Tunisia’s transformation continues but it is slow and full of obstacles. In view of an unsatisfactory economic outlook, a nostalgia for the ‘old times’ is gaining traction. Democracy and its benefits need to become more tangible for citizens. The decentralisation process and the municipal elections gave a breath of fresh air to citizen participation. Among the elected counsellors, 50% are women and 37% are young people. But the national government needs to support decentralisation by providing funds that reflect its tasks, so that it becomes visible and accessible to citizens. Tunisia should not be compared to other countries in the regions, but to countries that undergo democratic transformation elsewhere.
These were some of the main conclusions of a roundtable discussion of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and DRI on 7 June bringing together four senior Tunisian experts on democracy, decentralisation and economic development with the Berlin-based community of policy-makers and experts on Tunisia and the wider MENA region.
To successfully implement the constitution, adopting a broad set of national subsidiary laws is key but takes time, argued Chafik Sarsar, a university professor, constitutionalist, and former President of the Tunisian Electoral Commission. Another is the reform of hundreds of laws stemming not only from Ben Ali times but dating back to French and Ottoman colonial times, argued Amine Ghali, Director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). Overall, speakers agreed, the progress of implementing the constitution is slower than expected, but steady and stable.
The main challenge, however, lies in the fact that this institutional progress remains largely irrelevant for the daily life of Tunisian citizens. Many are becoming increasingly impatient and sceptical about what democracy can bring. Consequently, there is increased pressure on the government to deliver, not only democracy and freedom, but also economic progress. However, parties are seen as ill-equipped to deal with this challenge as their internal structure is far from efficient and resources are lacking – as Fadil Aliriza, an independent journalist and political analyst based in Tunis pointed out. There are also indications of the government veering off its democratic course, demonstrated by its repressive measures against anti-austerity protests and the talk about tightening a rather enabling NGO law.
According to Jinan Limam, expert in constitutional law and decentralisation and the President of Association tunisienne de défense des libertés individuelles, the central government needs to unlock the decentralisation’s potential by providing funds and expertise to local councils so that they can deliver to citizens.
As the event was attended by many representatives of think tanks and policy-makers, the session concluded with two concrete recommendations for the international community: 1) To treat Tunisia as any other transitioning country such as the post-Soviet countries Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova rather than comparing it to other states in the region. 2) To “give more for more”, i.e. to create incentives for a continued and deepened democratisation process by providing more economic support. And this is, as Amine Ghali got to the heart of it, because “you cannot eat a constitution, and you cannot drink democracy, at the end of the day, economic reforms need to keep up with the political reforms”.