Sustaining Democracy in the Middle East

March 25, 2019

It was in Tunisia that the Arab Spring was born, leading to the ouster of its long reigning authoritarian ruler in 2010 and the adoption of the region’s first democratic and secular constitution.  The revolution triggered similar uprisings in the Middle East but the promise of democratization did not sustain in these other countries.  What then are the factors that contributed to the success or failure of post-revolution democratic transitions in the Arab world?  Drawing from his extensive scholarship on geopolitics and social reform in the region, Safwan M. Masri, Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, addressed this question in his talk, “Shifting Power Dynamics in the Middle East: Prospects for Democracy and Pluralism” at Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai on February 22, 2019.  

“Tunisia is an exceptional democracy in the Arab world and understanding it is also key to understanding the rest of the Arab world,” posited Professor Masri, whose research findings and analysis are captured in his book, Tunisia, An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017). 

The question of national identity was the first contrast between Tunisia and the rest of the Middle East that was explored in Professor Masri’s lecture.  He argued that state borders were artificially created under British and French colonial rule in the 18th century with the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  These arbitrarily constructed borders gave no heed to race, ethnicity and religion, and created states that were devoid of an inherent national identity.  Leadership in these new states manufactured new national identities, relying heavily on military pride and exclusionary religious identities to do so.  Given the artificial origin of these states, Professor Masri called into question the idea of a pan-Arab identity.  He stated that the diverse region, which extended from Morocco to Iraq and Syria to Yemen, did not have a shared history around which a pan-Arab identity could be forged.  Islam and language too could not be overarching unifiers since Islam was not exclusive to the region and the Arabic language changed significantly based on local dialects and influences.  

Tunisia was one of two countries (the other being Egypt) that could trace their unique civilizational histories and distinct borders from ancient to contemporary times and therefore, did not have the need to manufacture a uniform and exclusive identity based on language, religion, or through excessive military force.  Through Roman, Arab and Ottoman rule, Tunisian society maintained its distinct characteristics that had Christian, African, Berber and European influences.

In the 18th century, Tunisian political and intellectual leadership actively partook in reformist movements in education and society and were, at times, ahead of their Western counterparts.  Tunisia, for instance, emancipated all slaves in 1846, before France and the United States, and was the first Arab country to adopt a constitution in 1861, already having assured equal rights of non-Muslim citizens in 1857. Other developments led to the establishment of its first secular educational institute in 1875.

Professor Masri pointed to a few important developments that helped further mold Tunisia’s progressive credentials during the country’s French Protectorate period from 1882 to 1956.  The Zytuna Mosque, established in the seventh century, continued its position as a center for scholarship and reform, producing eminent thinkers and leaders that championed the cause of women’s rights, among others. When Tunisia became a republic in 1956, it became the first Arab country to ban polygamy.

Another characteristic that set apart Tunisia from its Arab neighbors was its leaders’ distrust of militaries.  Given its location away from centers of conflict at the time, especially with regards to Israel, Tunisia invested in a robust secular, bi-lingual education system, instead of spending heavily on military, as was the case with Egypt.

Another cornerstone of Tunisian civil society was a strong labor union that started in the 1920s with the backing of Zytuna Mosque.  The union became an integral organization in Tunisia’s independence movement, commanding tremendous grassroots support, and later played a central role in the Arab Spring.  On the other hand, labor unions under Mubarak’s rule in Egypt were eliminated and a puppet trade union was installed.  Military spending constituted a bulk of Egypt’s budget.

While making the case for Tunisia’s exceptionalism in the region by highlighting its long history of building a pluralistic, secular and reformist society that lay special emphasis on education and women’s rights, Professor Masri also examined the changing power dynamics in the Middle East as reflected in the shift of power from traditional centers like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, and their larger regional and global implications.  He noted that in the midst of the region’s precarious politics and instability, Tunisia’s largely successful transition to democracy may threaten global and regional leaders invested in maintaining the status-quo, but offered some semblance of hope to people in other Arab countries with democratic aspirations.