A Heartfelt Call to Save Tunisia’s Democracy
Yadh Ben Achour 11 October 2019

Right in the midst of Tunisia’s most delicate political phase since the 2011 Revolution, ResetDOC in partnership with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (CAREP) co-organized an international gathering of intellectuals and policy-makers on the question of “The resilience of democracy in a troubling economy”. The September 20th conference held in Tunis was the forum of lively debates among an array of distinguished speakers: economists Moez Soussi and Emanuele Felice; former Ambassador and President of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Ferdinando Nelli Feroci; the President of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy Radwan Masmoudi; specialized journalists and representatives from the main Tunisian political parties.

In advance of the crucial second round of Presidential elections, the most passionate intervention on the future of Tunisia’s democracy was the one given by Yadh Ben Achour: lawyer, expert on public law and Islamic political theory, professor at Collège de France and former President of the country’s Higher Political Reform Commission. In his keynote speech, Ben Achour delivered a fervent appeal to save democracy in Tunisia from its own malaise: by adjusting its structural weaknesses and distortions and, most importantly, by eradicating the scourge of poverty and popular frustration.

Following is the full transcript of Prof. Ben Achour’s powerful appeal.


Yadh Ben Achour – The resilience of Tunisia’s democracy

Keynote speech – Tunis, September 20th 2019

I was invited to speak at this very interesting debate about the resilience of Tunisian democracy. Let me say to begin that I am not particularly fond of the word resilience, because it is a word that comes from English and, to be more specific, from American: a very difficult word to translate into French and totally impossible to translate into Arabic. So, to simplify matters, I will speak about democracy’s capacity to face crises and try and predict and overcome any risks that may appear in the future.


Democracy and its critics

Democracy is a form of government that has been greatly criticized ever since it was discovered by the Greeks. We know that Plato and Aristotle both criticized the democratic system for a number of reasons, as they experienced democracy during the fourth century, B.C. Perhaps they had rather negative opinions because they accused the democratic system of being the cause of the decadence of Athens. This may be true, but one cannot be certain. What democracy has been accused of in a thousand different ways is demagogy. This is not me speaking, it is the great philosophers addressing the power of demagogy, the manipulation of opinions: something that sadly we are now, once again, experiencing here in Tunisia.

It is also said, and this is a second critique, that democracy weakens a country’s elites and encourages corruption, that the Athenian democracy was one in which corruption was rampant. It is said that democracy is the kingdom of indecision, because democracy requires patience. This because at times certain people make one feel like tearing out one’s hair while correctly stating that the dialogue must continue. Personally, I have experienced all this.

Above all, the most serious aspect is that it is said that democracy necessarily leads to despotism. It was Plato who said this, because effectively Greek democracy did, to a certain extent, lead to the dictatorship of the Thirty Tyrants, just after the Peloponese War (404 B.C.). Has such criticism been verified by history, or not? I don’t think so. I know that certain democratic experiences, including those with ancient traditions such as in Germany or Latin American countries, did lead to dictatorships. Germany had Hitler, Italy had Mussolini and therefore to a certain extent this has proved to be true. What I am interested in and would like to speak of to all the friends that are here is explaining why I defend democracy, and why I am a democrat and expect to remain so as I age and hopefully still for some time to come. It is simply because I believe democracy is the only regime worthy of humankind and of human being nature.

Why do I think that democratic rule is universal and the worthiest of humankind? It is simply because, if one considers humankind as a volume in space, including defending its life, defending its body against diseases, against physical illness, and if we consider man as a moral being, as a speaking, thinking, discerning individual, and if we consider a man, or a human being, as a social being by nature, I would say that democracy is the only regime that respects human beings nature, namely, respects the natural tendency of human beings to flee suffering, as to be deprived of his right to live, to be submitted to physical or moral prejudice, or to be deprived of his right to think, to speak, and to participate to public affairs. The democratic theory, as a whole, is entirely based on non-suffering principal. Indeed, the democratic norm recognizes physical dimension of human beings, namely the right to life and the right to physical integrity. It is also the only system of social life and of government that acknowledges humankind’s moral rights: the right to think, firstly, but also the right to express oneself, and the right to do so freely through discussions in the press and the public sphere, as well as the right to protest or to participate at a social level.


