Teaching Tool: Exploring Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

Tunisia is widely-recognized as the origin of the Arab Spring following the self-immolation of a despairing street vendor in January 2011. This act of revolt against inequality, corruption, and a lack of opportunity in a small country in North Africa provoked uprisings across the Middle East much of which continues to struggle for effective leadership and stability.

Seen as the Arab Spring success story, Tunisia stands out because of its tenuous but tangible grip on democracy. Peaceful elections have been held and a variety of national groups worked together to negotiate dialogue and compromise. This collective, represented by leaders of worker, employer, lawyer and activist groups, and known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. The United Arab Emirates English-language, multi-platform publication, The National, remarks in an opinion piece that “Tunisia, even with its challenges, is still a place where activists of the region flock. Faced with enduring restrictions and restraints across the Arab world, large number of Egyptians, Libyans and others see in Tunisia a place where civil liberties are protected under the most progressive Arab constitution.”

Yet, dissent in the governing Nidaa Tounes party based on charges of nepotism and corruption has led to a fractured government under new President Beji Caid Essebsi. The country continues to suffer from very high rates of unemployment and youth inactivity in which young people are neither attending school nor working. Further, Tunisia has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks that have destabilized its important tourism sector. Recognized as the largest global source of ISIS recruits, the country clearly has significant transitional challenges to overcome.

The United States has an interest in the democratization of Tunisia precisely because it has shown it has the essential ingredients needed for genuine reform unlike the horrific cases of Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and so on. In 2014, the U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue was created to facilitate discussion on areas of mutual interest, particularly in the area of trade. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to engage in the second Strategic Dialogue meeting taking place in Tunis in November 2015. Why is the United States in support of this nascent democracy and could it do more to aid in the transition process?

Tunisia could serve as a model for the rest of the region if it were able to continue its path toward political and economic stability in spite of the challenges it has faced with continued Islamist extremism, lingering governmental mismanagement and cronyism, and a sizable Libyan refugee population. The Washington Post, in a November 12th article co-authored by Kim R. Holmes and William B. Taylor, stated that because “Tunisia is a strategic partner in a region where stable, democratic allies are rare and critically needed,” the United States “should muster international backing for Tunisia’s shift to a more open economy that can benefit all of its citizens. This should include help from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to reduce the social costs of the transition for the poorest Tunisians.”

The United States could foster the development of free trade agreements that would  help open up sectors of the economy that have traditionally only been accessible to political elites. Would doing so ensure that democratization efforts have a more wide-reaching impact?

Teaching Tools

Teachers can use the additional resources below to engage in a number of inquiry-based activities.

  1. Exploration of Civic Participation

Students can compile a list of the various actors involved in the democratization process in Tunisia. Which groups are hindering progress? Which groups have promoted dialogue? What is the relationship between these groups? What is the president’s position? What do students think the individual’s role in civil society and democracy should be?

  1. Exploration of Foreign Policy

Students can examine how the United States chooses to be involved in the domestic politics and for what reasons. Are there cases where the students think the United States should or should not be involved? Why and why not? Who makes these decisions?

  1. Exploration of Government Systems

Students can learn more about different types of government by looking at the Tunisian case. How has Tunisia changed since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011 after 23 years of rule? How has life improved, or not? Students can find examples of governance (democracy, kleptocracy, monarchy, theocracy, etc.) and engage in a compare and contrast exercise to better understand differences .

Additional Resources

Why the United States should help Tunisia fulfill its Arab Spring dreams
Started in 2014, the U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue focuses on areas in which the United States and Tunisia can expand their relationship to address challenges facing Tunisia: economy and investment, security, and governance and partnerships.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry to arrive in Tunis on Friday for second U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue

Outline of Important Events, Meetings and Elections in Tunisia’s Democratic Transition

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet Wins 2015 Nobel Peace Prize

In birthplace of Arab Spring, Tunisia’s Islamists get sobering lesson in governing

There’s Still Hope for the Legacy of Tunisia’s Arab Spring

Tunisia remains a beacon of hope in the Arab world

Tunisia’s Wobbly Democracy: The Arab Spring stuck in Tunisia, but that doesn’t mean the country can be ignored

Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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