Building a Democratic Tunisia
Transitional Justice for the Past
and Institution Building for the Future
كيف يمكن بناء تونس ديمقراطية
العدالية الانتقالية للماضي وبناء المؤسسات للمستقبل
Tunisia is today facing what many Eastern European and Latin American states went through in the 1990s, - the sudden collapse of an authoritarian regime based on one-man rule and enforced through security agencies and secret police, represented in Tunisia’s case by the Interior Ministry. The regime’s breakup through popular revolution will be followed by the collapse of its institutions, albeit by varying degrees depending on the extent of their reliance on the person of the president. In Tunisia’s case, the Interior Ministry’s security agencies collapsed because they were the backbone of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They became the most targeted elements for demonstrators and young Tunisians as they came to be seen as symbols of the repressive former regime.
Rather than fulfilling a political role driven by a grassroots that determines its political direction and ideology, Tunisia’s ruling RCD party became a tool used to rally the masses, infiltrate academic, professional and student institutions, and to stage a show of political legitimacy. This is often the case with ruling parties in authoritarian states, and is due to the absence of democracy in the party’s institutions, and its leader’s reliance on appointing people from above rather than having them elected by the grass roots.
Tunisian authoritarianism was also embodied in the president and his family. They came to symbolize corruption and monopoly business deals all over the country, and became prime targets for the young Tunisians who led the revolution. Their successful removal of Ben Ali was a breakthrough for the revolution and one of its major aims.
Yet toppling a president does not necessarily mean that a democratic regime will arise. The constant fear is that the elites of the past will unite to re-form the old regime with new faces, or with superficial changes that are a far cry from real democracy. This is where the importance of the Tunisian elite comes in, especially for the youth who led the revolution. They must be fully aware of their importance, and have a long-term strategy for democratic institution-building.
This paper will attempt to answer the following question: How can Tunisia benefit from the experiences of Eastern European and Latin American states in building democratic institutions and ensuring their stability?
Tunisia’s move towards a real democratic transformation is a model for the Arab world.Tunisia’s sole success among Arab states in achieving a democratic revolution is down to several characteristics its society. First and foremost, Tunisia has an expanding middle class, high levels of secondary and university education, and one of the highest levels of private home ownership in the world at over 75%, a policy that goes back to former President Habib Bourguiba. Furthermore, Tunisian women play an active role in public and political life, and the country also has a large proportion of foreign language speakers, in this case French. Moreover, Tunisia’s elite is closely bound with France, and has benefited immensely from its universities and educational establishments. These and other facts lead us to the assertion that the democratic transformation in Tunisia will hold much firmer than in other countries such as Egypt, Algeria or Yemen.
Tunisian society is relatively homogenous both ethnically and in confessional terms, though it has some social disparity due to the wide gap that existed between the ruling authoritarian elite and the majority of citizens who have not benefited from the growth revenues of recent years. Yet Tunisian income per capita remains almost the highest in North Africa, and this is what sets it apart from the other Arab countries previously mentioned, which have very high levels of illiteracy and poverty. This will entail that, unlike in Tunisia, any future democratic governments in these countries will not be able to resolve their socioeconomic problems with the speed that demonstrators who aspire to replicate the Tunisian revolution in their countries, would like.
Lipset was the first to point out the positive correlation between economic development and democracy, noting that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy”. Lipset demonstrated that democracies are generally more economically developed than non-democracies.
Democracies, Lipset explains, eventually follow on from economic progress, specifically when income reaches medium levels as this supports the development of a middle class. This in turn causes a growing number of highly educated citizens to demand greater political participation, ultimately leading to a successful democratic transition. This proved to be the case in several authoritarian states that reached medium income levels, including Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s, and South Korea sometime later.
Others have attempted to reverse the equation, positing that “poor countries must develop economically before they can democratize”. In fact, poor democracies grew at least as fast as poor autocracies, and vastly outperformed them according to social well-being indicators. The democracies also did better in avoiding disasters.
