The Arab Spring—a series of Arab revolutions agitating for a democratic form of government—that started in 2010 only led to the successful transition of Tunisia to a constitutional democracy. While Tunisia has had its own shares of problems since, it continues to be ranked ‘free’ by Freedom House with a score of 70 points.
There are certain reasons that made Tunisia the Arab exception that it is and played a fundamental role in the country’s successful transition to democracy. These reasons are explored in great detail in the book Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly by Safwan Masri, executive vice president for Columbia Global Centers and Global Development. Professor Masri accredits “the country’s postcolonial foreign policy and achievements in women’s rights, education, and the moderation of religion’s role in society” as reasons that propelled the successful transition.
Tunisia has a fairly liberal constitution—one that strikes a good balance between Islamist and secular views by using carefully chosen words: “Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign state, Islam is her religion, Arabic her language and republic her regime.”
Furthermore, Tunisian women have always enjoyed more rights than their regional counterparts. Tunisia was the first to repeal the “marry the rapist” laws and has been encouraging its neighbors to follow its footsteps. The Tunisian constitution states that: “Male and female citizens are equal in rights and duties. They are equal before the law without any discrimination”.
Beyond the constitution, Tunisia’s military played an important role in its successful transition. In stark contrast with the military in Egypt, Tunisia’s army both sympathized and fraternized with the demonstrators and their cause. The Chief of Army during the revolution, General Ammar, prohibited his men from firing against the protestors and allowed the protestors to seek shelter from police gunshots behind military tanks. Since the Tunisian military was so supportive, Tunisia never had to worry about a military coup and could focus on building a strong democracy.
Another factor that contributed to Tunisia’s success was its focus on education since gaining independence from France in 1956. Tunisia also has a history of promoting secular education. This has often led to a clash between ultra-orthodox Muslims and liberal education administrators. However, Tunisia continues to preserve the right to a secular education. Additionally, it is also one of the top countries in the region as far as access to information goes with 43.8 percent of the population having access to the internet.
Professor Masri believes that while a replication of Tunisia’s success in other Arab countries is not impossible, it is difficult. Tunisia’s regional counterparts need to embark on a journey to a more liberal and tolerant society if they hope to mimic Tunisia’s success. 2018 saw Saudi Arabia taking baby steps in that very direction by lifting the longstanding ban on women driving and granting tourist visas. Jordan and Lebanon are also focusing on women’s rights and repealed laws that exonerated a rapist if he married the victim. While most countries in the Arab world are far from achieving a liberal democracy, some countries have at the very least started the long journey towards democracy and that alone should give us hope.