Wedged between Libya and Algeria, the North African republic of Tunisia is easy to overlook. But its small size, in terms of both area and population, and its low profile in regional affairs belie Tunisia's importance. As a Mediterranean country with deep economic ties to Europe and a stake in transnational security issues, Tunisia plays a critical role in the global order. And its significance in the Arab world is no less substantial.
On Jan. 14, 2011, Tunisia became the first country to overthrow its government in what soon became known as the Arab Spring. Sunday marks the seventh anniversary of the momentous event, and as the date approached this year, Tunisians took to the streets once again, this time to protest austerity measures. The latest wave of unrest in the country — hardly the first since 2011 — is unlikely to upend Tunisia's fragile government. It does, however, underscore the power Tunisian citizens have come to wield in their political system, highlighting the difference between Tunisia's government and those of other countries in the region.
Since the raucous protests of 2011 forced longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office, Tunisia's political system has become a unique example in the Middle East and North Africa. The country's major political stakeholders came together in the wake of the upheaval to write a constitution that would empower Tunisian citizens. Voters have since elected lawmakers to represent them in parliament: the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, a legislative body with more political power than any other legislature in North Africa. Today, the Tunisian government is under the control neither of its military, as are the Egyptian and Algerian governments, nor of a single family, as are the Moroccan and Saudi governments. Instead, Tunisia today boasts a civilian-led government that includes Islamist and secular parties alike. The country's president, prime minister and parliament share power equally, and Tunisian citizens are unusually active in civil society organizations and labor unions, a product of Ben Ali's reign. Furthermore, the country's government, though new, is more unified than many of its counterparts in the region — such as those in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen.
But that doesn't mean Tunisia or its government is stable.
Despite the strides it has made toward establishing a new democratic system, Tunisia faces enormous challenges. Transnational security threats, including jihadist militant groups, illegal migration and smuggling, plague the country. It also suffers from severe structural economic problems. Tunisia's staggering public wage bill, underdeveloped financial and labor markets, high unemployment rate, enduring corruption, and endless bureaucracy all hamper economic growth. Each time the government has tried to address these issues over the past several years, it has run up against the country's nascent democracy: Debate in the popularly elected legislature, whose members represent an array of interests, has stalled economic reforms and budget proposals. And now that the government has enacted austerity measures to try to improve its economic straits (and satisfy the International Monetary Fund's conditions for funding), its empowered public is expressing its discontent through large protests throughout the country — a common occurrence since the Arab Spring.
The characteristics that set it apart in the Middle East and North Africa are at once a help and a hindrance for Tunisia's government. The country, for example, is the only Muslim, Arab republic to allow an Islamist party — Ennahda, which along with the secular Nidaa Tounes party leads the ruling coalition — to play an active role in governing. By including Islamist groups in the political system, rather than shutting them out as a threat, Tunisia's leaders have enabled Tunisians to elect a government more representative of their interests. (The country, after all, is home to a mostly Sunni population with both conservative values and a legacy of secularism from decades under French colonial rule.) On the other hand, it creates tension in the government that periodically manifests — like when the visiting Turkish president flashed an Islamist hand gesture in December and set secular politicians reeling, along with the free and active Tunisian press.
In the years ahead, the tension between the Islamist and secular camps in Tunisian politics will be just one in a slew of struggles to play out in the country. Tunisia's government will also face the question whether to keep power centralized in the hands of a few or to devolve power to regional and local governments, in keeping with the public's demands. The country's first-ever municipal elections, slated for May, will represent a first step toward federalism. At the same time, the fierce debate will continue between economic liberals and conservatives with diverging ideas on how to reform the country's broken economy.
Tunisians have strong and varied feelings about each of these issues. And since the Arab Spring opened a Pandora's box of dissent across the region, they know the government can no longer keep them out of the conversation. The balance between Tunisia's various political stakeholders is poised to shift substantially in the coming years. But the country's political system has evolved to withstand those shifts — another factor that makes it unique.