Briefing Paper

Despite Freedoms seen as Growing, Tunisians Show Limited Citizen Engagement

Tunisia has been a model of successful democratic transition in the Arab world since its
revolution in 2011. While Libya, Yemen, and Syria have descended into civil war, Egypt and Bahrain into repression and authoritarianism, Tunisia is the only Arab Spring country where democracy has survived. The small North African country has held repeated free and fair elections, including
constituent assembly elections in 2011, municipal elections in 2018, and parliamentary and
presidential elections twice, in 2014 and 2019. Tunisia ratified the most progressive constitution
in the Arab world in 2014, guaranteeing freedoms of expression, of assembly, and of the
press; protecting the right to access information; and mandating gender equality with an
active commitment by the state to ensuring it. While enormous economic problems continue to plague the country, its actions earned it a reclassification by Freedom House (2015) from “not free” to “free.” One of the main reasons democratization succeeded in Tunisia while failing in other Arab
Spring countries is the country’s strong civil society. In 2010, when protests escalated and
reached the capital, civil society groups, trade unions, lawyers, journalists, and opposition
parties joined the uprising and played a key role in ending 23 years of authoritarian rule. After the revolution, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – made up of the Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers – was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating a compromise between secular and Islamist political actors when the democratic transition was close to collapse due to intense political polarization. Politicians agreed to overcome their differences and achieve consensus that gave space to both Islamists and seculars in the new political system