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Lessons from Tunisia’s elections

Why her success at democratisation is a result of the absence of foreign interference in her politics

THE LAST WORLD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week Tunisians voted in the second parliamentary elections since the 2011 Arab Spring. Over 15,000 candidates vied for the 217 parliamentary seats. There was very low voter turnout for these elections, which “experts” say is because people have lost hope in elections. The economic situation in the country is worse than under the government of Ahmed Ben Ali, the long serving president, whom Tunisians overthrew in January 2011. The elections have been held against the backdrop of high inflation and unemployment, the problems the revolution sought to cure.

Yet in spite of these problems, Tunisia still offers hope. It was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Today it is the only country where the Arab Spring did not degenerate into civil war or revert to military rule. It has a functioning democratic system, in spite of its many challenges. No political party has capacity to secure a majority in parliament; so governments can only be formed through coalitions. This denies the country opportunities for a strong government to deal decisively with its problems but limits the risk of winner-take-all politics and their attendant problems.

The other countries in the Arab Spring – Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya – have faired badly. The last three degenerated into state collapse and have not recovered since. Indeed, in Yemen and Libya, the state and economy have totally collapsed and warlords control these nations, supported by foreign interests. Life reflects Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature: “nasty, brutish and short.” Syria was saved from a similar fate by the intervention of Russia, which sought to prop the state. All these three were not client states of the USA, and that may explain their misery.

Egypt, a client state of the USA, was saved and I think perhaps because of its strategic importance to America in the Middle East. After toying with democracy, which threatened to lead to an Islamic theocracy, it reverted (with American acquiescence) to military rule. So today the hopes of the Arab Spring have turned into tragedies. The fact that Tunisia did not go this way and is sustaining a functioning democracy is an important reference point for our analysis of democratic development in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I have always been skeptical about foreign assistance whether it is given in form of money, technical expertise, weapons, ideas, lectures and whatever other guises it may dress itself. This is especially so when such assistance plays a decisive role in the destiny of a country. If it were done via arms-length interactions where the main struggle is led and controlled by domestic forces – in personnel, aspirations and ideas – it would be productive. But where foreign assistance is the central fulcrum through which a struggle – whether social or economic – is conducted, it produces disaster.

The revolution in Tunisia took the high priests of democracy in the Western World by surprise. They woke up one morning only to find a long serving president had been toppled by a popular uprising and had escaped to another country. Unfortunately for the high priests of democracy and fortunately for Tunisians, outsiders could not claim to have saved the people of Tunisia from tyranny. This left the national politicians a lot of legroom to negotiate the future of their country without dictates from abroad. The result has been a functioning, even though chaotic, democracy.


  1. Just to correct a small mistake in the first paragraph: former president was not Ahmed Ben Ali but Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who ruled the country for 23 years.

  2. The Arab spring has demonstrated that Arab nations that deal and partner with the First world nations for example Turkey, Egypt,Tunisa,Saudi Arabia,UAE,Qatar are liberal even when the world is quick to judge Muslims as evil people.These nations have given the world some benefit of doubt on Islam democracy and civilization.

  3. Great observations. Just a note, Ahmed Ben Ali is a Libyan footballer not the ex Tunisian president. That happens to be Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Hope you find this helpful

  4. It is all because of these rulers that wont go away turning the countries into personal estates. When they are eventually overthrown chaos is inevitable since there are no institutions to ensure continuity. No one is mortal. The longer these guys stay the more confusion and political and economic uncertainty to be expected. I am not optimistic about a certain African country I wont name that will certainly face this problem.

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