Economic Research Forum (ERF)

On autocracy, democracy and populism: Tunisia and the wider Arab region

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Different circumstances offer different opportunities for the emergence of populism. This column contrasts the rise of populist movements in the established democracies of the West with the uprisings against entrenched autocracies in the Arab region. While many of the latter have been reversed or sparked civil conflict, there is hope in Tunisia’s gradual transition towards consolidating a fully-fledged democracy.

In a nutshell

Populism in the Arab context cannot be viewed as a manifestation of an emerging democratic recession, as in the case of some Western countries.

While the populist uprisings in the region were against dominant autocracies, Tunisia apart, not only did they fail to turn these autocracies into liberal democracies, but in the cases of Libya, Syria and Yemen, they opened the door to brutal civil wars.

It is to be hoped that Tunisia will, in the near future, succeed in consolidating a fully-fledged democracy thereby again setting a good example, indeed a spark, for the needed democratic change in the Arab region.

Recent manifestations of populism in the West have raised concerns that it poses a threat to established democracies. In the Arab region, the assessment of populist movements needs to be viewed in a different political context – namely the general entrenchment of autocracy in the Arab countries after they achieved independence.

The significance of populism and its potential to spread could very well differ, not only from one region to another but also from one country to another within the same region. Factors that may help to explain these differences include past legacies of older populist movements; a country’s stage of economic and political development; the nature of prevailing political governance; and the evolving shape of the state-market-society nexus under the influences of globalisation.

There seems to be general agreement that populism expresses discontent with governing elites, who are held responsible for the social and economic problems facing a country. Populism, in other words, is anti-elitist and anti-institutionalist.

What populism offers as an alternative (if any) is a priori not necessarily well defined and could differ from one country to another, influenced by the particular national and regional circumstances. These include the inclusivity or exclusivity of the political system, political traditions, the role that the public sector assumes in the national economy, the major features of this economy, the prevailing geo-political environment: how peaceful or conflictual it is, as well as the intensity and frequency of international interventions.

Different circumstances offer different opportunities for the emergence of populism, its nature, and its success or failure. Hence the differing populist experiences in different countries.

The current focus on populism is linked to an observed ebb in the democratic process in Europe, the United States and other countries, and according to some writers, to the rising influences of Russia and China. The underlying reasons for this ebb vary: misguided US policies such as the 2003 US military intervention in Iraq; the financial crisis of 2008; and with increasing globalisation, a growing illiberal reaction in Europe and the United States. Of course, the persistence of major unresolved conflicts (as in the case of the Middle East) remains a major factor in helping to perpetuate non-democratic environments.

But in contrast with the rising populism in some of the democratic Western countries linked to growing illiberal attitudes, the Arab populist movements associated with the 2011 uprisings sought the dismantling of autocratic regimes. The unexpected success of mass street mobilisation in both Egypt and Tunisia acted as a spark for similar mass movements in other Arab countries.

In particular, the younger generations, frustrated and angry, spontaneously pressed – and successfully so – for the dismantling of the entrenched autocratic regimes of both countries (peacefully in Tunisia but marred with internal conflict in Egypt), including intensive use of rapidly spreading social networks. There were no designated leaders. These were anti-elitist populist movements not connected to traditional parties seeking to overthrow long-reigning dictatorial and corrupt regimes.

They reflected broad social movements that aspired for social justice and liberties, which, as some writers put it, constituted the bedrock of activism and mobilisation, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. The slogan of freedom was not really the monopoly of a tiny minority in the Arab uprisings, as some writers have claimed, although in the protesters’ order of priorities, improving living conditions might have had a greater implicit weight than say social justice or freedom.

In other words, populism in the Arab context cannot be viewed as a manifestation of an emerging democratic recession as in the case of some Western countries, in that the starting point was not an established democracy exposed to creeping authoritarianism (as in the case of Turkey).

But while the uprisings in the region were against dominant autocracies, Tunisia apart, not only did they fail to turn these autocracies into liberal democracies, but in the cases of Libya, Syria and Yemen, they opened the door to brutal civil wars. As for Egypt, it has experienced a retreat not from an established democracy, but from an autocratic order, arguably less restrictive than the one that came to prevail after 2011.

To the extent that the Tunisian uprising has led to a politically pluralist society, one may conclude that the populist movement that triggered it has proved to be a positive force for change. We submit one major factor that helped to create the conditions for a steady, though at times hesitant if not uncertain, Tunisian transition towards democracy: the role played by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT).

Thanks to its legitimacy as a militant organisation, its historical heritage and its credibility among all political groups, the UGTT was able to bring them together and lead the populist movements in support of the young Tunisian revolutionaries and the population from the poor regions.

Whatever the national political and economic challenges that Tunisia has come to face after the uprising, eight years on, it has made a constitutionally guided transition to democracy. But this transition has basically been to an electoral democracy (the Tunisian elections are a good reflection of this matter) and not to a substantive democracy characterised by a major economic and social transformation.

By contrast, the cases of the other four Arab countries that witnessed uprisings and consequent civil wars or national conflicts are a testimony to the failure, whatever the underlying reasons, of their populist movements to attain the objective of a democratic transition. It is to be hoped that Tunisia will, in the near future, succeed in consolidating a fully-fledged democracy, thereby again setting a good example, indeed a spark, for the needed democratic change in the Arab region.

Further reading

Amin, Magdi, Ragui Assaad, Nazar Al-Baharna, Kemal Dervis, Raj Desai, Navtej Dhillon, Ahmed Galal, Hafez Ghanem, Carol Graham and Daniel Kaufmann (2012) After the Spring: Economic Transitions in the Arab World, Oxford University Press.

Anderson, Lisa (2018) ‘Bread, Dignity and Social Justice: Populism in the Arab World’, Philosophy and Social Criticism 44(4): 478-90.

Boughzala, Mongi, and Saoussen Ben Romdhane (2017) ‘Tunisia: The Prospects for Democratic Consolidation’, in Democratic Transitions in the Arab World edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi, Cambridge University Press.

Devarajan, Shantayanan, and Elena Ianchovichina (2017) ‘A Broken Social Contract, Not High Inequality, led to the Arab Spring’, Review of Income and Wealth, World Bank.

El Ouardani, Hajer, and Samir Makdisi (2018) ‘Autocracy, Democracy and Populism in the Arab Region with Reference to Tunisia’, ORIENT, IV/2018 , 59. Jahrgang.

Diamond, Larry (2017) ‘When Does Populism Become a Threat to Democracy?’, paper presented at the FSI Conference on Global Populisms, Stanford University, November 3-4.

Elbadawi, Ibrahim, and Samir Makdisi (eds) (2017) Democratic Transitions in the Arab World, Cambridge University Press.

El Mikawy, Noha, Mohamed Mohieddin and Sarah El Ashmaouy (2017) ‘Egypt: The Protracted Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy and Social Justice’, in Democratic Transitions in the Arab World, edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi, Cambridge University Press.

Hadiz, Vedi, and Angelos Chryssogelos (2017) ‘Populism in World Politics: A Comparative Cross-regional Perspective’, International Political Science Review 38(4): 399-411.

Ianchovichina, Elena, Lili Mottaghi and Shantayanan Devarajan (2015) ‘Inequality, Uprisings, and Conflict in the Arab World’, World Bank.

World Bank (2014) ‘La Révolution Inachevée: Créer des opportunités, des emplois de qualité et de la richesse pour tous les Tunisiens’, Synthèse revue de politiques de développement.

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