How the world's youngest democracy could spark, or disrupt arab freedom

Tunisia is the only Arab country to have emerged with a viable civil society and democracy after the Arab Spring, but the system is on the ropes as authoritarianism casts its shadow over the country.

Tunisia has held its second-ever presidential election - a huge milestone for the world’s youngest democracy. And the exit polls reveal that it is political outsiders, law professor Kais Saied and media mogul Nabil Karoui, who might be in for a shock victory.

Tunisia’s path to democracy started in 2010 when a frustrated vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after Tunisia’s police-state tried to confiscate his cart. His funeral started a domino effect with nationwide protests over corruption and unemployment as Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Much has been written about the post-Arab spring turmoil, but the only democracy left standing is Tunisia.  

Exit polls indicate that Tunisians are fed up with the status quo. The transition to elections was welcomed with open arms, but it did not solve their biggest problems.

Now, Tunisia faces the biggest hurdle of all. To bypass the pitfalls experienced in Western democracies, Tunisia needs to make sure its newly elected leader will focus on accountability and government efficiency. Voting alone doesn’t provide for citizens’ everyday needs - and the rest of the Arab world is watching, which is why this election is a watershed moment.  

Tunisians have been up in arms ad protesting from Tunis to Kairouan. The price of bread has been skyrocketing for two years now. The family of Bouazizi is demanding action from the government.

A recent opinion poll showed that 68 percent of Tunisians feel that the government is unresponsive and has done little to nothing to address their needs. It’s no wonder political outsiders emerged as favourites in this election.

In a rarity for the Arab world, Tunisia televised presidential debates between the 26 candidates running for office. Citizens were able to watch in real-time as candidates are forced to answer tough questions on their political platforms and campaign promises.  

A recent debate featured eight candidates including Abir Moussi, leader of the Free Destourian party (PDL) and an open supporter of the ousted Ben Ali regime, Mourou, the Ennhada party candidate, along with Mohamed Abbou, leader of the left-wing Democratic Current. Aptly titled “Road to Carthage: Tunisia makes its choice,” the showdown between the candidates was televised on over eleven TV channels and some twenty radio stations.

While this is an important step towards transparency in Tunisia, but far more than soundbites are at stake. Does the average Tunisian understand that democracy is much more than a vote and that elections aren’t the unicorn answer?

The chance to choose who leads is important, but it’s just the first step in a robust democracy. I study the problems with our current democratic system in an upcoming book, The Broken Contract.  As Tunisians are quickly learning, they have a system which promises to deliver so much, but flounders on all the basics.  

We have seen this before. Whether in Tunisia or Germany, each new wave of politicians promises to do things differently, to clean up and make good on the promises broken by previous leaders and governments.

The idea of democracy promises hope, but the results are the same, time and time again. Poor accountability and the misuse of tax dollars have driven a wedge between the government and citizens. And in that vacuum, populism thrives.  

This fallacy of ‘representation’ is what Yashar Mounk refers to as ‘undemocratic liberalism’.  That is why Tunisians are clearly fed up with the traditional portfolio of political choices. What we face is a democracy that is fighting an old fight, deploying tactics that may have resonated in a long-gone era, but hoping to succeed while the operating environment has drastically changed.  

For Tunisia, this has monumental consequences, as the Maghreb has had a bloody history of populist movements. And this is precisely what extremist groups in the region, like Al Qaeda and Al Shabab, have been sending as propaganda to potential supporters or recruits.  

They use the overall failure of the Arab spring and Tunisia’s potential downfall to say that playing by the rules of the game doesn’t work - things won’t improve and governments will not be held accountable. They hope that citizens become jaded, frustrated, and cynical about politics. But Tunisia is the one nation in the region with a hope of turning that narrative around.

Tunisia’s incoming leader has the opportunity to recognise that democracy is not a synonym for votes or elections; democracy is a particular relationship between citizens and the state, one anchored on accountability, representation and a commitment to not waste taxes. And in the Arab world, this could be a game-changer.  

This is as much a cultural and emotional relationship as it is a political and legal one. Half a century ago, it would have taken us weeks to assemble a politician’s list of broken promises, find data about government waste or the identities of our legislature’s members. Today, we can get this and more, and coalesce into online communities on each issue in a single evening.

In Tunisia, this process has begun, albeit tentatively—one example is the government’s technological push called “Smart Tunisia 2020” which focuses on accelerating the development of airports, ports and transport infrastructure to drive growth, especially in the transportation and tourism sectors. Through technology, reforms have already reduced costs by about 25 percent, saving the government a considerable amount of money.

Such an approach now needs to be scaled up across key sectors in agriculture and industry, using technology to force open transparency and eliminate layers of corruption built up over decades.  

For Tunisians, democracy now operates under more forensic oversight than ever, but the real struggle begins once elections are won.

Tunisia’s new leadership will need to put aside the Nobel Peace Prize won by the coalition of Tunisian unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists, and focus on bringing that spirit into the re-making of the process of government itself. They need to make government more accountable and efficient, to deliver real changes to Tunisia’s hungry citizens. The incumbent administration broke its contract with the people; now whoever comes next, they need to remedy it – or they, too, will break.  

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