“What have we done with democracy? A decade later, the Arab Spring is withering
TUNIS, Tunisia – For about three months after the Tunisians toppled their dictator in January 2011 in an eruption of protest that electrified the Arab world, Ali Bousselmi felt nothing but “pure happiness”.
The decade that followed, in which Tunisians adopted a new constitution, gained freedom of speech and voted in free and fair elections, brought Mr. Bousselmi his own rewards. He co-founded a gay rights advocacy group – an impossibility before 2011, when the gay scene was forced into hiding deep underground.
But as the great hopes of the revolution turned into political chaos and economic failure, Mr Bousselmi, like many Tunisians, said he began to wonder if his country would be better off with a single ruler, powerful enough. to get things going.
“I wonder, what have we done with democracy? Said Mr. Bousselmi, 32, executive director of Mawjoudin, meaning “We exist” in Arabic. “We have corrupt MPs, and if you go out on the streets you can see people can’t even afford a sandwich. And then suddenly there was a magic wand saying things were going to change.
That wand was held by Kais Saied, the democratically elected Tunisian president, who on July 25 froze parliament and sacked the prime minister, promising to tackle corruption and return power to the people. It was a takeover that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians greeted with joy and relief.
July 25 made it harder than ever to tell a hopeful story about the Arab Spring.
Seen by Western supporters and Arab sympathizers as proof that democracy could flourish in the Middle East, Tunisia now appears to many as a definitive confirmation of the failed promise of the uprisings. Cradle of Arab revolts, it is now governed by a single decree.
Elsewhere, the wars that followed the uprisings devastated Syria, Libya and Yemen. Autocrats have stifled protests in the Gulf. The Egyptians elected a president before embracing a military dictatorship.
Yet revolutions have proven that power, traditionally exercised from the top down, can also be driven through a fiery street.
It was a lesson that Tunisians, who recently flooded the streets again to protest against parliament and for Mr. Saied, reaffirmed. This time, however, the people attacked democracy, not an autocrat.
“The Arab Spring will continue,” predicted Tarek Megerisi, specialist in North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “No matter how hard you try to suppress it or how much the environment around it changes, desperate people will always try to protect their rights.”
Mr Saied’s popularity stems from the same grievances that prompted Tunisians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians and Libyans to protest ten years ago: corruption, unemployment, repression and the inability to make ends meet. . Ten years later, Tunisians have felt back down on virtually everything except freedom of speech.
“We got nothing from the revolution,” said Houyem Boukchina, 48, from Jabal Ahmar, a working-class neighborhood in the capital, Tunis. “We still don’t know what the plan is, but we are living on the basis of hope,” she said of Mr Saied.
But popular reactions can still threaten autocracy.
Aware of the latent grievances of their people, Arab leaders have stepped up repression instead of tackling problems, their cruelty only prompting more upheaval in the future, analysts have warned.
In Mr. Saied’s case, his bet hinges on economic progress. Tunisia faces a looming fiscal crisis, with billions in debt falling due this fall. If the government fires civil servants and cuts wages and subsidies, if prices and employment do not improve, public opinion may turn around.
An economic collapse would pose problems not only to Mr. Saied, but also to Europe, whose coasts attract thousands of desperate Tunisian migrants in boats every year.
Still, Saied’s office has made no contact with International Monetary Fund officials who are waiting to negotiate a bailout, according to a senior Western diplomat. He also took no action other than asking chicken sellers and iron merchants to lower prices, telling them it was their national duty.
“People don’t necessarily support Saied, they just hated what Saied broke,” Mr. Megerisi said. “It’s going to go away pretty quickly when they find out that he doesn’t deliver for them either.”
For Western governments, which initially supported the uprisings and then returned in the name of stability by partnering with the autocrats who survived them, Tunisia can serve as a reminder of what motivated Arab protesters ten years ago – and what might bring them back to the streets.
While many demonstrators demanded democracy, others chanted more tangible results: the end of corruption, lower food prices, jobs.
From the outside, it was easy to cheer the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo, easy to forget the tens of millions of Egyptians who remained at home.
“People pushing for parliament, democracy, freedoms, we were not the biggest part of the revolution,” said Yassine Ayari, an independent Tunisian lawmaker recently jailed after denouncing Mr. Saied. “Maybe a lot of Tunisians didn’t want the revolution. Maybe people just want some beer and some security. It’s a difficult question, a question I don’t want to ask myself, ”he added.
“But I don’t blame people. We had the opportunity to show them how democracy could change their lives, and we failed.
The revolution gave Tunisians some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they expected, Ayari said. With more governance needs than experience, he said, they had little patience for the tiresome mess of democracy.
A constitution, ballot boxes and parliament have not automatically given rise to opportunity or responsibility, a situation that Westerners may find all too familiar. Parliament has fallen into insults and fights. Political parties have formed and reformed without coming up with better ideas. Corruption has spread.
“I don’t think a Western-style liberal democracy can or should be something that can just be parachuted in,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a specialist in Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Oxford. “You can’t just read ‘Liberal Democracy 101’, absorb it, write a constitution and hope it all works out. The elections are just the beginning.
Arab intellectuals often point out that it took decades for France to move to democracy after its revolution. Parts of Eastern Europe and Africa have seen similar ups and downs leaving dictatorships behind.
Opinion polls show that categorical majorities across the Arab world still support democracy. But almost half of those polled say their own country is not ready for it. Tunisians, in particular, have learned to associate it with economic deterioration and dysfunction.
Their experience may have led Tunisians to still believe in democracy in the abstract, but to want for now what a Tunisian constitutional law professor, Adnan Limam, approvingly described as a “dictatorship in the abstract.” short term “.
Yet Ms Kendall has warned that it is too early to declare the revolutions dead.
In Tunisia, rejection of the system that has evolved over the past decade does not necessarily imply adherence to one-man rule. As Mr Saied arrested more opponents and gained more control, suspending much of the Constitution last month and seizing sole power to make laws, more and more Tunisians – especially secularists and the rich – have become uncomfortable.
“Someone had to do something, but now it’s getting out of hand,” said Azza Bel Jaafar, 67, a pharmacist in Tunis’s upscale suburb of La Marsa. She said she initially supported Mr. Saied’s actions, in part out of fear of Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates parliament and which many Tunisians blame for the country’s ills.
“I hope there will be no more Islamism,” she said, “but I am not for a dictatorship either.”
Some pro-democracy Tunisians are banking on the idea that the younger generation will not easily give up the freedoms they grew up with.
“We haven’t invested in a democratic culture for 10 years for nothing,” said Jahouar Ben M’barek, a former friend and colleague of Mr. Saied who is now helping to organize anti-Saied protests. “One day they will see that it is actually their freedom that is in danger, and they will change their mind.”
Others say there is still time to save Tunisian democracy.
Despite Mr Saied’s increasingly authoritarian actions, he has not systematically cracked down on opposition protests and recently told French President Emmanuel Macron he would engage in dialogue to resolve the crisis.
“Let’s see if democracy is capable of correcting itself,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst, “and not by the gun.”
Gay rights activist Mr Bousselmi is torn, wondering if gay rights can advance under one man rule.
“I don’t know. Will I agree to forget my activism for the sake of the economy?” Bousselmi said. “I really want things to start to change in the country, but we will have to pay a very heavy price. “