A precious gift for Tunisia

Here in Tunisia, we are experiencing a magnificent period, because we are participating, which is something we did not experience during the dictatorship. At the moment we are finding democracy tiresome, but when compared to what we experienced under the dictatorship, when we were in a state of coma, we are now instead in a state of democratic over-excitement, which I prefer. Therefore, I would like to summarize by saying that I defend democracy, because democracy, as I previously indicated, is the most natural form of government, the most universal and the most suited to the dignity of humankind. It is a principle that respects the dignity, the equality and the participation of human beings. I also believe that democracy is something far superior to experience. So even when democratic practices fail, whether in Italy, in Tunisia, in France, etc., that does not convince me that democratic norm, which is higher than historical circumstances and above them, has to be condemned because historic failures do not affect the ontological greatness of democracy. I believe that the democratic principle is an ideal that goes beyond history and beyond geography: we evaluate whether a given system is democratic or not compared to the democratic ideal, knowing that there exists no pure democratic regime on the face of the earth. There are no perfect democracies.

In my mind there is no such thing as Western democracy, African democracy, Chinese democracy, Islamic democracy, etc. There is democracy with the principle that I have spoken of and it is an ideal for humankind.


The risks that threaten Tunisia’s nascent democracy

Returning now to Tunisia, I would raise the following question: what capacity does democracy have to confront crises? I will address this issue in two different parts. Firstly, I will tell you about the risks it must confront and then address the part concerning what capability the democratic system has to resolve such crises.

First of all, allow me to tell you that in this country, democracy did not fall from the sky. Democracy was the result of a revolution. This revolution was followed by a constitution, the constitution of 2014, which is a democratic constitution and corresponds to the demands posed by the revolution. The problems posed by this new-born democracy arose from a certain number of factors. I will list them and then move on quickly to analyze them in detail.

The first problem was the un-kept promises of the revolution; the second problem consists of the deficit in the implementation of democracy in our country; and the third problem consists of the economic crisis and the degradation of social conditions.

Let us address the revolution’s un-kept promises. In this revolution, which we all experienced, it is necessary to distinguish two things, and these are the two slogans used by the revolution. Two slogans that were: dignity and freedom. As far as freedom is concerned, it came quickly. As you know, freedom is easy to acquire. It is sufficient to ensure that the dictatorship is overthrown and the next day one is free.

It is very curious, because in Tunisia on January 14th that year the press used a certain tone, and on January 15th everything had changed. Just a few days later, all photographs of the deposed president were removed and we started to experience democracy with a level of freedom, freedom of the press, freedom to hold elections etc. Tunisia became a country in which one could express oneself, perhaps with a slight excess of freedom. It became a country in which we could watch films that were previously not available in the Arab and Muslim world, so it is a country that has fully benefited from freedom. It has done so with elections held in 2011, 2014 and 2019. All this proves that conquering freedom has been a success.

The problem of dignity, however, hence social justice, because that is what dignity is, means that there is no dignity if there is vulnerability as described by a colleague who spoke just before me. This vulnerability, and poverty I would like to add – and one is right to distinguish between the two – does not guarantee real dignity. A dignified man or woman is one capable of living a life in acceptable material conditions that do not undermine their condition as human beings. Poverty or vulnerability can reach a point that results in a loss of dignity and one looks like other human beings, and I fear that to a certain extent we have lost that wager. We are now faced with a disenchanted population, it is necessary to say this, and the first round of the recent presidential elections proves it. We have a frustrated, disenchanted population and consequently, should this problem involving the economic and financial state of the country and the economic situation of citizens and society’s conditions not be resolved, we will embark upon a never-ending cycle of peaceful or violent protests, always demanding social justice. That is the first challenge, the first problem and the most important risk that democracy must address.


The second problem is the deficiency of the democratic experience. The implementation of our democracy is far from being perfect and is, in fact, lacking. And it is the deficit of the democratic system that poses a risk, the greatest risk to our democracy in addition to the un-kept problems of the revolution. Implementing a democratic form of government involves, let us say, two types of phenomena, which proves that we have not managed well the exercising of our democracy. Society is, in fact, divided. I do not want to point fingers at those responsible on this occasion, or say that such a party or another is responsible for this. I would like to say that we are all responsible. Tunisia is responsible, the Tunisians are responsible. The political parties are responsible for divisions in our society.