Scholars have criticized Lipset’s theory for giving the West a justification to support despotic governments outside the sphere of Soviet influence in order to prevent them from turning to Communism. This claim was justified, the critics say, with the claim that authoritarian rule creates a strong economic and industrial base within a weak social and cultural environment. Nevertheless, the poor economic record of military governments in Latin America, the dictatorships of Africa and the Communist states of Eastern Europe, tarnished the theoretical aura of success that had surrounded some of East Asia’s autocracies, especially Singapore, Taiwan, and most recently, China. These nations failed to control high unemployment levels, endured health crises seen in the outbreak of pandemics and epidemics, and poverty rose to famine levels. In view of such factors, many researchers came to the conclusion after a lengthy comparison between low income democracies and low income autocracies that the former grew on average at a speed matching that of that latter. Furthermore, average growth of per capita income in poor democracies was 50 per cent higher than in poor autocracies, with countries that chose a democratic course such as the Dominican Republic, India, Latvia, Mozambique and Senegal coming ahead of their autocratic counterparts such as Angola, the DRC, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. The advantage is even more apparent when discussion moves from growth rates to broader, social measures of well-being such as average life expectancy, the availability of clean drinking water, education figures, agricultural output and health services..
Tunisia begins the process of shaping its new political system
It could well be said that ultimately, the events in Tunisia and Egypt toppled a number of traditional theories that had pervaded western studies on Arab ‘exceptionalism’ when it comes to democracy. This is often referred to as the ‘cultural factor’ upon which many academics based their analysis of the lack of democracy or its development in many non-western societies, and especially in Arab ones.
A feature of this western academic literature was to focus on a number of characteristics and attributes that it ascribed to Arabs, including hypocrisy, irrationality and honour-related practices. These are values that are completely contrary to democracy,  and this may cause some to claim that Islam is inconsistent with the idea of democracy because it does not separate the spiritual from the temporal.
The ‘Tunisian Revolution’ shattered these presuppositions and affirmed what many had been consistently claiming, - that we should not look at culture or even values with a rigid approach. These presuppositions are in fact closely linked to the prevailing political climate which can impose a respect for the law and the regime, or it could encourage corruption and cronyism. It could also strengthen the values of integrity and responsibility, or provide fertile ground for the growth of wastefulness, irresponsibility, and the misuse of public funds.
The question now is: How can Tunisia achieve a real democratic transition, and do so in a way that can be emulated across the Arab world? Tunisia is a particularly good candidate for success in this regard. The rise of the middle class, economic diversification, the lack of dependency on natural resources (which, in Tunisia’s case are very limited compared to its neighbours Algeria and Libya), and the power of its civil society and culture, are all factors that will greatly aid the stabilizing of democracy in the country.
There is an organic link between democratization and growth in the idea that the impact of civil society is decisive. When civil society forces imbibed with values different to those of the ruling authoritarian regime are on the increase, they can drive a shift among both the elite and the broader masses towards a new kind of values based on citizenship, freedom, equality, responsibility and pluralism. The relationship between the regime and society thus has a sensitive and pivotal role in driving democratic transition. If a society is fragmented and infiltrated, that is, civil society forces are weak and undeveloped, the pressure exerted by society on the regime is relatively limited, and the push for democracy from below is weak. Often, this is not due to the absence of mechanisms to resolve the disputes of the ruling elites significant to the regime’s fate. Such disputes could lead to a shakeup in the ranks of such elites, or even regime change, although that would likely entail one authoritarian regime simply being substituted for another,  and this is what is feared might happen in Egypt.
When there are civil society forces of this kind, the fear of the consequences of ignoring them can be devastating. This spurs most reformists to effect change that ultimately leads to democratic transition.  Spain’s transition to democracy through pressure from civil society forces is seen as textbook case of this kind of transition.
