There are promising signs that the formation of Tunisia’s second government of national unity will end the current political volatility and shift attention to the challenge of empowering the country’s democratic actors and institutions prior to forthcoming elections.
The turbulence has given rise to growing demands for Western assistance to support Tunisia’s transition. Local activists and foreign analysts alike argue that the country’s democrats currently lack the capacity to compete with rival forces, which are expected to include a reconstituted RCD, the former ruling party.
Democracy advocates and civil society groups are protective of the Jasmine revolution’s Made-in-Tunisia integrity and defensive about perceived foreign intervention, but acutely aware that decades of repression left a legacy of enfeebled democratic forces and institutions in urgent need of advice and assistance.
There will be no better opportunity for the West to support a democratic transition that could serve as a model for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.
Tunisians have engineered “a secular, nonviolent, egalitarian, revolt that is inclusive of all components of the society,” writes former exile Zouhair Ouakaa. “What better might the West ask for?”
But they need support to strengthen the democratic process threatened by countervailing forces.
Democracy assistance groups and Western democracies preparing to support the transition are clearly aware of local sensitivities to foreign interference and eager to recognize local ownership of the revolt and any subsequent transition.
“What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian,” said Jeffrey Feltman, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, visiting Tunis this week. ‘That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people.”
Democratic change not only needs US support, but Western assistance can be decisive, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at its Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“The notion of democratic transitions as organic and homegrown …. while technically true, is also misleading,” he writes. “Democratic transitions are incredibly difficult. But they are even more difficult without the support of the international community.”
Tunisia’s revolt was indeed home-grown, but any subsequent democratic transition and consolidation will need the continued “agitation of activists and policymakers in Washington who shared an ideological commitment to the vigorous support of democracy abroad,” he contends.
As well as supporting civil society and other democratic actors, the West’s democracies must continue to engage the region’s regimes. Over the medium-term, the US and EU should imagine creative policy initiatives, Shahid argues, including a “reform endowment” offering financial incentives for governments to meet benchmarks on political reform.
Democracy assistance groups and government agencies from the Western democracies are gearing up to provide support for the transitional process towards elections in six months’ time, for the elections themselves, and to help democratic actors build the capacity, skills and networks needed to compete in what is likely to be a highly-contested political process.
A reconstituted and renamed RCD will enjoy many of the built-in advantages of former ruling parties in post-authoritarian states, from substantial financial and physical assets to an inherited base of support resting on clientelist patronage.
Similarly, despite – or perhaps because of – being severely repressed under the previous regime, the Islamist Nahda party is mobilizing once-covert but reportedly robust and extensive mosque-based networks which will give them a considerable electoral advantage in terms of organizational coherence and mobilizing capacity.
But Tunisia’s liberal democratic forces have few such assets or advantages. The opposition parties allowed to exist under Ben Ali have a presence in the provinces, but with atrophied organizations, without the structures, skills and resources to be serious contenders in the political arena.
Lacking the capacity, coherence and visibility that follows decades of suppression, Tunisia’s democratic forces, in the parties and the wider civil society, urgently need political counsel and practical solidarity. The “strong possibility” that the democratic opposition will fragment adds urgency to such efforts, as a democracy assistance officer recently reported from Tunis.
As Zalmay Khalilzad, a board member the National Endowment for Democracy, recently argued, it is imperative that democracy assistance providers “work with Tunisian liberals, both inside and outside the country – first to prevent chaos, then to ensure fair competition and that Islamists, and current ruling parties, do not outmanoeuvre the moderates.”