By Will Holmes
“Show me an honest politician and I’ll show you a virgin whore.” So goes a pithy refrain popular among Tunisia’s disaffected electorate. A decade of alleged lies, corruption and political gamesmanship has upended the idealistic vision many had for the country following the 2011 revolution.
On 24th August, Tunisia’s populist President Kais Saied extended a month-long suspension of parliament. The unconstitutional move coincides with the continued withdrawal of MPs’ immunity and the arrests of several prominent politicians.
Saied, an independent, cites parliament’s corruption and a record of executive mismanagement as justification for his actions. Tunisia’s government is rife with corruption. Rumours that the Justice Department buried criminal investigations into senior politicians have spread like the wildfires still burning in the North of the country.
To what extent Saied’s actions constitute a threat to democracy is debated. He has repeatedly denied accusations of dictatorship and has been working with Tunisia’s formidable network of civil groups to document a transitional plan.
Even if Saied’s intentions are honest, the political crisis has laid bare the weaknesses and deficiencies of his country’s fledgling democracy. The very fact that the President has been able to take such unilateral action with no judicial oversight or electoral scrutiny is cause for concern. The hope for a ‘government of laws and not of men’ has not materialised.
Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 kickstarted a wave of uprisings across the Arab world that became known as the Arab Spring. The foundering of democracy in Tunisia has dampened any hope that Western nations still held for that ideal in the region. How did such lofty ambitions amount to such lowly failures?
Democracy is difficult. Bottom-up revolutions rarely succeed. Building a rule of law where there was none before is near impossible. Much was said about the reworking of Tunisia’s constitution following the revolution. And though a government of laws and not of men does indeed rely on the establishment of upstanding and durable laws, it also requires the action of men – and it is regrettably accurate in this case to omit women. It requires that those in power sacrifice self-gain and honour said laws. The necessary subservience of man to the cause of a democratic state is a gift the populations of the Middle East are yet to receive.
In states where there was significant change or reform, key figures and entities of the old order did not disappear in the instance. Following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-standing President, the military remained strong enough to overthrow the succeeding democratic government in 2013. In Tunisia, many of the mendacious politicians embroiled in corruption and mismanagement scandals at present endured throughout the 2011 revolution.
It is also worth questioning whether the very standard by which we measure the revolutions’ success is appropriate. The Arab Spring was reported in the West as a flourishing of human liberty and democracy across the region. This conception was, and has subsequently proven to be, incorrect.
There can be little doubt that protestors yearned to be rid of oppressive regimes and hoped that a system allowing for greater accountability might take their place. But that does not imply a heartfelt endorsement of Western liberal values that we typically conflate with democracy.
Parties such has Ennahda in Tunisia, or Egypt’s Freedom and Justice party hold lamentably conservative views on women’s rights and gay rights (what rights?) and the linkage between religion and the state. Tunisia’s President Saied has stated that Israel is at war with the Muslim world and believes in a foreign conspiracy to encourage homosexuality within Tunisia. He is exceedingly popular.
When given their long-deprived opportunity to vote, Arab populations did not embrace secular and humanitarian values as was naively hoped. Nor did they show a strong affection for Western constitutional ideals. The Rights of Man has never sold well in the region.
Tunisians today raise many of the same grievances they did in 2011. Across the region, millions are trapped in poor working conditions with abysmal wages, and have little hope that things are getting any better. In this context, democracy is best understood as a means to the ends of greater accountability and improved governance. In order to prove its worth, democracy must deliver. Thus far it has not.
Tunisians’ demands mirror those of millions around the world, who increasingly value prosperity and economic opportunity above democracy and universal human rights. The Chinese model of authoritarian development is more popular than ever. This goes a long way in explaining the waning appeal of democracy across the globe. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson predicted that the end of democracy would come at the hands of economic interests. Little did he know, however, that said interests would originate not from the moneyed elites he so derided, but rather from the popular masses he so romanticised.
Image: Gwenael Piaser via Flickr