Tunisia’s elites are now entering a stage of what is known as “constituent negotiations” to build a new kind of political regime. And because the opposition forces are so weak, having crumbled after being excluded for the 23 years that Ben Ali was in power and even before that with President Bourguiba, the negotiations are made even more difficult as there are no patterns for negotiation. Tunisia is going through a period similar to the one some Eastern European states faced following the collapse of Communist parties in terms of the breakdown of public opinion and the absence of major political and civil forces able to build a new regime.
One of the qualities that agreements made in the current period require is moderation among political leaders taking part in the negotiations. Sometimes moderation is the price for participation, or as Huntington puts it, the “participation/moderation trade- off”. This involves expanding the limits of participation in the political system by including previously excluded political forces which in return have to give up their radical stances. This happened in Argentina when the military establishment agreed to allow the Peronists to be a part of the regime. The same thing occurred in Spain in 1977 when the ruling power recognized the Communist Party. Uruguay followed suit when it recognized the so-called ‘Broad Front’ in 1984 .
The era of exclusionary politics came to an end for Tunisia with the fall of President Ben Ali, and every side must now recognize the right of others to participate in the process of building a new political system. This system must be open to all in order to allow the major forces in society to come out on top in the upcoming elections.
Effective and objective monitoring is considered an essential prerequisite for guaranteeing respect for new procedures. This may require that new institutions be formed to this end including civilian monitoring bodies, a national committee for human rights, a supreme auditing body, a grievances office to receive and investigate complaints against state officials, and an anti-corruption bureau. Furthermore, training programmes and policies in combatting corruption are necessary.
Decision-making in the area of reforming abusive state institutions, as in all other areas of transitional justice, is linked to the prevailing political climate, the resources available, and the need to draft laws with realistic aims. Lessons learned from past attempts at reforming abusive state institutions have told us that efforts to achieve reform in both quality and quantity should not exceed local capabilities in terms of institutional structure and human and financial resources. Making that kind of mistake could drag the reform process backwards instead of propelling it forwards. There is another lesson can be drawn from the past, and it is connected to the first particularly in the area of vetting. This is the need to draw attention to the risks that may arise from excluding certain individuals from public office (especially police and army officials and the intelligence services) who often turn to crime after being barred from state institutions.
Reforming abusive state institutions should be considered a long term process - and perhaps this is the most important of all since it takes several years before the success or failure of new institutions becomes apparent. It is therefore imperative that such reform is pursued with resolve though not in haste.
The term ‘employee vetting’ involves reviewing an individual’s employment and other records before either employing them, or excluding them from the workplace altogether. Vetting often forms a central element in the reform of abusive institutions. Newly-formed governments adopt it as a way to remove individuals responsible for serious abuses from their positions in the public sector. The vetting process involves a multiple source, detailed background check to determine whether a particular official was implicated in past abuses. In addition, vetting often involves putting measures in place to ensure that anyone subject to screening is aware of any allegations made against him, and that he has the opportunity to respond.
Regarding the screening process, we can also differentiate between vetting and ‘lustration’, - a term that was often used in Central and Eastern Europe. It was also later used in Iraq to refer to laws and policies that brought about wide scale removal and exclusion of individuals from public office not because of their personal records, but due to their party membership, political stances or continued complicity with repressive intelligence agencies. Many lustration laws have faced criticism for breaching basic standards of integrity, such as imposing punishments on grounds of collective, not individual guilt. They were also criticized for breaching the principle of assumed innocence until one is proven guilty, as well as imposing restrictions on positions of office to skew selections (in blatant discrimination based on political stance), unfairly restricting the right to appeal to the judicial authority, and over-relying on dubious Communist-era records to prove that criminal practices took place. For this and other reasons, vetting is generally more preferred than lustration as a means of removing state officials who are proven to have committed serious professional abuses.
There are a number of advantages to vetting as a mechanism of transitional justice. For example, it helps to reduce the possibility of new or further abuses occurring or continuing. It also strengthens public trust in state institutions, contributes towards removing barriers to prosecutions and helps rehabilitate officials whose reputation may have been unfairly damaged as a result of being listed as part of their organization’s corrupted elements. Vetting and lustration can therefore be seen as bridges between the old regime and the new, transparent and accountable institutions.
