Larry Diamond on Tunisia's uncertain transition


Photo credit: 
John-Paul Pelissier, Reuters

The toppling of a brutal, corrupt, and long-ruling dictator, Zine el Abidine ben Ali, is an extraordinary achievement for the diverse elements of Tunisian society who came out into the streets in recent weeks to demand change. Ben Ali's startling fall is another reminder of how suddenly political change can come in authoritarian regimes that substitute force, fear, and fraud for legitimacy. Such regimes may appear stable for very long periods of time, but when the people lose their fear and the army refuses to fire on the people, they can unravel very quickly.

Unfortunately, the demise of a dictator does not guarantee the rise of a democracy in its place.  Historically, most authoritarian regimes have given way to a new (and often only slightly reconstituted) autocracy. This has been the principle pattern not only in the successor states to the Soviet Union, but in much of Africa since independence, and in numerous states in Asia and Latin America historically as well. In the Middle East, the odds against a successful democratic transition are particularly long, since there have hardly been any (outside Turkey and Israel) since the end of colonial rule. In Iran in 1979, a popular uprising against a long-serving dictator led not to democracy but rather to an even more odious and murderous form of oppression.

 If Tunisia is to defy the odds, it will need a significant period of time to reform the corrupt rules and institutions of the authoritarian regime and create an open, pluralistic society and party system that is capable of structuring democratic competition. Even if elections for a successor government are pushed out to six months, rather than sixty days, it is highly unlikely that this will provide sufficient time to create even a minimally fair and functional democratic playing field. 

Think of the many components of a democratic election, and Tunisia today is far from having them in place. After decades of fixed and phony elections, Tunisia needs a complete overhaul of its electoral machinery: a new and impartial electoral administration, a new electoral register, and perhaps as well a new electoral system. An energetic program of civic education should help Tunisians understand not only the mechanics of a democratic electoral process but also the underlying norms, rights, and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. This is a long process, but from Poland to Chile to South Africa, civil society organizations have shown that much can be accomplished to lay the foundations for popular democratic awareness and capacity if the models, materials, and resources are made available, and if there is a decent interval of time and political space to do the work. Doing this work-and enabling political parties and candidates to convey their messages-also requires a new and more pluralistic media environment. State control of the electronic and print media must be radically refashioned.  Privately owned media must be allowed to form and function, and critics of the old order must be allowed to enter the arena of ownership.

An effective democratic election requires not just freedom of opposition parties to organize, but time, resources, and training for them to form-or reform-and develop some ability to perform the essential functions of modern parties:  to establish what they stand for, to develop programmatic agendas, to elect leaders and recruit candidates, to forge ties with constituencies, and to survey public opinion and respond with appropriate messages. Trade unions, business chambers, and other civic groups need time as well to purge themselves of corrupting ties to the old order, or form anew, cultivate their natural constituencies, and build an authentic civil society.  Independent think tanks and public opinion surveys can also help to structure and enrich an emergent democratic process, but they as well need time and resources to function effectively.

Free and fair elections-especially in a context where they have never taken place before-also require extensive preparations for domestic monitoring and international observation, so that fraud can be detected and deterred, honest mistakes can be exposed and corrected, and public confidence can be generated in the new procedures.

Many of these tasks are ongoing after a successful transition to democracy, and setting too ambitious an agenda for reform could risk waiting indefinitely and squandering the opportunity for democratic change. But one of the most common reasons for failed transitions is a rush to early national elections and a failure to prepare the ground adequately for a fair and meaningful contest. Two common consequences of hurried elections are chaos or renewed autocracy, as some portions of the old order rally behind a new figure or old party and win by hook or crook. 

