Filling the Political Vacuum
Ahmed may be young, but he has never let age get in the way of his passions. He’s been driven by political fervor since the age of 14, when his cousin was unjustly imprisoned for a year by the Ministry of the Interior, and allegedly roughly abused. Over time, Ahmed’s fury at his cousin’s treatment became the source of a growing political awareness. Hailing from a relatively wealthy family in Tunis, Ahmed enjoyed steady access to the Internet from a young age. Some of the Arabic language blogs he found online strengthened his political awakening as he found his own frustrations and anger reflected in the words of other young people from across the region.
In high school, Ahmed decided he was going to become a political journalist. He practiced his writing at every chance, but was frustrated that his school didn’t have a student newspaper. His attempts at starting one were frowned on by school administrators, who knew of his political leanings and were unwilling to condone a platform for potential dissent. To work around these limitations, Ahmed wrote letters to numerous newspaper editors and television producers, but none of his thoughts were ever published.
Ahmed’s actions did, however, earn him attention from government officials. By the age of 19, he was being routinely followed by plainclothes security officers. He found this surveillance both irritating and ironic, as all of his political efforts had already been effectively stymied. One day in a coffee shop, seeing an agent trying to be inconspicuous as he eavesdropped on his conversation, Ahmed decided to talk directly to his shadow. “Why are you wasting your time following me around?” he asked. Ahmed reported that the agent looked at first shocked, then slightly chagrined, and said, “This is just a job. This is the only reliable work I can get.” After that, Ahmed bought the agent a coffee.
Ahmed went off to university without ever finding an opportunity to express his political ideas. His weekly gatherings at coffee shops with friends and lengthy group SMS chats were the largest public spheres he had for political reflection. He was always frustrated at the limited audience of these gatherings, and he never felt his opinion had an impact on the social issues he cared about.
Ahmed’s inability to find satisfactory channels to participate in the political discourse of his country was by no means unique to him. The reality of the previous era of Tunisian governance meant that meaningful political participation was limited to a small circle of networked elites with close ties to the Ben Ali regime. Regular citizens like Ahmed were excluded from the discussions and institutions that determined the future of their country.
Political Participation Post-Revolution
This political vacuum has been replaced in the post-revolutionary period with an enormous—and unstructured—increase in political participation. Unshackled from the censorship and surveillance that was formerly an inescapable part of daily life, citizens like Ahmed are finding and testing newfound forms of political engagement. Pent-up demand is exploding in a frenzy of civic development.
In the early days after Ben Ali’s resignation, Ahmed and a few friends launched a political journalism website. Wanting to tell the story of a new Tunisia to a broad international audience, they made a calculated decision to publish their content in English, believing they could have the greatest influence on local politics by helping shape international discourse on Tunisia.
Their site has grown quickly, and they routinely work with major press outlets around the world. Ahmed, now 22, has dropped out of university to focus on reporting full-time. He’s covered the election campaign in his country, as well as traveled to Morocco and Libya to report on political developments among Tunisia’s neighbors.
Ahmed’s transition from complete frustration to full political engagement has been drastic: he has not only realized his dreams of becoming a political journalist, he has created a platform for political engagement with global reach.
Many Tunisians are similarly taking advantage of their new liberties and enjoying meaningful political participation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the flood of new political parties that ran in last year’s elections for the constituent assembly. After decades of autocratic authority suppressed the development of political discourse, the process of creating new factions and building coalitions, which takes place over decades in participatory political systems, has played out in Tunisia in an abbreviated, hurried manner. The proliferation of political parties—104 filed for campaign privileges in the October 2011 election—was one result.
Despite the frenzy, October’s Constituent Assembly elections were powerful evidence that Tunisia is moving towards a representative system of governance. The polls were widely celebrated as free and fair in their execution, and voter turnout was extraordinary, with participation of nearly 90 percent of registered voters, representing 70 percent of the voting-age population in Tunisia. However, the rushed nature of the political climate seems to have had a real effect on the outcomes: The Islamic Ennahda party, with its extensive organization and high name recognition, was able to rise above the fray of fractious party chaos, receiving 37 percent of the vote. Whether its results will reflect the party’s long-term popular support remains to be seen.
The developing space for political discourse is also working to inform a robust civil society. At most of the traditional media outlets, editors and producers have either been replaced or have found new opinions about the accountability and efficacy of political institutions. New institutions, including TEDx, which will be examined later in this section, are multiplying in size and reach, bolstering a growing intellectual discourse on the form of a new social contract. Bloggers, activists, and civic-minded groups are developing and launching new web platforms for political expression almost every week.
The rapid expansion and democratization of political participation in Tunisia has been impressive. It has created an abundance of opportunities for regular Tunisians to express their political goals and meaningfully engage with institutions that may be able to represent their interests.
Yet these opportunities are not without corresponding threats. Two main challenges face political participation in Tunisia. First, and foremost, is the inexperience that hinders many Tunisians’ ability to effectively engage with the political system. The transactional mechanics of participation, such as finding and vetting timely political intelligence, are new to most Tunisians. During a critically important period, citizens have had to learn these new behaviors quickly, often without adequate education or training.
Second, while the volume of party activity is evidence of an open system, and therefore theoretically positive, in practice it has caused confusion among less-informed voters who have difficulty choosing among the cacophony of parties and platforms. In addition, political maneuvers can make reading through partisan logic more difficult. Parties are often splitting, merging, and forming coalitions, resulting in further confusion for voters who are experiencing rapid political change in a short period of time.
Rather than helping voters understand and sort through their options, the abundance of political media compounds the challenge of finding reliable information. From Facebook posts to the national television news to SMS chats with friends, voters are overwhelmed with information. Many do not know what sources and which pieces of information they can trust. In short, the signal-to-noise ratio is out of balance.
These pressures were also clear in the results of the October 2011 Constituent Assembly elections. The chaotic party landscape and oversaturation of political media gave a clear advantage to well-organized parties with a pre-existing role in the political discourse. Many Tunisians credit Ennahda’s electoral victories almost entirely to their name recognition and level of organization. It is widely considered to be an open question as to whether Ennahda will be able garner similar results in future elections, as the competitive landscape becomes less cluttered and voters become more experienced at navigating a new political system.
A Participatory Future
Despite the challenges, there is immense optimism and many positive signs that Tunisia is developing one of the fairest and most representative political systems in the region.
A freer and fairer media are holding politicians to greater standards of accountability. Powerful institutions are challenging each other’s authority, creating a balance of power that would have been unheard of in the past. Examples can be seen through the manner in which the military has largely kept in check the Ministry of Interior, which continues to be seen as a legacy of the Ben Ali government’s security apparatus. Another sign: the Constituent Assembly and the Ministry of Finance are tentatively debating issues of budget control. These tensions are resulting in power-sharing that is likely to be a positive force for stability and a more balanced political system.
Thus far, many Tunisians feel this balance of power is a good thing: it prevents one faction from taking control, allows diverse groups to have a voice and creates a more-representative landscape. Yet many wonder how long this equilibrium can continue to exist, and they are closely watching the actions of the Assembly and pressures from external forces that look to shape the political landscape. Another potential drawback of this state of affairs is that it may prove difficult to achieve long-term political initiatives which require a strong central planning authority.
Undeniably, institutions with the political capacity for popular participation are growing, and fast. Much of Tunisia’s long-term political future will be determined in the coming year. If the positive momentum continues, Tunisians can reasonably hope to enjoy one of the most open and accessible political systems in a region long known for autocratic governance.