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On the Brink of Civil War, Tunisians Averted Crisis. How They Did It and Why It Matters.

Nobel Peace Prize in Tunisia
Well wishers wave Tunisian flags outside the city hall where Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet received their Nobel Peace Prize. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

We often focus our attention on what goes wrong, on countries experiencing horrific violent conflict. But what about the countries which, on the brink of an explosive political crisis, avoided violence?

Everything should be going wrong in Tunisia. In 2011, the Arab Spring revolutions engulfed half of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with the promise of democratization. But these revolutions failed to secure democracy. Tunisia is the stand-out; it has avoided all-out civil war like that in Syria and has not slipped back into an authoritarian regime as Egypt has. It has also managed to pass a new constitution, peacefully elect a new president (more than once), and win a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. There are powerful lessons here.

In the summer of 2013—two years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation catalyzed the end of the dictatorship—a political crisis pinned political parties and civil society organizations against each other. Two high-profile political assassinations put the country on edge, elevating demands for political resolution. The National Dialogue Quartet, an association of civil society organizations, intervened, resulting in a compromise between the competing political actors and new elections.

What factors influenced this outcome?

I interviewed Tunisia expert Mariam Salehi, doctoral researcher at the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg, to find out.

  1. Tunisians care about their international reputation

Tunisia’s previous dictators publicly aligned the country with the West, developing an international reputation as a modern and progressive society. “No actor wanted to have that responsibility of making democracy fail and ruining Tunisia’s international reputation,” according to Salehi.

However, Tunisia was certainly not the only MENA country to publicly align itself with the West; Egypt is another example. The similarities and differences between these two countries have been noted countless times before (see here and here for example).

  1. A “balance of weakness

What made Tunisia different is something Salehi refers to as a “balance of weakness.” Among the most powerful political actors in Tunisia, no single actor could overpower the other. This forced each to compromise to achieve at least some of their goals.

The Tunisian army was weak as well. Unlike Egypt, it had a low profile in the country and never fought in war. Additionally, it was much smaller and exerted far less influence over social and economic issues than in Egypt. Whereas a 2013 military coup in Egypt overthrew an unpopular but democratically elected leader, no such threat existed in Tunisia.

  1. A strong civil society filled a governance vacuum

Unlike in Egypt or Syria, where citizens were not even allowed to congregate in large groups, Tunisians had strong civil society organizations. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (Union générale tunisienne du travail, or UGTT) had more than half a million members (around 5 percent of the population) and a long history of mediation and grassroots organizing. According to Salehi, “Historically, it (UGTT) was never fully co-opted by the regime. The trade union was safer for political activism.”

The National Dialogue Quartet worked so well because it brought together organizations that have broad support in society but were otherwise adversaries. The Quartet was officially composed of the UGTT; a business association called the Tunisia Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (UTICA); the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. By joining forces, these organizations ensured a wide breadth of supporters to a negotiated political solution—an important factor in its success.

Are there lessons from Tunisia that can be applied elsewhere?  

Tunisia’s transition to democracy is working because it has been an inclusive and nonviolent process. Empirical research on democratization reveals some key trends. Broadly, we know that nonviolent protests increase the likelihood of transitions to democracy. And, nonviolent resistance campaigns are successful because they garner more domestic and international support, and generate wider participation. By forming the National Dialogue Quartet, Tunisian civil society upheld the principle of nonviolence and generated wide domestic and international support. The political parties, even those in power, agreed to compromise.

Salehi suggests that despite the “clash of cultures” claims by some political figures, the biggest lesson from Tunisia is that Islam and democracy can be compatible. Democracy worked in Tunisia in part because Ennahda, the Islamist party in power after the 2011 elections, was willing to step down after it lost the 2014 parliamentary elections. According to Ennahda’s political leader, Rached Ghannouchi: “We are in a transitional phase between dictatorship and democracy. We need the rule of consensus, the distribution of power among more than one party. For that reason, we chose to limit ourselves.”

The inclusive process also worked because of the private sector. “Political actors know that if the economy is bad, stability is not likely to remain,” Salehi warns. The Tunisia trade union and business association were able to quickly mobilize and pull Tunisia under a broad umbrella. International financial institutions also played a role by threatening to cut support during the 2013 political crisis, adding pressure on domestic political actors to reach a compromise.

Why do these lessons matter today?

Tunisia continues to face some significant risks to democracy and peace. The country is the leading exporter of fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Fears of terrorism, heightened by two high-profile terrorist attacks targeting tourists in 2015, punctuate this ongoing concern. This plays into fears of an authoritarian backlash. Under the banner of security, the government has introduced legislation that would give security forces more power and less accountability. This has prompted fears that political and economic elites in the country would like to see the former status quo imposed. Tunisia also must find a way to lower the unemployment rate, which stands at over 15 percent (higher for new university graduates), according to the World Bank.

The government has recently adopted a law granting amnesty to civil servants implicated in corruption charges, but limiting it to those who did not personally benefit. Two former Ben Ali–era officials were appointed as finance and education ministers. Civil society has responded with the “Manish Msamah” (“I will not forgive”) movement—along with several international observers. In an interview with the Guardian, Tunisia expert Monica Marks warns, “it signals a green light, from the top of Tunisia’s state institutions, to individuals engaged in abuses of power.” This threatens to recreate the 2013 political crisis if civil society mobilization continues and strengthens.

Tunisia demonstrates how truly fragile, but possible, peace is in transitional democracies. Peace and democracy is not a final end-state, but a constant balancing act. The work of various political actors paired with a unique historical and institutional context helped to tip the scale toward peace. For now, democracy has worked in Tunisia. Let’s hope it continues.