 The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was established in June 1920 by Abdelaziz Thaalbi under the name ‘The Tunisian New Constitutional Liberal Party’. It was then renamed as the Neo Destour Party in 1934 following a party schism. It later took on the name ‘The Socialist Destourian Party’ at a party congress in Bizerte in October 1964, before becoming the Constitutional Democratic Rally on 27 February 1988. The ruling RCD controled every aspect of political life in Tunisia from independance in 1956 onwards. The party decided at the Bizerte Congress to adopt socialism as its ideology, and was headed by the country’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with Mohamed Ghannouchi as his deputy, Mohamed Ghariani as Secretary General and Abdallah Kallel as Financial Secretary.
 Average income per capita in Tunisia stood at US$7,200 in 2009 according to the World Bank. In oil-rich Algeria the average was $6,600, with Morocco at $3,800 and Egypt at $4,900.
 The extent to which the term ‘revolution’ can be applied to events in Tunisia or Egypt is debated. Revolution is associated with specific conditions, and also leads to certain outcomes. In my opinion however, what happened in Tunisia does constitute a revolution, as did the toppling of Ceauşescu in Romania. Of course, events in Egypt, which remains under army control, remain a popular uprising.
 Seymour Martin Lipset, who passed away at the end of 2006, was one the most influential social scientists and scholars of democracy of the past half-century. He taught at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard and George Mason University, and was an important, prolific writer. His books include Political Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person to serve as President of both the American Political Science Association (1979-1980), and the American Sociological Association (1992-1993). Lipset's work has covered a wide range of topics: the social conditions of democracy, including economic development and political culture; the origins of socialism, fascism, revolution, protest, prejudice, and extremism; class conflict, structure, and mobility; social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; and public opinion and public confidence in institutions. Lipset has been a pioneer in the study of comparative politics, and no comparison has featured as prominently in his work as that between the two great democracies of North America. Thanks to his insightful analysis of Canada in comparison with the United States, most fully elaborated in Continental Divide, he has been dubbed the "Tocqueville of Canada."
 See: Larry Diamond, "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered", American Behavioural Scientist, vol. 35, nos. 4-5 (March-June 1999), pp. 450-453, and Seymour Martin Lipset, Kyung-Ryung Soong and John Charles Torres, "A Comparative Analysis of the Social Requisites of Democracy", International Social Science Journal, no. 136 (May 1993), pp. 155-175.
 Siegle, Joseph T., and Michael M. Weinstein. "Why Democracies Excel." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 1 Sept. 2004.
 7 Op. cit. p35
 The fact that concepts such as pluralism, citizenship, human rights and equality were fixed within the deeply rooted values of Tunisian society was a decisive factor in the county’s peaceful transition towards democracy. Without these, Tunisia’s nascent democracy would not be able to consolidate itself without first enduring a long period conflict and tension between its supporters and opponents. Such tensions might manifest in armed civil conflict and weaken legal and constitutional institutions. Perhaps even more dangerous would be the loss of citizens’ personal safety and hence the stability of both society and the state. This is what is meant by the relationship between a society’s social values and democratization.
 See John Laffin, The Arab Mind Considered: A Need for Understanding (New York: Taphing Publishing Company, 1975), and David Puyce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).
 For a comprehensive discussion on these views see: Naguib Al-Gadban, Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World. (Boulder: Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.
 Graeme Gill, Dynamics of Democratization; Elites, Civil Society and the Transition Process. Translated by Shokat Yusef (Damascus: Ministry of Culture, 2005), p164.
 The Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a prime example of why this should be stressed. See Adrian Karatnycky, “Ukraine’s Orange Revolution”, translated by Hamdi Abu Kela, World Culture, vol. 136 (May-June 2006), pp46-63.
 Gill, Op. cit. p165.
 Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p169.
 Gill, Op. cit. pp 74-75.
 See: International Center for Transitional Justice,>
 See: Annual Report of the International Center for Transitional Justice, 2003-2004.