Tunisia shows that democracy will struggle if it can’t deliver prosperity

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Implicit in US and western support for pro-democracy movements and transitions around the world is an assumption that, given a free choice, a system of elected, representative government is what people will always naturally prefer. But what if this assumption is wrong? What if a majority believes democracy doesn’t work for them?

Emerging testimony from Tunisia, the latest country to face a crisis over how it is run, suggests many citizens welcomed the forceful suspension of a democratically elected parliament that had failed to address people’s problems and was widely reviled as a self-serving oligarchy.
Mohammed Ali, 33, from Ben Guerdane, seems to typify this view. “I think what happened is good. I think that’s what all the people want,” he told the Guardian after last week’s surprise move by Kais Saied, Tunisia’s president, to seize power and impose a state of emergency. Local politicians and western critics called it a coup.

Ali supported the 2010-2011 uprising to overthrow Tunisia’s former dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which sparked a series of pro-democracy revolutions known as the Arab spring. But a decade of disillusionment has followed that heady moment, suggested Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations – and opinion has shifted.

“Many Tunisians – or at least the ones in the streets in the last few days – seem to have a more ambivalent relationship with democracy. They seem to want a more effective state that can deliver jobs and a social safety net regardless of the character of the political system,” Cook wrote.

Although the quest for a more just, democratic society continued, “it is possible that after a decade in which Tunisians enjoyed greater personal freedoms, the lack of prosperity has made a potentially significant number of them more willing to give some version of authoritarianism another try”, he added.

That’s a deeply uncomfortable, unfashionable thought for western proponents of global democracy who fixate on big ideas about peace, values and fundamental rights. Yet democratic transitions often trip up over more mundane issues – economic distress, inequality, lack of opportunity, poor education, insecurity.

“We had tremendous progress on the freedom front and the political front despite all the crises,” Fadhel Kaboub, a Tunisian economics professor, told the New York Times. “But what you have kept almost intact is the exact same economic development model that produced inequality, the debt crisis, the social economic exclusion that the population rebelled against.”

This points to another common failing. Like the democratic uprisings in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Tunisia’s revolution did not receive wholehearted (or any) support from western countries more concerned about Islamist terrorism and instability than the aspirations of the Arab street. To some extent it’s happening again in Lebanon now.

Such familiar, pusillanimous behaviour by western governments gives democracy a bad name. Citizens of Hong Kong, Myanmar and Belarus, where pro-democracy movements were brutally crushed in the past year, may justifiably wonder: if the west will not fight for democracy, then perhaps it’s not worth the trouble.

As Britons also know to their cost, democracy often doesn’t function smoothly even in its heartlands

This kind of thinking delights authoritarians everywhere. President Xi Jinping assumed dictatorial powers without ever asking China’s people for their opinion, let alone their vote. Perhaps they don’t care. Reviewing Bruce Dickson’s new book, The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century, China scholar Ian Johnson says state repression only partly explains a lack of overt opposition.

“At least as important is the fact that – according to surveys and anecdotal evidence – a huge proportion of the Chinese people appear to be fairly satisfied with how the CCP runs their country,” Johnson wrote, citing Dickson’s research. “Many critics might wish this weren’t so – but then how to explain why dissidents have so little following?”

Dickson suggests most Chinese define democracy – minzhu in Chinese – in terms not of elections or personal liberty but of outcomes serving the people’s interest. By such measures, Xi is arguably doing OK. Similarly, President Vladimir Putin’s readiness to ostentatiously champion Russia and Russians may help explain his consistently high approval ratings – despite his lack of true democratic legitimacy.

The broad message from around the world appears to be that if people are kept safe, fed, housed and in work by authoritarian or illiberal regimes, they may be prepared to forego the relative “luxury” of high-end, western-style democracy. It’s also plain that autocrats who deny freedom in exchange for security often fail to deliver both. Look at North Korea or even Turkey.

Put another way, political liberty in the modern era, like everything else, is transactional – no longer a universal principle expounded by Enlightenment philosophers and founding fathers but a tacky trade-off. For vote-suppressing, ballot-fiddling US Republicans who last week tried to wreck an inquiry into Donald Trump’s abortive 6 January coup, democracy is just fine – if it produces the “right” results.

Related: The Arab spring wasn't in vain. Next time will be different | Nesrine Malik

Given the Republicans’ terrible example, small wonder that democracy, as a governing system, is in trouble worldwide. Last year, an Economist survey found that fewer than 8.4% of the world’s population live in a full democracy and more than a third under authoritarian rule. And it’s getting worse.

As Britons also know to their cost, democracy often doesn’t function smoothly even in its heartlands. This grim situation has not come about by chance or thanks to a bully-nouveau vintage year for despots and tyrants. It’s a product of public apathy and connivance, global inequality and ubiquitous political malpractice.

If President Joe Biden is serious about turning back the authoritarian tide, the US and Europe must do more to convince Tunisians, among others, that economic prosperity and security, and collective and individual democratic rights, are not incompatible but mutually reinforcing. They can have both – and they’re worth fighting for.

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