Tunisia’s Democracy Enters an “Insha’Allah” Phase

Hamza Khan 

There is a running joke in the Arab world: when a person assures someone that a task will be done, ending their sentences with “be it God’s will” (“insha’Allah”), one can be sure that nothing will be accomplished in the near future. Over the course of the past eight years, Tunisians have sought to consolidate their democracy through a negotiated stalemate known as “the consensus.” Following a constitutional and security crisis in 2013, civil society actors joined forces with the country’s business and organized labor communities to force a power-sharing accord between modernists, old guard actors and Islamists. The result has been stability at the cost of progress. Economically, Tunisia remains a shadow of its former self before the Global Recession. Inflation cripples earnings and unemployment is in the low double digits. Hopes were high that following this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections a clear break with political deadlock would emerge. 

Tiring of an “insha’Allah” political culture with few actual achievements, Tunisian voters opted to elect a political novice and outsider to be their next president. Austere as he is obscure, Kais Saied is a former constitutional law professor who ran a no-nonsense anti-corruption campaign while delivering healthy doses of his political philosophy while barnstorming across Tunisia. The eight-year-old political establishment of Tunisia was more or less shut out by the voters who sought solutions to issues surrounding Tunisia’s highly statist economy and lack of job opportunities for young people. 

Held last month, Tunisia’s parliamentary elections have not produced a clear outcome—suggesting deadlock hearkening back to  “consensus” rule will continue for some time. Tunisia has adopted a complex proportional system for its parliamentary elections, which has produced a rather complicated allotment of seats to a smattering of political parties. The result is that no party has a clear majority, and EnNahda, the party with the most seats, is unable to form a government without also granting a number of concessions to potential coalition partners.

Jailed former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunis) party is running a close second to the Muslim democratic bloc, EnNahda (“The Renaissance”). However, neither party comes close to achieving the 109 seats needed to form a majority in parliament. The party of outgoing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Nidaa Tounes, has been all but eliminated as a political force following parliamentary elections on October 6th, 2019. 

With two of Tunisia’s most well-known political personalities out of the running, another potential round of consensus rule poses serious challenges for Tunisia’s democratic consolidation for another reason: the legislature has the vital role of appointing and confirming justices to the supreme court.  Unlike the legal traditions often found in English-speaking common law countries, Tunisia’s judicial procedures are the product of the civil law system favored by its former colonizer, France. Whereas legal precedent, tradition, and a slight degree of fudge factor allows for flexibility in common law countries, civil law societies are notoriously strict with the application of the letter of the law. Practically speaking, without a functioning supreme court, Tunisia’s entire legal system could come undone with a single constitutional crisis.

In essence, Tunisia has entered an “insha’Allah” phase in its democracy; there will be no quick solutions, nor lightning-fast reforms in the only country to survive the Arab Spring with a representative form of government. Political parties will have to bargain hard and make tremendous compromises to form a governing coalition in parliament. 

The divided parliament however, does present one opportunity for Tunisians. Should a spirit of hard-bargaining and compromise become the inclination of the country’s political parties, Tunisia could be on the road for meaningful reforms to the highly statist economy. Compromise could also lead to the appointment of a supreme court whose membership is less ideologically driven, providing a cushion from political influence in the judiciary.

Additionally, there is a sense that there exists a lack of confidence in democratic institutions in Tunisia: fewer than half of eligible voters voted in the first round of presidential elections, and around 41% of voters have turned out for the parliamentary elections.

While similarly low turnout rates are fairly common in the United States, the difference is that the former is an established, consolidated democracy, whereas Tunisia’s democratic experiment is only a few years old—this year’s free elections are only the third such instance in the history of the country. The pressure on Tunisian political institutions to deliver the fruits of the Jasmine Revolution is being met with a growing inability by politicians to put the needs of their countrymen before their own political agendas. 

Moreover, Tunisians do not seem to be in a rush to do away with their democracy, no matter how flawed or un-angelic those who have emerged from its elections might be. Freedom of the press and speech have quickly gained popularity, as has the idea that Tunisians can live and let live those who do not share their religious or political ideology. While another round of consensus rule might prove caustic to the public’s appetite for change, it will likely not poison the desert well from which the Arab world’s sole democracy sprung forth eight years ago— insha’Allah. 

Hamza Khan was a visiting student at Georgetown University in the Democracy & Governance Graduate Program. He is an advisor to numerous members of the U.S. Congress and formerly a consultant to democratic political movements in the Middle East & South Asia. He is also the executive director of The Pluralism Project. Follow him on Twitter @hamzaskhan.