2021-10-10 19:47:15 ‘What Have We Done With Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither

‘What Have We Done With Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Ali Bousselmi felt nothing but “pure happiness” for about three months after Tunisians toppled their dictator in January 2011 in an eruption of protest that electrified the Arab world.

Mr. Bousselmi reaped the benefits of the decade that followed, during which Tunisians adopted a new constitution, gained freedom of expression, and voted in free and fair elections. He co-founded a gay rights organization, which would have been impossible before 2011, when the gay scene was forced to hide deep underground.

However, as the revolution’s high hopes faded into political chaos and economic failure, Mr. Bousselmi, like many Tunisians, began to wonder whether his country would be better off with a single ruler, one powerful enough to simply get things done.

“I wonder what we’ve done with democracy,” said Mr. Bousselmi, 32, executive director of Mawjoudin, which means “We Exist” in Arabic. “We have corrupt members of Parliament, and you can see on the street that people can’t even afford a sandwich.” And then, all of a sudden, there was a magic wand waving and saying, “Things are going to change.”

That wand was wielded by Kais Saied, Tunisia’s democratically elected president, who froze Parliament and fired the prime minister on July 25, vowing to combat corruption and restore power to the people. The overwhelming majority of Tunisians welcomed the power grab with joy and relief.

The events of July 25 have made it more difficult than ever to tell a positive story about the Arab Spring.

Tunisia, long held up as proof that democracy could flourish in the Middle East by Western supporters and Arab sympathizers alike, now appears to many to be the final confirmation of the uprisings’ failed promise. It was the birthplace of Arab revolts and is now ruled by a one-man decree.

Warfare that erupted in the aftermath of the uprisings has devastated Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Protests in the Gulf were stifled by autocrats. Before embracing a military dictatorship, Egyptians elected a president.

Nonetheless, the revolutions demonstrated that power, which was traditionally wielded from the top down, could also be driven by a riled-up street.

It was a lesson that Tunisians, who recently took to the streets to protest against Parliament and in support of Mr. Saied, were reminded of. This time, however, the people reacted to democracy rather than an autocrat.

“The Arab Spring will continue,” Tarek Megerisi, a North Africa expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted. “No matter how hard you try to suppress it or how much the environment changes around it, desperate people will still try to secure their rights.”

Mr. Saied’s popularity stems from the same grievances that drove Tunisians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians, and Libyans to protest a decade ago: corruption, unemployment, repression, and a lack of resources. After ten years, Tunisians felt they had regressed in almost every area except freedom of expression.

“We got nothing out of the revolution,” said Houyem Boukchina, 48, a resident of Tunis’s Jabal Ahmar, a working-class neighborhood. “We don’t know what the plan is yet, but we live on hope,” she said of Mr. Saied.

However, popular uprisings can still pose a threat to autocracy.

Analysts warn that, aware of their people’s simmering grievances, Arab rulers have doubled down on repression rather than addressing the issues, and that their ruthlessness will only invite more upheaval in the future.

Mr. Saied’s gambit is dependent on economic progress. Tunisia is facing a fiscal crisis, with billions of dollars in debt due this fall. If the government fires public employees and cuts wages and subsidies, and prices and employment do not improve, public opinion is likely to shift.

An economic collapse would be problematic not only for Mr. Saied, but also for Europe, whose shores attract thousands of desperate Tunisian migrants in boats each year.

However, according to a senior Western diplomat, Mr. Saied’s office has made no contact with IMF officials who are waiting to negotiate a bailout. He hasn’t done anything other than ask chicken vendors and iron merchants to lower their prices, telling them it was their national duty.

“People don’t necessarily support Saied; they simply despise what Saied has done,” Mr. Megerisi explained. “That’ll be gone pretty quickly once they realize he’s not delivering for them, either.”

Tunisia may serve as a reminder of what motivated Arab protesters a decade ago — and what could bring them out again — for Western governments, which initially supported the uprisings before returning to partnering with the autocrats who survived them in the name of stability.

While many demonstrators called for democracy, others chanted for more tangible results, such as an end to corruption, lower food prices, and more jobs.

From the outside, it was easy to applaud the hundreds of thousands of protesters who flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and it was easy to overlook the tens of millions of Egyptians who remained at home.

“The people pushing for Parliament, democracy, freedoms, we weren’t the most important part of the revolution,” said Yassine Ayari, an independent Tunisian lawmaker who was recently imprisoned for criticizing Mr. Saied’s power grab. “Perhaps many Tunisians did not want the revolution.” Perhaps all people want is beer and security. “That’s a difficult question, one I don’t want to ask myself,” he added.

“However, I don’t blame the people. We had an opportunity to show them how democracy could improve their lives, but we blew it.”

According to Mr. Ayari, the revolution provided Tunisians with some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they expected. They had little patience for the time-consuming mess of democracy, he said, because they had more needs than governing experience.

A Constitution, a ballot box, and a Parliament did not automatically result in opportunity or accountability, which Westerners may be all too familiar with. Name-calling and fistfights erupted in Parliament. Political parties formed and reformed with no better ideas. Corruption grew.

“I don’t think a Western-style liberal democracy can or should be parachuted in,” said Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford University Arabic and Islamic studies scholar. “You can’t simply read ‘Liberal Democracy 101,’ absorb it, write a constitution, and hope for the best.” Elections are only the beginning.”

Arab intellectuals frequently point out that it took France decades after its revolution to transition to democracy. Parts of Eastern Europe and Africa experienced similar ups and downs as they transitioned away from dictatorships.

Opinion polls show that across the Arab world, large majorities still support democracy. However, nearly half of those polled believe their own countries are not prepared. Tunisians in particular have come to associate it with economic decline and dysfunction.

Their experience may have left Tunisians believing in democracy in theory, but desiring for the time being what one Tunisian constitutional law professor, Adnan Limam, approvingly referred to as a “short-term dictatorship.”

Ms. Kendall cautioned, however, that it is too soon to declare the revolutions dead.

In Tunisia, opposition to the system that has evolved over the last decade does not necessarily imply support for one-man rule. As Mr. Saied has arrested more opponents and increased his control, suspending much of the Constitution and seizing sole authority to make laws last month, more Tunisians — particularly secular, affluent ones — have grown concerned.

“Someone had to do something, but now it’s getting off track,” said Azza Bel Jaafar, 67, a pharmacist in Tunis’s affluent La Marsa suburb. She said she initially supported Mr. Saied’s actions because she was afraid of Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates Parliament and is blamed for many of Tunisia’s ills.

“I hope there will be no more Islamism,” she said, “but I’m also not in favor of a dictatorship.”

Some pro-democracy Tunisians believe that the younger generation will not easily relinquish the liberties they have grown accustomed to.

“We haven’t invested in a democratic culture for ten years for naught,” said Jahouar Ben M’barek, a former friend and colleague of Mr. Saied who is now assisting in the organization of anti-Saied protests. “One day, they’ll realize it’s their freedom that’s at stake, and they’ll change their minds.”

Others argue that there is still time to restore Tunisia’s democracy.

Despite his increasingly authoritarian actions, Mr. Saied has not moved systematically to suppress opposition protests, and he recently told French President Emmanuel Macron that he would engage in dialogue to resolve the crisis.

“Let’s see if democracy can correct itself on its own,” Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst, said.

Mr. Bousselmi, a gay rights activist, is conflicted about whether gay rights can advance under one-man rule.

“I’m not sure. Will I accept putting my activism on hold for the sake of the economy?” Mr. Bousselmi explained. “I really want things to change in the country, but we’ll have to pay a high price for it.”

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‘What Have We Done With Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither