In the modern history of the Middle East, freedom has been scarce. With the advent of democracy in Tunisia, however, there is a new example by which the Arab world may follow.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report for 2015, released last week, gave Tunisia a “free” rating, the first time it has done so for any Arab country in four decades. The last was Lebanon, prior to its civil war.
Tunisia’s new “free” rating comes from a jump in its political rights score, which measures electoral processes, political participation, and functioning of government.
The other half of Tunisia’s freedom rating, the civil liberties score, did not budge. Tunisia’s civil liberties score puts it equal to Mexico, India, and Ukraine concerning freedom of expression, associational rights, individual rights, and rule of law.
For Tunisia’s political rights to have increased from the very worst possible ranking in 2011 to the best possible ranking in 2015 shows commendable strength and effort on the part of Tunisian lawmakers and the groups that helped them along the way. However, the comparatively slow change in civil liberties in the same time period poses a threat to Tunisia’s future as a free country.
In the past four years, Tunisia has seen the victory of Islamist party Ennahda, followed by the voluntaryresignation of that party two years later amidst political crisis. It witnessed the signing of a constitution praised for its compromise between secular and Islamist values and its progressive focus on human rights. Tunisians recently voted in a secular-majority parliament, and elected a president seen by many as a father figure of the country.
Tunisia has also experienced political assassinations, uncovered domestic terrorist plots, and failed to make significant economic progress. Police brutality continues as Tunisia struggles to fight terrorism while respecting the rule of law. Police officers themselves are victims of attacks, weakening the country’s security. Arrests violating freedom of speech demonstrate the need for judicial and legal reform.
Tunisia’s future will depend upon its commitment to civil liberties. Patience for slow growth and instability will not continue if the government fails to give Tunisians the rights that will enable them to feel heard.
In 1787, when asked what kind of government the U.S. Constitutional Convention had created, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “A republic, madam. If you can keep it.” The same can be said of Tunisia. The country now has the governmental structure to build a functioning democratic society. If the government allows its people to speak out, organize, and publish what they want without fear of arrest, Tunisia’s newfound freedom will strengthen and endure.