At an ideological level and at a social level, for example, there is a clear divide in society. We know well what the ideological division is. Our country is divided between modernists, conservatives, those who are religious or secular people. If these were ideological differences that could be resolved peacefully, it would not pose a problem. However, the problem is that these are profound divisions, serious ideological ones. Not all ideological divisions are the same. There are some that are more serious than others and here we have some divisions that could result in violence and that poses a risk.

It is a risk that our democracy must address. The division is not only ideological, but also social. Here in Tunisia we had a very strong middle class that maintained the balance. It was a very strong middle class. Middle class is not a mysterious expression. I wish to be very realistic. The middle class is made up of people who work in institutions, teachers, administrators, the police, people who, in spite of salaries that do not allow them to lead a life of luxury, can, however, have hope. And their hope is that by the end of their careers they will have a home, and as is important in our country a TV, a car, even a second-hand one, and also a minimum level of dignity.

Instead, what is it we are seeing today? We are seeing an impoverishment of the middle classes and there are economists here who can speak a thousand times better than I can on this subject. There is a malaise that is increasingly taking root, a social divide that is increasingly marked between the elites and the masses, the wealthy and the poor. This division is extremely difficult to manage, firstly because there is a lack of time and secondly because it could spark violent conflict, which is always a risk in democracy.

However, in this deficit in the implementation of democracy, in addition to the social and ideological divisions, there are also the weaknesses of the democratic system itself. These are weaknesses, or rather fragilities in the democratic system. While it is true that democracy favours demagogues, clever speakers, it is also true that democracy favours corruption and the problem is that the democratic system lacks the counter-powers to prevent these intrinsic deviations of democracy from degenerating. They must remain within acceptable limits. Unfortunately, however, these weaknesses of the democratic system – and sadly we have unintentionally cultivated these weaknesses though our lack of rigour and prevention – are often seen in our country mainly due to the poor performance of our institutions.

We have institutions in our country, we have Assemblies. First there was the Constituent Assembly, the Assembly of Representatives of the People, independent constitutional instances, the Truth Commission. In brief, we have institutions, but the problem is that these institutions work in a very difficult manner and are not performing. Allow me to make two examples, or three if you like, of the poor performance of these institutions. The first is that a democratic country, with a representative assembly, has not had the capability to create a Constitutional Court that is an essential institution for the balance of our democratic system. Elections for such a council have been cancelled, time after time, and here we are, five years after the creation of the constitution, and we still don’t have a constitutional court. And yet, such a court is extremely important. Another example is the amendment of the electoral law, which is totally legitimate. It is normal for a democracy to know how to defend itself. It defends itself against financial gains, dictatorship and those who praise dictatorship and candidates who wish to take advantage of newspapers or a TV channel, for example.

Democracy should even defend itself from charitable organizations, and I agree that legitimate ones are very useful, but not when they run in presidential elections. So I am in agreement with the law in stating that the problem has been badly managed. The law is a legitimate one, but you know as well as I do in what conditions it has been catastrophically and almost irresponsibly managed. This is not acceptable. In 2015 a report was sent by the Independent High Authority for Elections to the Assembly of Representatives of the People to draw attention of the deficiencies of the electoral law, so it could have been changed in time and it wasn’t. The government proposed the amendment to the electoral law a number of months ago. Why did they wait for an opinion poll? Who are we governed by? Where is the Independent High Authority for Elections? The Independent High Authority for Elections presented its report in 2015 and the government registered its report a few months ago. So it would have been enough if the opinion poll had been published in June, seeing which candidate led this opinion poll, for the government to vote the law, a law that is perfectly legitimate. But it was managed in such difficult conditions that it was modified in its substance. One does not know if the President of the Republic wanted to sign this law or not. In the end, the law was not voted on. More bad management.


A call to save Tunisian democracy

There is one of the candidates who has had issues pending since 2016, 2017 and 2018 and even 2019, hence two and a half years. His affairs could have been dealt with before the election campaign, or after the election campaign, but not during it. I agreed that the judges need to deal with their own affairs, but who assumes political responsibility? Judges do not have political responsibility. They do not answer to the nation and then just when there was an election, the judges changed, so that would be the equivalent of me playing chess with you and changing the rules of the game after two moves!

