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Tunisia’s democratic transition began with widespread protests that grew into the region-wide Arab Spring in 2010-2011. Unlike other Arab countries that experienced widespread protests and regime change during the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only surviving democratic transition from that political upheaval. However, Tunisia’s democratic transition and its stability are at risk from economic stagnation fuelled by widespread corruption and security threats from terrorism.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Tunisia was ruled by a series of strongmen, most recently Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. His regime was characterised by authoritarianism that relied on persistent and widespread corruption channelled through political patronage networks to buy broad support. The Ben Ali era was also characterised by severe human rights abuses and elections in which the results were pre-determined.
Since Ben Ali’s government was toppled in 2011, the human rights situation has improved markedly, though lingering concerns remain. Several democratic elections have taken place, and each of them has been conducted broadly in accordance with democratic principles. Tunisia’s dramatic reforms represent one of the biggest turnaround stories with regards to democratic governance in the world in the last several years.
While democracy has taken root and the dictatorship has fallen, Tunisia has had a much harder time tackling corruption. For decades, Tunisia’s economy was a carefully managed political machine, powered by corrupt business dealings and an opaque political network that benefitted a small cadre of business elites at the expense of the broader public. This deep divide between the haves and have-nots is particularly stark between coastal, urban Tunisia and the interior, rural periphery. Since the 2011 revolution, the divide between richer coastal/urban areas and poorer interior/rural areas has become even more salient in national debates and it is a serious challenge for the government.
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