Unfortunately, there are also risks in waiting too long. Democratic energy in society can dissipate.  If (putative) democratic forces enter into a broad-based transitional government, as is now happening in Tunisia, they risk being corrupted or tainted with the stench of the old order if they hang around for too long, sharing some authority and stature but no real power. A prolonged transitional period can also give authoritarian forces time to regroup, purge the worst elements, present cosmetic changes, divide and confuse the opposition, and return to power under the guise of a pseudo-democracy. That is why it is important that opposition figures in Tunisia insist on a serious program of institutional and possibly constitutional reform during the transitional period, with extensive public dialogue and broad popular participation, so that interim rule is not a stagnant pause but rather a dynamic historical moment that engages and mobilizes public opinion for real democratic change. The risks of delay could also be reduced if a non-partisan, technocratic figure, not associated with the Ben Ali's political machine, could be tapped to lead the interim government, and if the political opposition could unify to negotiate strong conditions for the period of interim rule, including basic freedoms, an end to censorship, and removal of Ben Ali loyalists from the cabinet.

There is an important role for international actors at this seminal moment in Tunisian history. Like peoples throughout the Middle East and other post-colonial spaces, Tunisians are understandably wary of foreign intervention. After a quarter-century of lavish Western (especially French) aid and political comfort to Ben Ali, Tunisians will no doubt cast a suspicious eye on grants, statements and actions that purport to now, suddenly, want to build democracy in Tunisia. But Tunisians may welcome limited and specific steps if they are transparent and taken in careful consultation with diverse elements of Tunisia's civil society and historic opposition. 

Fortunately, Tunisia has many liberal and democratic figures in business, intellectual, cultural, and civic life who understand what liberal democracy is and would like to see it emerge in Tunisia. And it has other distinct advantages. It is a relatively small country in size and population, which makes some of the tasks of institution building and promotion of democratic norms a bit easier. Educational levels are relatively high, and there is a significant infrastructure of a middle class society. The security forces seem to be divided, and it appears the army refused to fire on peaceful protestors-a very positive precedent. Without blood on its hands from the recent violence, the army is better poised than other elements of state security to guarantee a process of democratic change, if its leadership comes down in favor of it (for whatever reason). And in contrast to Algeria, Egypt, or Jordan, Islamists do not seem to have strong public support. Thus, it is difficult for the forces of the ancien regime to manipulate public fears of radical Islam (or of disorder that the old elites themselves covertly generate) in order to discredit liberalism as naïve and ride back to power. 

It is vital that Europe and the United States not fall again for the specter of disorder or an Islamist surge, but rather insist on genuine democratic reforms, and tie future aid and geopolitical support to this. The US and EU should hold forth the prospect of Tunisia achieving a special and potentially transformative status in economic relations if it negotiates the path to become the first Arab democracy of this era. At the same time, they should threaten to institute targeted travel and financial sanctions against diehard defenders of the old order who frustrate or sabotage a democratic transition, or who use violence against peaceful demonstrators.  These kinds of prospective inducements, positive and negative, can help to tip the balance in the calculations of a lot of elites from outside the Ben Ali "family" but who were part of the Ben Ali regime and must now be wondering where their own interests lie. To complement the necessary private messages, the US ambassador (and others representing democracies in Tunis) should stand up publicly for democratic reforms, embrace democratic reformers, support new democratic initiatives with small grants, and warn old regime elites against repression.

In the coming weeks and months, American and European democracy foundations and aid organizations, along with the United Nations and its political assistance programs in the UNDP, can do a lot-transparently, and in consultation with Tunisian society-to train and support the emerging infrastructure of democracy in the state administration, political parties, and civil society. The funding required to make a difference is not large in absolute terms, and it should be a priority. Time is of the essence, and more flexible instruments, like USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, should be tapped to activate assistance quickly.        

History-and the grim realities of pervasive authoritarianism in what is known in the political science discipline as a "bad neighborhood"-do not justify a high degree of optimism about the prospects for democracy in Tunisia. Yet the third wave of global democratization is replete with instances of successful democratization in even more unlikely circumstances. The speed with which the Tunisian protests mushroomed in a few weeks from a lone act of self-sacrifice to a national uprising, and the intensity with which this uprising has resonated in nearby countries, shows the pent-up demand for democratic change in the Arab world. If that demand can be directed toward pursuit of concrete institutional reform, with timely international support, the Jasmine Revolution could surprise again, by giving birth to the first Arab democracy of our time.