This law changed the rules of the election and, even worse, one of the candidates leading in this election chose to run in the election campaign, and is currently under investigation. Personally, I wish to add that I did not vote for this candidate, but according to my own taste and ideological choices, my political choices, in the best interests of our country, I will always choose the good of the country. Now the good of the country demands that the second round of these presidential elections be held in conditions of no discrimination. This is recognized by Tunisian law and, above all, by international law. I do not wish to warn you about which politicians may be responsible. I have great respect for them, but I wish to tell them to be careful. If there were to be issues, this entire presidential election would be questioned, both at a national and at an international level. This because any violation of the principle of equality between all candidates, in any election, is a fundamental principle of international law. This is acknowledged by International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 25). Tunisia is a member and has signed the agreement and we have no interest in playing games with this. I am a citizen and I can see there are some politicians here. Allow me to speak in all honestly. I wish to say to them: sort this out. Judicial authorities, presidential authorities, legislative authorities, sort this out!

This matter needs to be regulated because it is in the higher interest of our nation to experience a second round of presidential elections in conditions that do not undermine the validity of these very elections. And if matters continue as they stand, with a candidate that is under arrest, and I am not in favour of this candidate, but only defending principles, you risk undermining the whole election at a national and an international level. This matter requires attention.[1]

Why am I posing you these two questions? Because these problems could have been avoided. Maybe we are lacking a head of state, or a leader, willing to deal with these matters. This matches the weakening of the state. When I talk to politicians, I see that they say, “Oh, but we can’t intervene, because, if one does, it looks like an attack on judicial power.” If you discuss matters with the judicial branch, they will tell you they base their decisions on the law. In brief, what kind of a way is this of managing problems? I believe that we are facing real issues. I don’t wish to alarm you excessively, ladies and gentlemen, however, but I do wish to raise the alarm regarding these problems, which must be solved in order to save these elections.


The roots of national fragility

So I was speaking to you about the maladies and the deficiencies of the democratic system. I would like to add to these problems the responsibilities of the institutions: the judicial system, the government. Do you believe that division is a good thing? We have seen divisions even within the executive branch. I do not wish to name names. However, we have seen anomalies. I remember, when discussing these elections, telling our representatives of the Constituent Assembly to be careful. One cannot go from one excess to another: just because we are afraid of dictatorships, one cannot break the state. So they must supervise the methods used and keep the executive united, both following the lead of the President of the Republic and the prime minister.

As far as the economic crisis is concerned, I will be brief as I have nothing to add to what my colleagues have already said. Everything has been explained very clearly about the economic crisis, the degradation of society, strikes and other issues that have led to emigration. We have doctors who have left by the thousands, engineers, IT specialists. Why have they left? Because they have no opportunities in this country. One cannot force them to remain. Life moves at two speeds. The life of public services moves at two speeds. When I was young, the state hospital was a place one went without experiencing problems. Appointments were kept on time. The doctors were competent. Surgeons were competent. Nowadays there is such a lack of balance, such a deficit in public financing that we have two health systems. Those who can afford it pay for private healthcare, those who cannot use state healthcare and discover that unfortunately national healthcare hospitals are managed in a disgraceful way, and the same applies to education. That is a very serious problem. Once again it is a two-speed system. Then there is also a rise in the cost of living. I will not linger on the economic situation, since everyone is very well aware of it.


Populism or reform: the path ahead for Tunisia

There are also other problems, very serious ones; the uncontrollable behaviour of political parties. I made this remark answering someone who had asked what my opinion was and he was not satisfied with my answer, so he said “two hundred parties battling for positions”. It is an excess, and I know it is an excess. There is a problem in the regulation of political parties and our politicians must restrict this uncontrolled game played by them as an electoral technique: we need rationalized competition. We cannot abolish all political parties, but we can rationalize the manner in which they behave. Then there is also the problem involving corruption, which is very important, very significant and what we have done is democratize corruption. There is also the problem of social anarchy, another deficiency in our democratic system. Social anarchy and the weakness of the state go hand-in-hand. The city I saw ten or fifteen years ago is unrecognizable. This is not urbanization, it is anarchy; unrestrained construction where once upon a time there was a very beautiful city. There is the problem of waste removal. Tunisia, after the revolution, has remained a dirty nation that does not know how to manage these problems. How is it that in Rwanda they have managed to regulate this? They have found solutions. One must invent solutions to be applied against those who pollute, against the irresponsible managers. One needs to use one’s imagination to resolve these societal problems that, unfortunately, affect our society, especially as far as our cities and the transport sector are concerned.

