Tunisia, Between Arab Spring Nostalgia And An Age-Old Dilemma Of Democracy
The arrest this week of top opposition leaders shows Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed is drifting ever farther away from basic democratic practices. Yet there's no mass uprising, unlike in 2011, perhaps because economic factors are foremost on people's minds.
TUNIS — When officials in Washington' look at the Tunisian experiment in democracy, it appears to be a distressed ship, listing and heading straight for an iceberg where the invisible part is always far bigger than what's visible. The damage from a collapse of Tunisia can spill over into neighboring countries. The problem, in other words, is not only Tunisian.
Without explicitly saying so, experts and observers present in Washington for the IMF Spring Meetings are convinced that the crew at the helm in Tunisia is rather emotional, without a roadmap, and above all, carrying out projects that often lack basic rationality.
Certainly, it is a harsh judgment, but not for nothing! And for good reason, the democratic model, established since Day One of the birth of the Arab Spring in 2011, confronts Tunisians (expatriates and locals alike) with an uncomfortable and divisive dilemma.
The dilemma is as follows: Either, to stand firm on the intrinsic principles of an emerging democracy, even if it means losing substantially on the economic front. Or, to accept less democratic governance (rather autocratic), in the hope of gaining more on the economic and material well-being front.
We are part of an Arab-Muslim culture, which is conservative and not always easy to interpret. The recent imprisonment of top figures of the Islamist party — including main opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi — demonstrates this, as if Tunisian Islam is settling scores…
It must be said that during the years when political islam governed (2011-2021), the Tunisian economy was seriously damaged, scarred by an exploding debt. All for the sake of a naive, economic democracy that relied entirely on appearances.
Everything indicates that since President Kaïs Saïed took control of the country's institutions on July 25, 2021, citizens generally choose the option of less democracy, hoping to benefit from more economic gains. But, this is not guaranteed, and not simple!
A way out
This uncomfortable dilemma has crystallized, with the different governments and parties in power. There have been a dozen governments (580 ministers), a thousand parliamentarians, a dozen parties, and 4 presidents. In just 11 years…
Our stated dilemma was omnipresent in the minds of many of these elites, as well as in those who put them in power by casting their ballots.
Yet there was always a way out of this dilemma!
Citizens could have completely avoided this predicament by imposing a minimum of rationality, and less emotion, to establish their understanding of democracy.
In well-established democratic societies, when a politician advances unwanted and ineffective policies without violating democratic rules and norms, people find ways to perceive the behavior as anti-democratic. And they revolt!
On the other hand, when a politician acts rather anti-democratically to promote economic policies that enrich rather than impoverish, citizens will gather arguments to consider them democratic. Citizens accept them based on a cost-benefit analysis.
February 21, 2023: Supporters of the President of Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi attended a hearing at the counter-terrorism unit of the Tunis court. The former speaker of Tunisia's Parliament has been previously questioned on suspicions of illicit funding for Ennahda, and of being involved in the sending of Tunisian jihadists to Syria.
Therefore, it is not a deliberate acceptance, but a fundamentally different perceptual logic that motivates the widespread approval of anti-democratic behavior in today's democracies.
Humans are fundamentally governed by a rationality that favors survival and often maximizes goals under constraints of available resources.
The Tunisian delegation gave an impression of a country whose economy could implode at any moment.
This is the logic of optimization. A logic based on rationality. And common sense... However, this rationality is rather lacking in the policies currently being pursued by the stakeholders concerned.
Solving the dilemma means bringing more logic, more method, and more science into governance and State management.
More than constitutions and populist speeches, the democratization of Tunisia needs more rationality involving reasoning, demonstration, and anticipation.
When we use our logic function of our brains, we communicate to others a message of wisdom and credibility that generates trust and respect. This applies to humans as well as to economies, and political elites in general.
At the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank, attended last week by 4,000 participants, the tiny Tunisian delegation gave an impression of ambivalence, of a country whose economy could implode at any moment…
Renowned macroeconomist and former Chief Economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, offered his plain advice: "It looks bad in Tunisia, you have to reform your economy as a first step!"
Saving the Tunisian economy is a first step in saving the democratic transition! The urgency is vital…
Moktar Lamari is a University economist. Author's blog: Economics for Tunisia
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