Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and is hailed as the only Arab nation to achieve democracy. While some Middle Eastern and North African nations were torn apart by revolutions, and others’ democratic efforts were suppressed, Tunisia remained stable. Democratic institutions were quickly established after the Jasmine Revolution of 2010-2011, and elections were successfully held.
Yet many Tunisians feel their work is unfinished. Momentous factors still hinder the country on its path to democracy.
Tunisians have celebrated recent reforms. Already famed as enjoying considerable women’s rights compared to other Arabic nations, Tunisia has recently marched further towards gender equality.
In July, parliament passed a historic anti-violence law, which tightened restrictions on violence against women – a significant problem in the country – and criminalized sexual harassment.
Women’s rights groups praised the move. It also triggered a series of additional reforms. Last month, a 1973 law prohibiting Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men was scrapped, while a sexual harassment education program was introduced.
Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger and assistant lecturer at the University of Tunis, said the marriage law was the result of “years and years of work on the part of Tunisian feminists.”
“I think that passing this law is important for Tunisian women and the Tunisian society. It is a first for Arab countries. It will pave the way for other reforms,” she told The Globe Post.
President Beji Caid Essebsi is also looking to end imbalanced inheritance laws, which are enshrined in the constitution.
Despite such liberal reforms, corruption still rears its ugly head in Tunisian politics. Authoritarianism has persisted even after former strongman Zine Al Abadine Ben Ali fell in 2011.
Critics have speculated that reforms such as the women’s rights laws are a smokescreen to distract the public’s attention from corrupt policies within the Tunisian establishment.
Amna Guellali, senior researcher of Tunisia at Human Rights Watch, said that while the scrapping of the 1973 marriage law was positive, it came a day after the Tunisian parliament adopted a controversial bill giving amnesty to individuals involved in corruption from the Ben Ali era.
“While [the marriage ruling] is important, it must be read in the broader picture of a country still struggling with the shadows of the past and not yet immune from a relapse in autocracy,” she said.
Guellali added that this echoes the former regime’s policy, which entailed promoting women’s rights and secularism as a distraction from government corruption.
This year has also seen a crackdown on non-governmental organizations, after the government declared every NGO must disclose foreign fundsreceived, regardless of where the money comes from.
Journalists have been prosecuted for criticising government officials, or for insulting the army or the police force. In April, Tunisia’s journalists union warned that the government was trying to assert further control over local media outlets – something the union’s president said was a “practice of the old regime.”
Earlier this year, Amnesty International highlighted examples of security forces violently targeting individuals labelled a national security threat – often falsely. This includes arbitrary and unwarranted arrests, and detention of family members under emergency laws first enacted in 1978.
This summer in the southern city of Tataouine, security forces fought protesters who were demonstrating against mass unemployment and low wages. Dozens of people were injured and one man, 23-year old Mohamed Anouar Sekrafi, was killed.
Mehdi El Behi, an independent Tunisian activist, told The Globe Post that while freedom of speech is improving, it is still very much under threat.
He reported that the government temporarily banned the online newspaper Acheraa al Magharibi in October after it featured an article portraying the regime negatively.
However, Mr. El Behi has faith in Tunisia’s future, saying that “Tunisian democracy is going the right way.”
Despite repeated setbacks since the revolution, Tunisians are still hopeful for democracy. A poll last year by the Tunis-based independent firm One to One for Research and Polling indicated that 86 percent of Tunisians still believe democracy to be the best form of governance – with just over 70 percent saying the same soon after the 2011 revolution.
Tunisia has made substantial progress. The fact that the revolution has come this far – in the face of repeated opposition from the state – shows that it can succeed.
Only by shedding the skin of the country’s pre-revolutionary past, and curtailing its authoritarianism, can it truly flourish as a democracy.
This article was originally published in The Globe Post.