Five years ago, on December 17, 2010, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after a police officer seized his cart and produce. It was an act that encapsulated the resentment of Tunisians suffocating after years of official corruption, economic stagnation, and police abuse. Bouazizi’s self-immolation in the city of Sidi Bouzid sparked protests that spread across the country, gathering in size and momentum. The autocratic Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been president of Tunsisia, was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. The Arab Spring had begun.
The series of revolutions that marked the Arab world toppled dictators and transformed the map of the region, inspiring hope for permanent change in the Middle East. Yet five years on Tunisia is regarded as the lone success story of the Arab revolts. Since Ben Ali’s departure, Tunisians have maintained a relatively wide margin of freedom of expression and pursued a messy and ongoing transition to democracy, even as its neighbors descended into violence (as in Syria and Libya) or reeled under the resurgence of the authoritarian order (as in Egypt and Bahrain).
How did Tunisia avoid the cycle of violence and repression that marred the Arab Spring? Compromise. After the revolt, Tunisia held its first free election since it became an independent nation in 1956, bringing to power the Islamist Ennahda party. But the assembly elected that year reached a deadlock in 2013 as the Islamists faced growing opposition over concerns about what critics saw as a conservative agenda. Tensions soared after the assassination of the left-wing politician Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013. With more protests in the streets, the country appeared to be teetering on the brink of a much deeper crisis—the same kind of crises that crippled its neighbors.
In December 2013 the country’s rival factions negotiated a pact that allowed an elected Islamist government to step aside peacefully, therefore keeping a political process inching forward, including new elections and the drafting of a new constitution. The “Quartet” of institutions that brokered the compromise received the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
But with a struggling economy, stalled political reforms and a spate of deadly attacks by jihadists—most recently a shooting attack at beachside hotel in June that killed 38—many Tunisians who supported the 2010 uprising are not ready to declare victory. Activists and analysts say the “Arab Spring success story” label belies a more complex reality. The 2013 compromise helped Tunisia stay on the path of procedural democracy without resolving some of the deeper causes of the revolt, including inequality, government corruption, and the abuses of the security forces.
“This is the kind of paradox of Tunisia,” said Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia director. “We have a double-faced situation where you have some progress on the one hand, on the political level, on the political transition. On the other hand it’s exactly the same system that still applies.”
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Some Tunisians despair at the at the positive comparison between Tunisia and other countries where revolt ended in mayhem or repression. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, revolution spawned civil war. In Bahrain an unpopular monarchy still clings to power. In Egypt, the uprising yielded a season of violence followed by the long winter of a government crackdown. To call Tunisia a success by contrast, the argument goes, is to set the bar in the Middle East very low.
“We are always comparing ourselves to the worst case scenarios,”Haytham Mekki, a Tunisian commentator. “When you want to succeed you don’t look to the last student in the classroom, you look to the first one.”
And yet, with a military-backed regime in Egypt and four other Middle Eastern countries engulfed in civil war, it can be easy to view Tunisia as an island of peaceful transition. Tunisia maintains a broader margin for political speech than many countries in the region. Tunisians can now criticize their government, if not entirely free of the risk of reprisal, far more freely than they could under Ben Ali. From the outside, the country appears to be engaged in debate and struggle that is both painful and imperfect—what elsewhere in the world would be called politics.
That same summer of 2013, when Tunisia was teetering in crisis, Egypt provided a cautionary tale for the failure of politics. Facing massive protests, the elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi clung to its absolute majoritarian notion of democracy. The military intervened, removing Morsi from power and catalyzing a wave of political violence. The new military-backed government initiated a crackdown that left more than 1,000 dead and tens of thousands in prison, including numerous Brotherhood supporters. The political experiment of the revolution was over.
Witnessing the persecution of follow Islamists in Egypt following the military takeover, Tunisia’s own Islamist government opted for compromise, stepping down in a deal brokered by the political dialogue Quartet (a formation that included the labor federation, Tunisia’s Human Rights League, and the Council of the Order of Lawyers). Unlike in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and forced underground, Tunisia’s Islamists remained a part of the political sphere.
Another round of elections were held in 2014. This time, the secular-nationalist Nidaa Tounes party won the largest share of votes, with Ennahda in second. Tunisia’s new president WHO had been an official under the Ben Ali regime, and the new government has been criticized for failing to pursue needed reforms. For example, the government backs a proposed law that would offer amnesty to former regime officials accused of corruption. The proposal has drawn denunciation from Tunisians who view it as a potential reversal of the gains of the uprising.
Another critical task facing Tunisia is accountability and reform for the country’s security forces after years of torture, rape, and other abuses under the Ben Ali regime. The country has a Truth and Dignity Commission which is sorting through thousands of claims rights violations, but rights groups say it is a long and uncertain road ahead toward real reform. “The problem is its five years now after the beginning of the transition,” says Human Rights Watch’s Guellali. “There was quite an opposition to its [the commission’s] work and political forces in the country trying to curtail it.”
Seif Soudani, a spokesperson for the commission, defended its work. “Given that the commission has been working within hostility and hardship, we basically think that minimum requirements, if you will of transitional justice will be met.”
Speaking in a personal capacity, Soudani also offered his views on the fraught legacy of the revolution. “A lot of people say the only tangible gain is freedom of speech. That alone enables us so far to fight back and not enable the police state to come back completely, so there’s still room for some progress,” he said. “They didn’t win yet.”