So where are we going? I see two paths to the future. Either the route of populism, which we are currently experiencing now to a certain extent, or else the rationalization of the parliamentary regime and that of our constitution. I will tell you immediately that the path of populism is already blocked in a country such as Tunisia. If one looks at the recent elections held on September 15th, turnout amounted to 45%, it was very weak and the best candidate obtained, more or less, 18% of the vote. So which part of the population voted, and who did they vote for? They voted, but many showed no interest because they do not believe in it any more. They have lost faith. In order to work, a democratic regime needs faith, but now there is a lack of interest. There is a rise in the conservative forces. It frightens me a little to explain how these conservative forces work, without naming names in this venue.

On this basis, I really fear for my country, the future of which does not look very optimistic. I am told this is populism, but as I wrote recently, populism itself is the strict application of democracy itself. One must return to the people and, more specifically, to the majority of voters. Is that not a democratic process? So why condemn populism? I condemn populism, because of everything I have said so far. With such slogans one can throw the country into violence. I am speaking, if you like, in the name of détente. If I criticize populism it is not as a matter of principle, because I believe populism is one of democracy’s legitimate and acceptable aspects. In what does the danger of populism lie? It is in its deviations. It is the extreme aspects of populisms that are dangerous. I mean, if the game of populism is not controlled, it can result in a conservative regression, or even in some kind of fascism. The great democracies, dating back to before World War Two, experienced this kind of deviation. The greatest countries: Germany, Italy, one of the countries historically most important. It was Italy, Rome, that created Europe, it was Roman culture and Roman law, the Church. Those were the two countries that experienced the deviations of populism and one should not find oneself in such a situation, and I hope we will not find ourselves in such a situation of violence and the rejection of others.

The second path seems to me invincible and involves the rationalization of our Constitution. The Tunisian Constitution is a magnificent one, as far as the principles in it are concerned. I have always said so; I took part in drafting it. It is magnificent in its principles and has a generous philosophy, a democratic philosophy an open philosophy, with articles such as Number 6, or 49, recognizing freedom of conscience, the only Arab country that recognizes freedom of conscience. There are many good principles in this Constitution, but unfortunately it is badly implemented at an institutional level. It is a game played by institutions. They are too complex, they divide power and consequently I believe that the best future for us would be to revise the constitution in order to rebalance, firstly to simplify it, rationalize parliament so as to unite the executive and avoid crises of the executive such as those we have experienced not long ago, or between the head of government and the President of the Republic, so as to also rationalize partisan positions through an electoral law or another specific law concerning political parties.



Finally, let me underline two most important remarks. Firstly, we must tackle the most urgent issue: re-establishing social and economic balance. Secondly, re-establishing the state’s authority. In a democracy the state must be strong. It cannot be weak.

I would like to conclude by saying that we are in a very paradoxical situation. We apply the democratic system. This same system causes us to experience crises, social crises, political crises, gaps caused by the lack of efficient institutions, and we insist on asking this same democratic system to resolve the problem. It is a contradiction in terms. One cannot ask a regime that is, to a certain extent, responsible for the problems to come and sort out the difficulties we are experiencing. That’s why I wish to point out that the democratic system is not a miracle. We are speaking of resilience of the democratic regime in Tunisia. I would like to remind you that a democratic regime is not a miracle and, if problems accumulate, it will eventually collapse. It is the law of history, one can do nothing about it. The democratic state will end up falling into anarchy and return us to a dictatorship. We must thus pay great attention to this and help democracy. It is not democracy that must help us. It is we, we the citizens, who must help democracy to work better, without expecting miracles, because political miracles do not exist.


[1] The candidate in question was released from custody on October 9, 2019: see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49991530 for more information.



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