Arab Spring or More of the Same? Participatory Governance in Tunisia

10 September 2014

Tunisia’s revolution is often cited as the first in the series of regional uprisings known as the “Arab Spring.” Dissatisfaction with public services, oppressed civic engagement and structural inequalities served as the catalyst for a wave of civil protests and violent clashes throughout Tunisia. And with little opportunity to voice their discontent, Tunisians took to the streets, media outlets and social networks openly calling for change. But the civil protests, rallies and media campaigns were not unique to Tunisia. Citizens across the Arab Region showed civil resistance in similar ways, demanding regime change, democracy and human rights. However, the current political landscape and level of civic participation is so disparate when one compares Tunisia to other Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Yemen, that it warrants deeper exploration.

Why Tunisia’s Success?

The mere presence of civil uprising was not the sole driving force that brought Tunisia to its current state. After traveling to Tunisia to conduct key informant interviews about civic participation, I propose that it is citizen participation in governance that has sustained the momentum of the Arab Spring and fostered revolutionary change in Tunisia. And participatory governance in Tunisia was orchestrated by civil society organizations (CSOs) in very specific ways.

Firstly, Tunisia ousted a political regime through solidarity. Tunisia was the first country in the region to dissolve the ruling party, redistribute power and institute structural changes that opened the political space for civil society. Tunisian CSOs served as the linkage between diverse groups of citizens, unifying them around similar oppositional concerns of governance. The strong presence and collaborative nature of Tunisia’s CSOs, from the beginning of the Arab Spring, allowed them to elevate the demands of citizens in an unparalleled display of solidarity.

Secondly, under the new political regime, Tunisia made revolutionary changes that opened up political space for CSOs and citizens alike. The creation of a robust representative Tunisian parliament allowed for the loosening of the longstanding legal restrictions on civil society, allowing CSOs to actively participate in governance issues. In addition to a new legal framework, targeted investment, institutional reforms and capacity building of CSOs allowed for the use of diverse accountability mechanisms and new social channels for civic participation. One example of a CSO developing new engagement channels is Al Bawsala’s constitutional process watchdog project. During the drafting of the constitution from 2011-2014, Al Bawsala monitored the process and publicly reported on the activities of each of the more than 200 members of parliament (MPs). They established a website to publicize biographies, voting records and absenteeism records of each MP, and found that both citizens and the MPs were responsive to this type of open accountability platform.

This type of innovative and strategic use of civic participation and accountability mechanisms by CSOs in Tunisia has lead to an increase in resources and political space for civil societies to flourish. This created a positive feedback loop leading to an influx of international support that has allowed for continued growth and autonomy for CSOs working on governance issues.

Thirdly, Tunisia was primed for change. A relatively small revolutionary stimulus quickly ignited an entire nation in support of widespread regime change. Emboldened citizens were ready to take action, and CSOs worked quickly to adapt or create new channels for citizens to engage. The participation and civil society activism from youth energized and sustained the momentum for change. Young Tunisians successfully leveraged technology and media to increase access to information, creating a social movement around online platforms for public accountability.  Again I use Al Bawsala as an example of the role of technology and access to information in accountability with their launch of in July 2014. The site lists each municipality’s human resources, projects, budgets, demographics, access to electricity, education (number of schools, students per classroom), and more. It also rates the municipalities on their level of public transparency. The website is a critical resource for citizens and civil society to monitor local budgets, projects, and human resources. This sets the tone for the decentralization of public services and establishing of the citizen’s role in public service delivery.

Lessons for the Arab Region and Beyond

Despite a past of political hierarchy and oppression, Tunisian citizens demanded change, sought information, and strategically leveraged CSOs. CSOs like Al Bawsala and many others are making important contributions by using technology to create public accountability and provide citizens with access to information. CSOs were able to elevate civic participation, enabling them to sustain momentum from the Arab Spring and make remarkable progress towards democratic development.  The state’s role in opening space for CSOs to create new channels for participation and accountability ensures that centralized governmental power cannot revert back to the historic status quo. CSOs are the critical linkage between the state and groups of citizens, unifying and elevating the needs of constituents and working with the state to be responsive.

Tunisia is an important example for the rest of the region. The country made prompt legal reforms to support the functioning of CSOs.  With greater political space, CSOs served as the linchpin in the political and institutional transition of Tunisia. With legal, informational, and organizational structures in support, change can happen and it can sustain.