Tunisia: Making the difficult transition from autocracy to democratic rule
By Brenda Morrison
We’ve all read about or seen images depicting the act of defiance by Boston Patriots as they dumped British tea in the Boston Harbor, or read the Federalist Papers written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay to convince states to ratify the Constitution that would govern this new country. While those events lead to the formation and foundation of the United States of America, to most of us it’s history – a subject to study in school. That’s it.
But history is being made now in Tunisia. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Tunisia with the Financial Services Volunteer Corp (FSVC) and my Colorado State University Futures Center colleague, Phyllis Resnick, to work with individuals who are replicating the work of our founders today: transitioning Tunisia from an autocracy to a democracy.
You may recall that Tunisia in early 2011 was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East. When Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, the protest movement seemed capable of bringing about a more democratic Middle East. But since then, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have been racked by instability, and only Tunisia has emerged as a more secular and democratic country. For example, Essebsi won the first presidential election under a new constitution in December.
In our FSVC work in Tunisia, it was clear these current democratic pioneers are drinking from a firehose trying to learn and implement the best governmental practices all at once including the budget principles established by the International Budget Partnership’sOpen Budget Initiative. These practices include priority based budgeting, transparency, citizens’ budgets, participatory budgeting and more. The Tunisians asked pointed and provocative questions like: How do you balance citizen participation programs such as participatory budgeting with representative democracy? We give insight and explained the many nuances of these practices.
Right now, municipalities in Tunisia do not collect local taxes. All revenue is distributed by the central government. And currently, there are no elected municipal officials to oversee local government. All are appointed. However, this is about to change. In 2016, Tunisia will hold its first round of local elections, and while some of the participants admitted to being anxious about this change, most expressed pride in what their country has already achieved and will achieve.
An afterthought: I wrote this blog about four weeks after the terrorist attack in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. I am saddened by the recent terrorist attack that took place on the beach in Sousse.
The Tunisians I interacted with throughout our visit are committed to building a free and democratic Tunisia. Despite these immense challenges and tragedies, there is resilience and optimism. In the words of my Tunisian colleague FSVC Program Director Mourad Baly: “Very sad and disheartening, but … we will be fine!”