Why her success at democratisation is a result of the absence of foreign interference in her politics
THE LAST WORLD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week Tunisians voted in the second parliamentary elections since the 2011 Arab Spring. Over 15,000 candidates vied for the 217 parliamentary seats. There was very low voter turnout for these elections, which “experts” say is because people have lost hope in elections. The economic situation in the country is worse than under the government of Ahmed Ben Ali, the long serving president, whom Tunisians overthrew in January 2011. The elections have been held against the backdrop of high inflation and unemployment, the problems the revolution sought to cure.
Yet in spite of these problems, Tunisia still offers hope. It was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Today it is the only country where the Arab Spring did not degenerate into civil war or revert to military rule. It has a functioning democratic system, in spite of its many challenges. No political party has capacity to secure a majority in parliament; so governments can only be formed through coalitions. This denies the country opportunities for a strong government to deal decisively with its problems but limits the risk of winner-take-all politics and their attendant problems.
The other countries in the Arab Spring – Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya – have faired badly. The last three degenerated into state collapse and have not recovered since. Indeed, in Yemen and Libya, the state and economy have totally collapsed and warlords control these nations, supported by foreign interests. Life reflects Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature: “nasty, brutish and short.” Syria was saved from a similar fate by the intervention of Russia, which sought to prop the state. All these three were not client states of the USA, and that may explain their misery.
Egypt, a client state of the USA, was saved and I think perhaps because of its strategic importance to America in the Middle East. After toying with democracy, which threatened to lead to an Islamic theocracy, it reverted (with American acquiescence) to military rule. So today the hopes of the Arab Spring have turned into tragedies. The fact that Tunisia did not go this way and is sustaining a functioning democracy is an important reference point for our analysis of democratic development in the Middle East and elsewhere.
I have always been skeptical about foreign assistance whether it is given in form of money, technical expertise, weapons, ideas, lectures and whatever other guises it may dress itself. This is especially so when such assistance plays a decisive role in the destiny of a country. If it were done via arms-length interactions where the main struggle is led and controlled by domestic forces – in personnel, aspirations and ideas – it would be productive. But where foreign assistance is the central fulcrum through which a struggle – whether social or economic – is conducted, it produces disaster.
The revolution in Tunisia took the high priests of democracy in the Western World by surprise. They woke up one morning only to find a long serving president had been toppled by a popular uprising and had escaped to another country. Unfortunately for the high priests of democracy and fortunately for Tunisians, outsiders could not claim to have saved the people of Tunisia from tyranny. This left the national politicians a lot of legroom to negotiate the future of their country without dictates from abroad. The result has been a functioning, even though chaotic, democracy.
When similar revolutions erupted in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, the high priests of democracy hijacked the struggle.
Then U.S. president Barrack Obama forced Hosni Mubarrak of Egypt to resign. In Libya, the U.S. supported the British and the French militarily to remove Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, protests degenerated into civil war. America financed terrorist organisations to remove President Bashir Al Asaad. The country degenerated into civil war and the worst refugee crisis. Yemen followed a similar trajectory as the high priests of democracy sought to take control.
Why does foreign assistance/interference undermine democratic development? Democracy is built on negotiations and compromise. Therefore outcomes cannot be determined in advance – by setting a blueprint of what ought to be the result based on a theory in a textbook. A theory can give an idea of where a country wants to go. But the functioning of democracy requires that the contending forces in the country at a particular period in time find accommodation with each other. In such negotiations tradeoffs, concessions and compromises are the building blocks of success.
No country demonstrates this better than the USA. When it was founded in 1781 and given its current constitution in 1789, it faced this challenge. Many of its founders believe in equality and wanted slavery ended. But other social forces benefiting from slavery wanted it to remain. A compromise was reached that allowed the union to be formed and become functional. On nearly everything – to grant poor white men the vote and later to women and blacks, or to accept gay marriage and abortion etc., Americans have had to negotiate and to compromise among themselves.
Yet this lesson is lost to Americans when promoting similar ideals abroad. Today Americans believe that once they have reached a particular outcome, other nations should follow her example and adopt reform within a week. This denies these nations politics. Tunisia is succeeding because its nationals have sufficient independence to make the necessary bargains, give critical concessions and negotiate the necessary compromises. Islamist political parties today play an important role in the democratic politics of Tunisia without the country becoming a theocracy.
The lesson we draw from the Arab spring turned winter is that democracy is actually a citizen effort. Foreign interference, however well intentioned, is likely to create more problems than it seeks to solve. This is because powerful foreigners create incentives that negatively impact on national politicians. Realising that they have the U.S. and the EU behind them, local politicians find it more politically profitable to grandstand, and project themselves as the champions of democracy demanded by Washington, Paris, London and Brussels. Thus, instead of compromising to accommodate domestic realities, they make unrealistic demands based largely on a textbook prescription of democracy. The result is often stalemate.
This way, foreign involvement makes it difficult to make the hard decisions of compromise. National politicians enter the arena to please foreigners, thereby making politics a contest of who is a “pure democrat”. But this pushes domestic realities to the backseat thereby undermining the construction of a shared understanding. The lesson is that democracy only works when the driving force are citizens.