Happy Independence Day, Tunisia

March 20th is Independence Day in Tunisia, the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring and therefore a model for other countries in the region. It is also less than two weeks after an ISIS attack on Ben Gardane, a town on Tunisia’s border with Libya — the fourth such attack in the country in just over a year, bringing the cumulative death toll to 91, excluding the attackers. Tunisians form the largest national contingent of ISIS recruits. Coalescing on the Libyan side of the border, they represent a serious challenge to the fledgling democracy.

Yet little is known about Tunisians’ attitudes toward democracy. To shed light on this issue, University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym and Western University sociologist Robert Andersen conducted a SSHRC-funded nationally representative poll of 1,580 Tunisian adults in late February and early March 2015. The results of the survey have just been published in International Sociology, the flagship journal of the International Sociological Association. Their main findings:

  • Most of the country’s citizens are ambivalent about the Arab Spring’s benefits or believe that it was harmful.
  • Support for democracy and freedom of speech has weakened since the Arab Spring.
  • Increased support for women’s rights is key to consolidating democracy in Tunisia. Most analysts agree that Tunisia is the most progressive Arab country when it comes to upholding women’s rights. However, popular support for women’s rights is weak in Tunisia compared to such support in Indonesia, a non-Arab, Muslim-majority country at a similar level of economic development.
  • In Tunisia, support for democracy is not associated with gender but it increases significantly with age and education and is stronger in small towns than in big cities.

Recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia have led to crackdowns on Islamist groups, new restrictions on various democratic freedoms, and growing skepticism among Tunisians about the benefits of democracy. Just how deep the reaction will be and how long it will persist is unclear. It is evident, however, that the reaction represents another hurdle that Tunisian democracy will struggle to overcome. The door on democracy remains ajar in Tunisia but it will take much effort over many years to push it wide open and keep it in that position.