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Lessons from Tunisia’s elections

When similar revolutions erupted in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, the high priests of democracy hijacked the struggle.

Then U.S. president Barrack Obama forced Hosni Mubarrak of Egypt to resign. In Libya, the U.S. supported the British and the French militarily to remove Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, protests degenerated into civil war. America financed terrorist organisations to remove President Bashir Al Asaad. The country degenerated into civil war and the worst refugee crisis. Yemen followed a similar trajectory as the high priests of democracy sought to take control.

Why does foreign assistance/interference undermine democratic development? Democracy is built on negotiations and compromise. Therefore outcomes cannot be determined in advance – by setting a blueprint of what ought to be the result based on a theory in a textbook. A theory can give an idea of where a country wants to go. But the functioning of democracy requires that the contending forces in the country at a particular period in time find accommodation with each other. In such negotiations tradeoffs, concessions and compromises are the building blocks of success.

No country demonstrates this better than the USA. When it was founded in 1781 and given its current constitution in 1789, it faced this challenge. Many of its founders believe in equality and wanted slavery ended. But other social forces benefiting from slavery wanted it to remain. A compromise was reached that allowed the union to be formed and become functional. On nearly everything – to grant poor white men the vote and later to women and blacks, or to accept gay marriage and abortion etc., Americans have had to negotiate and to compromise among themselves.

Yet this lesson is lost to Americans when promoting similar ideals abroad. Today Americans believe that once they have reached a particular outcome, other nations should follow her example and adopt reform within a week. This denies these nations politics. Tunisia is succeeding because its nationals have sufficient independence to make the necessary bargains, give critical concessions and negotiate the necessary compromises. Islamist political parties today play an important role in the democratic politics of Tunisia without the country becoming a theocracy.

The lesson we draw from the Arab spring turned winter is that democracy is actually a citizen effort. Foreign interference, however well intentioned, is likely to create more problems than it seeks to solve. This is because powerful foreigners create incentives that negatively impact on national politicians. Realising that they have the U.S. and the EU behind them, local politicians find it more politically profitable to grandstand, and project themselves as the champions of democracy demanded by Washington, Paris, London and Brussels. Thus, instead of compromising to accommodate domestic realities, they make unrealistic demands based largely on a textbook prescription of democracy. The result is often stalemate.

This way, foreign involvement makes it difficult to make the hard decisions of compromise. National politicians enter the arena to please foreigners, thereby making politics a contest of who is a “pure democrat”. But this pushes domestic realities to the backseat thereby undermining the construction of a shared understanding. The lesson is that democracy only works when the driving force are citizens.

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4 comments

  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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