other side, citizens and societies developed a need for democracy to achieve the growth and development that best meet their capabilities, protect their rights, and promote their interests.
Nevertheless, not all attempts to implement democracy in the Arab Spring countries have been successful.
In this regard, this article comes with the preconception that Tunisia has been the only success of the Arab Spring.
The argument to be presented here revolves around three elements: First, Tunisia has long had a strongly institutionalized state.
Second, the Tunisian military institution has been apolitical and truly republican.
Third, the middle class as a driving force for positive change is remarkably big in Tunisia compared to most other Arab Spring countries.
These three elements are shattered separately among Arab Spring countries. However, no country other than Tunisia has them combined in a mutually impactfulmanner.
As the year 2011 has shown, the only remedy to the chronic political and governance problems of the Arab world is when the people regain power to bypass all the old ideologies and structures.
This return of “rule to commoners” (as the Greek origin of the word ‘democracy’ suggests) means the delegitimization of the regime and the establishment of the fundamentals of democracy.
The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 and the subsequent Arab Spring showed a bold example of who has the real power in modern states; the people, and how easily this latter can reclaim it to rearrange public life in its favor.
The course of action of the Arab Spring revolutions followed almost the same pattern; popular protests, procrastination and empty promises from the side of the rulers, popular persistence, crackdown on freedom of assembly, use of force from the side of the rulers, more popular persistence, and eventually the departure of the head of state after bloody confrontations.
The results, however, were not the same. Hence, the concern of this article is the “why” and not the “how”. That is, the foundations and the preexisting factors that led to the success of the Tunisian Revolution, and not the development of its events the same way other Arab Spring revolutions have.
Although no one can claim that there is an ideal formula to guarantee successful democratization in any country, one can still argue that – in the case of the Arab Spring – there are deterministic factors for the success of implementing democracy in Tunisia.
This article argues that Tunisia achieved a successful implementation of democracy thanks to three main factors:
First, the history of state institutionalization that goes back to middle of the 19th century and continued to present day.
Second, the impartiality of the Tunisian military institution that did not intervene against the people during December 2010 and January 2011 to preserve the regime.
Third, the relatively high homogeneity of the Tunisia people that broke away with tribalism and that most of which belong to the middle class.
State Institutionalization and its origins in Tunisia
It is common for social scientists and even more common for jurists and legal realism experts to refer to the constitution as an institution.
Not that it is one of those government mechanisms that run on a daily basis to deliver certain functions, but rather because it sets the fundamental and operational framework for all institutions of the state.
Hence, the constitution is the institution that spells over legitimacy, functions, limits, and duties on all other state institutions. In modern Tunisian history, the establishment of the constitution as an institution started in 1857 when Mohamed Bey (1855-59), issued the Fundamental Pact.
The Pact set forth the principles regulating relations between the Bey and his subjects and the rights of foreigners residing in Tunisia. The Fundamental Pact paved the way for the appointment of Kherredin Pasha to draft the constitution of 1861.
Promulgated by Mohamed AlSadok Bey (1859-73), the Constitution of 1861 was the first written constitution in the modern history of the Arab world.
Prefaced by a declaration of rights and included 114 articles, it established a constitutional monarchy in which the Bey served as head of state, while the Prime Minister headed the government.
The government was not directly responsible to the Bey, but rather to the newly established Grand Council. This latter consisted of 60 members chosen on a rotating basis by the Bey.
The Grand Council initiated legislation, approved tax measures, supervised the military establishment, and appointed public officials. Kherredin Pasha, author of the Constitution, was chosen to be the body’s first president.
In what was a major innovation for a Muslim country, the constitution of 1861 also created the secular Supreme Court, which was tasked with reviewing the decisions of Sharia courts.
The constitutional reforms of 1861 responded to the demand of urban educated elite, which was displeased with the economic situation of the country and the inefficiency of the monarch.
Yet, these reforms had less appeal for the rest of Tunisians. Initially, average citizens received the establishment of the constitutional government negatively because it regulated taxes more accurately and levied new ones on agricultural products such as dates and olives.
The most serious criticism of the constitutional government, however, came from provincial notables and tribal chiefs – the traditional leadership in the countryside – who recognized the constitution of 1861 for what it was intended to be, a limitation of local and tribal autonomy.
From the standpoint of the reformers, this was essential for the creation of a modern nation-state. Opponents of the Constitution appealed over the Bey to the Ottoman Sultan for relief. Rising popular resentment was capped by a serious tribal rebellion that forced the suspension of the constitution in 1864.
Although Tunisia’s experiment with constitutional government had failed for want of deep-rooted popular support, the modern nationalist movement was premised on the demand for the restoration of the constitution in 1861.
Even though the Grand Council was not democratically elected as in modern days, it established the tradition of the government and head of state being accountable to a body representative of citizens’ interests.
Moreover, the 1861 Constitution was the beginning of replacing tribalism with citizenship; that is reinforcing the feeling and practice of being an individual with rights and duties instead of a member of a tribe or a clan to which one should adhere and favor to the rest of society.
Despite the negative association in the popular memory, the government of 1861 was more efficient in collecting taxes than qaids. Hence secured better funding to improve public services.
Even though such reforms did not survive long, they limited the power of the king – which used to be absolute. They also paved the way for the culture of state institutionalization and accountability.
Therefore, they initiated an era of positive change that could have been developed, had Tunisia not fallen under French colonization in 1881. But even then, state institutionalization continued in a different form.
The French colonial rule of Tunisia (1881-1956) relied on implementing heavy state institutionalization to link Tunisia to France and to achieve the two main goals of its colonial strategy.
The first one was miseenvaleur (developing the colonies to be of value to the colonizer), while the second waspeuplement (settling the French newcomers in an environment that would provide them with public services similar, if not identical, to those in Frence).
This tradition was continued later one with Habib Bourguiba, the first president after independence, who was himself a jurist and a graduate of France both in law and in bureaucracy.
State institutionalization is not important solely for the sake of having functional and efficient public institutions per se. It is also important to preserve the continuity of achievements and services provided by the state to the public.
Therefore, in order for a state to maintain its very existence and avoid the Hobbesian state of nature, it has to preserve a core mass of structure and functions that do not change with the change of politicians and heads of state.
To this end, institutions evolve incrementally to connect the past with the present and the future. They also serve to create order and reduce uncertainty. Therefore, it is crucial to preserve fragments of institutions from previous eras to use them to build newer institutions that can best meet the transitional agenda.
The reason is that anarchy and institutional void can be very dangerous and can indeed have a counter effect for societies that seek stability and progress.
In the case of Tunisia, this continuity was seen immediately after Ben Ali left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011. The transition of power took a purely administrative process when then-Speaker of Parliament Fouad Mebazaa became acting president on 15 January 2011 following Art.
57 of the Constitutions of the Republic of Tunisia – which stipulates that the Speaker of Parliament becomes acting president in case of incapacity of the President of the Republic, and that a presidential election should be held within 60 days.
While other Arab Spring countries went through bloodshed, civil wars, and even foreign intervention – Tunisia continued its incremental transition peacefully under an institutional umbrella for each milestone of change.
First, there as the Higher Authority for Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition (March-October 2011).
Soon after, the Constituent Assembly (November 2011-October 2014) which membership was elected by Tunisians, was installed to draft a new constitution which brought about a critical rupture with the pre-2011 era, and paved the way for pluralistic political participation.
Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies