The Tunisian Presidential Election: Five Questions with Professor Alfred Stepan

December 19, 2014

Tunisian electors waiting to vote in the October 2014 elections. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alfred Stepan has been called the democracy whisperer. As the Wallace Sayre Professor of Government, he’s been watching, advising and studying government and democracy for over 40 years. He has done field research and written about more than 15 attempts at democratic transition, including relatively successful attempts in Brazil, Chile, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, India, Indonesia and Senegal. Stepan just returned from his sixth visit to Tunisia with a field report on the development of democracy building there. Tunisia held its run-off presidential election on December 21 and elected Beji Caid Essebsi in what may be the country's first peaceful transfer of power following the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.

Stepan began his career as a journalist and got his first big scoop by accurately predicting a 1964 coup in Brazil as a foreign correspondent for The Economist—a prediction the magazine declined to print until after it happened. He became a professor in 1970.

Q: Given the continuing upheaval in the Middle East, why has Tunisia been more successful than other countries in transitioning to a democracy?

It is the only country in the area where key groups, who deeply distrusted each other, met regularly in the decade before the Arab Spring. Their mission? To see if they hated each other less than they hated the former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And if so, could they possibly jointly oppose Ben Ali, and if he fell, work together to create a democracy.

Tunisia’s experience with compromise helped them transcend a crisis created by two unsolved assassinations, a constitutional deadlock, the July 3, 2013 Egyptian coup with its Tunisian copycats, and cries for the freely elected Constituent Assembly to step down. Amazingly, the president of the Constituent Assembly was able to get all the parties –big and small – to have one representative each on a “Consensus Committee,” and four major civil society organizations created a “National Dialogue.”

Q: Where does religion come into this transition?

Almost everywhere. For example, the word for secularism in Arabic has an anti-religious connotation. However, if the majority of the population is friendly toward religion (as in democratic India, Indonesia, and the United States) it would not have been democratically useful to have argued, as some secularists did in Tunisia, that to be democratic and modern you must adopt a form of religiously unfriendly secularism. So, they came up with a different word for secularism: “civic state, which, for one thing, means that the state is not a “religious state.” But it means more. To embrace a “civic state” builds in a positive value for democratic action.

Q: How does unrest created by ISIS figure into the stability in this region and therefore the country and its democratization?

A few thousand young Tunisian jihadists have flown from Tunis to Istanbul to get into Syria. Fortunately, for almost a year this route has been checked largely by a new Tunisian government requirement that men under 21 need written permission from their father to fly that route. But Tunisia also has a long, porous border with the virtually failed state of Libya. Just over this border there is a combat training camp run by ISIS affiliates and transportation to Turkey. Crafting greater security measures, but with enhanced democratic controls, is an urgent task.

Q: What has been the role of the media in Tunisia’s transition to democracy?

Social media played a major role in sparking the revolt against Ben Ali. But the majority of the old and still existing media was co-opted by the former president. Many of them had built their careers by helping to create Ben Ali’s “constituency for coercion.” Again and again, they stressed that Tunisia had one of the most progressive laws concerning women of any country in the world. This was correct, but they also argued that any elections would be won by undemocratic Islamists, who would reverse all modernizing reforms, so better not to risk elections. I have covered 17 transitions and nowhere has there been less support by the media for the transition.

Q: What is at stake in the future for Tunisia?

Tunisia, with its two free and fair elections in 2011 and 2014, peaceful alternation of power in 2014, and Ennahda, a Muslim party that for 25 years has become increasingly democratic and pro-women’s rights, has by far the best chance of any Arab country to become a democracy. I hope that whoever wins the second round of presidential elections on December 21, 2014 will build on this promising foundation.

— Interviewed by Sabrina Buckwalter (@sabrina2997)