The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five years after the revolution, more and more Tunisians support democracy

Supporters of Nidaa Tounes celebrate after the first results following the second round of the country’s first free presidential election on Dec. 21, 2014 in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Five years after the Arab uprisings, Tunisia remains the region’s best – and likely only – hope to complete a transition from authoritarian rule to a more inclusive form of government. However, amid myriad challenges, ranging from weak economic growth and unemployment to terrorist attacks and political fragmentation, many are questioning whether Tunisia’s government will survive or succumb to authoritarian retrenchment.

With such high stakes, the results of the fourth wave of the Arab Barometer in Tunisia may be cause for optimism. The nationally representative survey – conducted from Feb. 13 to March 3, 2016 – was led by the Tunis-based independent firm One to One for Research and Polling. Including 1,200 respondents randomly selected from all 24 of Tunisia’s governorates, the survey was conducted face-to-face in the respondent’s place of residence and has a margin of error of ± 3 percent.

Results reveal that Tunisians have not given up on democracy. In fact, today 86 percent of citizens say that democracy, despite its problems, remains the best system of governance – even more than the 70 percent polled shortly after the revolution.

Perhaps even more importantly, the survey shows that Tunisians are more supportive of democracy even though they recognize some of its potential limitations. At the time of the revolution, the vast majority of Tunisians had never lived under democracy, leading many to believe this political system would represent a panacea for the country’s ills. In 2011, fewer than 20 percent of citizens said that economic performance was weak in a democracy or linked democracy with political instability or indecisiveness. By contrast, five years after the revolution, nearly half or more say democracy suffers from each of these problems. In sum, Tunisians have become more supportive of democracy even as the majority have come to realize it is a less than perfect political system.

Although Tunisians remain supportive of democratic governance, they do so within a very difficult political environment. Just 15 percent rate the economy as being good and 90 percent say corruption is widespread. Given the lack of progress in improving the livelihoods of citizens over the past five years, it is unsurprising that Tunisians are increasingly losing confidence in public institutions. About a third say they trust the government and the courts, while just one-in-five has confidence in parliament. These levels are significantly lower than in previous Arab Barometer surveys in 2011 and 2013. Meanwhile, roughly a third or fewer rate the government as doing a good job tackling some of the key problems facing the country, including managing the economy, creating jobs and reducing inequality.

Political parties, an important link between citizens and their government, fare no better. Just 12 percent of Tunisians say that they trust political parties to a great or medium extent. The two largest parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, have similarly low levels of support. Moreover, two-thirds say that they do not closely identify with any existing party.

Amid all these political and economic challenges, security remains an overwhelming concern as 97 percent of Tunisians are very concerned their country will suffer more terrorist attacks and 91 percent are very fearful someone in their family is likely to face harassment or threats to their personal safety when going about their daily life.

The problems facing Tunisia are particularly acute for younger Tunisians, who are more likely to be dissatisfied with their political situation. Respondents aged 18 to 34 are 17 points less likely to trust the government than those 35 and older. Younger Tunisians are also less likely to say the government is effectively tackling corruption or that economic conditions are good and are more likely to link democratic governance with economic problems. These differences reflect the challenges the younger generation has experienced early in their adult lives, including the far higher rate of youth unemployment in Tunisia. Perhaps as a result, 55 percent of those ages 18 to 24 say they want to emigrate from Tunisia.

However, on the whole, Tunisians have not given up hope of a better future. About half still expect that economic circumstances will improve in the next three to five years. This optimism may be tied, in part, to the growing desire for better economic relations with foreign countries. Nearly two-thirds of Tunisians want economic relations with the United States to become stronger than in past, while three-quarters say the same about economic relations with the European Union.

Along with a desire for improved economic relations, views of the West have also improved in recent years. In 2016, 54 percent of Tunisians say the U.S. role in its transition has been positive or neutral, compared with 37 percent in 2013. The E.U.’s role is viewed even more positively, with 67 percent saying it has been positive or neutral in 2016 compared with 41 percent in 2013. These changing views may afford Western partners renewed opportunities to assist the ongoing transition.

Stepping back, a key question is why has support for democracy endured, including among the younger generation, despite the rocky transition? Two explanations seem likely. First, most Tunisians believe that their country is far from being fully democratic. When asked to place the level of democracy in Tunisia on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being a complete autocracy and 10 a complete democracy, the average score was exactly five. This rating represents only a marginal increase over the 4.3 rating in 2013, and underscores Tunisians’ belief that their country has a long way to go to becoming fully democratic.

A second factor is almost certainly the regional environment. Despite the challenges Tunisians have encountered since their revolution, events in other countries suggest no better way forward. Libya and Yemen, which experienced regime changes in 2011, have been plagued by civil wars. Meanwhile, Egypt’s coup in 2013, and subsequent authoritarian retrenchment, reveals the great costs of a failed transition process. Looking around their neighborhood, Tunisians appear to have taken to heart Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” As such, it is far too soon for the outside world to give up on Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer). He is a research fellow at the University of Michigan and a senior research specialist at Princeton University.