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What the Tunisian Revolution Taught Me about Democracy

Aziz Ben Hadj Yahia, Second Prize, Undergraduate Category, Essay Contest 2018

March 12, 2019

Youth celebrating the third anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution. CREDIT: Magharebia (CC)

Aziz is an undergraduate student and freelance writer covering Tunisia's democratic transition. He loves dispelling myths and stereotypes about his country, one article at a time.

ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?

When I was 12, a revolution erupted in Tunisia, my country. This was in 2011, on the eve of the Arab Spring. I was too young, too ignorant to understand the scale of what was happening. All I knew was that people were elated, so I figured it must be a good thing.

Streets were full of crowds cheering in joy for the ousting of president Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a dictator who ruled Tunisia for 23 years using the repressive instruments of the police state. He fled the country after pressure from mass demonstrations. Tunisia would finally be free from corrupt despots who rob the common man.

Luckily for us, our revolution was relatively peaceful. We were spared civil war or brutal repression, a common occurrence as the scary history of revolutions shows us. Instead, we went on to become the sole success story of the Arab Spring. Slowly, we reformed our government to become a full-fledged democracy, with competitive party politics, free and fair elections, a modern constitution, and the complete set of political freedoms that liberal democracy offers.

We believed Tunisia will now prosper under a fair and just system of governance. The international community stood by us and supported our transition. At last, our country would begin a bright new chapter in its history.

This optimism was short-lived, unfortunately. After the initial euphoria subsided, people started to notice a steep rise in the price of daily consumer goods. Unemployment, which was one of the main grievances fueling the revolution, was getting even worse than it was prior to the transition.

The biggest shock occurred after Tunisia was hit by two deadly ISIS terror attacks in 2015. This tanked our national GDP and brought our tourism industry to a halt. Nothing of this scale happened in the Ben Ali era. At this point, the Tunisian public lost faith in the government. They were under no illusion that the situation was very bad.

People were now reminiscing of the "good old days" under dictator Ben Ali. Maybe there was rampant corruption and no free speech then, but at least the cost of living was cheap and we were safe, the reasoning goes.

Was the revolution good? Is democracy bad? I kept questioning and looking for answers. Remember, this all happened as I was slowly maturing into adulthood, a time where I was still making sense of the world around me and forming my own opinions on the politics of my country.

So what is democracy really? I asked myself. I came to define it as I saw it being practised, a system where we elect our representatives, freely share our opinion on politics and where the law, not personal connections, was supreme.

That sounds good. Here's a system where the citizen is put first. Under democracy, the people get to shape their destiny. You can freely speak your mind, express your concerns, and be confident that your rights are secure from abusive authority. So that left me with a nagging question, why is Tunisia declining after adopting a fair and just system like democracy?

The truth is that the rights and protections that democracy endows can be dangerous if a country is not prepared for it. If a country lacks alternative political leaders to take the helm after a democratic transition, it will be led incompetently. If it does not have a political elite that is well-versed in the workings of competitive party politics and democratic policymaking, there would be no respect for the democratic process. If its people are not active participants in governance, democracy will be sabotaged by populists and opportunists.

What I came to realize is that most people want a competent government first and foremost. One that delivers on its promises, functions reliably and ensures the dignity and prosperity of its citizens. Often, these roles are served best under a democratic system. After all, the most prosperous countries on earth are democracies. So what went wrong with Tunisia?

I believe our revolution was bound to come with costs and consequences. Tunisia is a developing country with a vulnerable economy. Not only that, it is situated in the Middle East and North Africa, a region where geopolitical tensions are high. Naturally, a revolution—democratic or otherwise—would be disruptive and damaging to our economy and stability, at least in the short term.

I genuinely believe in democracy as an ideal system of governance. I find it to be the most moral. Naturally, I would rather live in a country that is run on a moral basis. However, it must work in practice. For some countries, it is indeed the best system. For others, it can lead to less than ideal, or catastrophic results. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, notably a country's stage of development, security situation, national politics, etc.

A criterion that comes before democracy is competence. A government must be competent first. It must serve its people effectively and put their best interests at hand. Once that is fulfilled, we can begin to consider the importance of democracy. Perhaps then, a cautious well-planned transition can take place with the best results.

However, if a country is mired in poverty, where the common citizen cannot afford to live in dignity, the importance of democracy is too premature to consider. Because for me, a competent but undemocratic government is more moral than an incompetent, backwards democracy. In fact, I find that a weak democratic system will exacerbate a country's problems because often times they will be unable to enforce rule of law effectively and thus fall to corruption and predatory political practices. What effectively happens is that the people are stuck with a flawed democratic system that is neither moral or competent. You may argue that this happens in prosperous democracies as well, but at least there the people are mostly isolated from these effects thanks to the prosperity of their country.

Of course, this does not mean that nondemocratic regimes are always effective. Dictatorships have committed many atrocities, and often times living in a poor democracy is better than living in a poor dictatorship. It is undeniable however, that authoritarian systems have more power to enact radical changes. That ability has often been abused by dictators, but when wielded by a competent leader, can bring immense benefits to the citizens of a country that would otherwise have remained poor. A good example of this is Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore who transformed the country from third world to first world in one generation.

We are thus left with a spectrum, with the degree of democracy on one axis, and the degree of competence on the other. I believe that the importance of democracy can only be truly appreciated when a government is competent. It's when we have a system that brings about, perhaps through strong institutions or a cultural focus, competent leadership. For I would not care about voting or sharing my voice if I believed that the democratic process will make no difference.

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