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‘What Have We Done With Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither


TUNISIA, Tunisia – about three months after Tunisians overthrew their dictator in January 2011 as a result of a surge in protest that electrified In the Arab world, Ali Busselmi felt nothing but “pure happiness.”

The next decade, during which Tunisians adopted a new Constitution, gained freedom of speech and voted in free and fair elections, brought Mr. Buselmi his own awards. He co-founded a gay rights group, which was not possible until 2011, when the gay scene was forced to hide deep underground.

But like a revolution high hopes dashed into political chaos and economic failureMr Buselmi, like many Tunisians, said he was starting to wonder if his country would be better off with one ruler strong enough to simply get things done.

“I ask myself, what have we done with democracy?” said Mr. Buselmi, 32, the executive director of Mawjoudin, which means “We exist” in Arabic. “We have corrupt members of parliament, and if you go out into the streets, you will see that people cannot even afford a sandwich. And then suddenly a magic wand appeared, saying that everything would change. “

I held this stick Kais Syed, The democratically elected president of Tunisia, who froze parliament and fired the prime minister on July 25, promising to fight corruption and return power to the people. It was seizure of power that the vast majority of Tunisians were greeted with joy and relief.

On July 25, it is harder than ever to tell the hopeful story of the Arab Spring.

Supported by both Western supporters and Arab sympathizers as proof that democracy can flourish in the Middle East, Tunisia is now seen by many as the latest confirmation of the uprisings. ” broken promise… V Place of Birth because of the Arab uprisings, it is now ruled by sole decree.

Elsewhere, the wars that followed the uprisings devastated Syria, Libya and Yemen. Autocrats suppressed protests in the Persian Gulf. The Egyptians elected a president before they entered the military dictatorship.

However, the revolutions have proven that traditionally top-down power can also be exercised through a burning street.

It was a lesson from Tunisians who recently took to the streets again to protest against parliament and Mr Sayed. However, this time the people pounced on democracy, not the autocrat.

“The Arab Spring will continue,” predicted Tarek Megerisi, North Africa specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “No matter how hard you try to suppress it or how much the environment changes, desperate people will still try to defend their rights.”

Mr. Sayed’s popularity stems from the same grievances that drove Tunisians, Bahraini, Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians and Libyans to protest a decade ago: corruption, unemployment, repression and inability to make ends meet… Ten years later, Tunisians felt they were retreating from almost everything except free speech.

“We got nothing from the revolution,” said Hoyem Bookchina, 48, a resident of Jebel Ahmar, a working-class neighborhood in the Tunisian capital. “We still don’t know what the plan is, but we live in hope,” she said of Mr. Syed.

But public reaction can still threaten autocracy.

Mindful of the seething discontent of their people, the Arab rulers doubled their repression instead of solving problems, their ruthlessness inviting more shocks in the future, analysts warn.

In Mr. Syed’s case, his gambit depends on economic progress. Tunisia faces impending financial crisis, with billions of debt repaid this fall. If the government fires civil servants and cuts wages and subsidies, if prices and employment do not improve, public opinion is likely to change.

The economic collapse will cause problems not only for Mr. Syed, but also for Europe, whose shores attract desperate Tunisian migrants by boat. thousands yearly.

However, according to a senior Western diplomat, Mr. Sayed’s office has not been in contact with IMF officials who are awaiting negotiations for financial assistance. Nor did he take any action other than demanding chicken and iron sellers to lower prices, stating that it was their national duty.

“People don’t necessarily support Said, they just hate what Said violated,” said Mr. Megerisi. “It will go away pretty quickly when they find it doesn’t work either.”

For Western governments that initially supported the uprisings, then reverted to partnering with the surviving autocrats in the name of stability, Tunisia can serve as a reminder of what drove Arab protesters ten years ago and what could bring them back to the streets.

While many demonstrators demanded democracy, others called for more tangible results: ending corruption, lowering food prices, creating jobs.

It was easy from the outside to cheer up the hundreds of thousands of protesters who poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it was easy to forget about the tens of millions of Egyptians who remained at home.

“People who are for parliament, democracy, freedom, we were not the biggest part of the revolution,” said Yassin Ayari, an independent Tunisian MP who was recently jailed after condemning the seizure of power by Mr. Syed. “Maybe many Tunisians didn’t want a revolution. Maybe people just need beer and safety. This is a difficult question, a question that I do not want to ask myself, ”he added.

“But I don’t blame people. We had the opportunity to show them how democracy can change their lives, but we failed. “

According to Mr. Ayari, the revolution provided Tunisians with some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they expected. They have more needs than management experience and little patience for the time-consuming chaos of democracy, he said.

The constitution, ballot box, and parliament do not automatically create opportunities or responsibilities — a state of affairs that Westerners may find all too familiar. Parliament plunged into insults and fistfights. Political parties formed and reformed without offering the best ideas. The spread of corruption.

“I don’t think Western-style liberal democracy can or should be something to just parachute in,” said Elizabeth Kendall, a scholar in Arab and Islamic Studies at Oxford University. “You can’t just read Liberal Democracy 101, internalize it, write a constitution and hope that everything works out. Elections are just the beginning. “

Arab intellectuals often point out that it took decades for France to transition to democracy after the revolution. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Africa have experienced similar ups and downs after dictatorships were left behind.

Opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority in the Arab world still supports democracy. But almost half of the respondents say their countries are not ready for this. Tunisians in particular have come to associate this with economic decline and dysfunction.

Their experiences may have led Tunisians to still believe in democracy in the abstract, but so far they lacked what one Tunisian constitutional law professor, Adnan Limam, approvingly called “short-term dictatorship.”

However, Ms Kendall warned that it is too early to declare the revolutions dead.

In Tunisia, abandoning the system that has developed over the past decade does not necessarily mean adopting one-man management. As Mr. Syed has arrested more opponents and took more controlAfter suspending much of the Constitution and seizing the sole power to legislate last month, more Tunisians – especially the secular and the wealthy – became anxious

“Someone had to do something, but now things are not going well,” said Azza Bel Jaafar, 67, a pharmacist in Tunisia’s prestigious La Marsa suburb. She said she initially supported Mr Sayed’s actions, in part out of fear of Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates parliament and which many Tunisians blame for the country’s woes.

“I hope there will be no more Islamism,” she said, “but I’m not for dictatorship either.”

Some pro-democracy Tunisians rely on the young generation having a hard time giving up the freedoms they grew up on.

“We have not invested in a democratic culture for 10 years for nothing,” said Jahuar Ben M’barek, a former friend and colleague of Mr. Sayed, who is now helping organize protests against Sayed. “One day they will see that their freedom is actually under threat and they will change their minds.”

Others say there is still time to save Tunisian democracy.

Despite Mr. Syed’s increasingly authoritarian actions, he has not taken systematic action to suppress opposition protests and recently told French President Emmanuel Macron that he would engage in dialogue to resolve the crisis.

“Let’s see if democracy can improve on its own,” said Youssef Sheriff, a political analyst in Tunisia, “and not with weapons.”

Mr. Buselmi, a gay rights activist, is torn by wondering if gay rights can progress under a one-man rule.

“I don’t know. Will I accept that I will forget about my activity for the sake of economy?” – said Mr. Busselmi. “I really want things to start changing in the country, but we will have to pay a very high price.”

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