Why did it all go right for Tunisia?

Four civil society groups have won the Nobel Prize for aiding Tunisia's transition to democracy. Yet elsewhere, the Arab Spring has been a disappointment. Matthew Partridge reports.


Tunisia: on the road to democracy

Earlier this month, the Nobel Prize was awarded to four Tunisian civil society groups for their role in helping the transition to democracy. However, elsewhere the 'Arab Spring' has been a disappointment.

So, what's going on?

A fortnight ago, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the peace prize to a group of four Tunisian civil society groups. After the Tunisian revolution in 2011, which removed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first free elections were won by the Islamist Ennahda party, which had been previously banned. While they claimed that they wanted to keep Tunisia largely secular, there were fears that they would try to crack down on any dissent and move back to a dictatorship.

At the same time, the economy plunged into crisis, hit by the downturn in tourism. In 2013, the country stood on the brink of civil war after the murder of the opposition leader led to nationwide protests. However, the Nobel Prize winning groups managed to negotiate a compromise. This meant that the crisis ended peacefully, with the prime minister stepping aside for a caretaker government in early 2014.

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What happened next?

Fresh elections, which were accepted by all sides as free and fair, later in 2014 led to a new government led by a moderate alliance of secular politicians. This was the first peaceful democratic transition in the country's history. Since then, Tunisia's fledgling democracy has remained stable and popular, even in the face of a series of terror attacks including the murder of nearly 40 tourists in the summer.

This relative stability, combined with key economic reforms and the strong performance of various sectors (such as the olive oil industry), has helped Tunisia's economy recover. Overall, experts now believe that the economy will grow by around 3-4% in real terms.

Did was this peaceful transition mirrored elsewhere?

The downfall of Ben Ali inspired similar protests elsewhere across the region. However, this Arab Spring seems to have failed to produce stable democracies. In Egypt the flawed elections following Hosni Mubarak's resignation led to a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself was deposed by the military, which now runs the country. In countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, protests were quickly suppressed. Yemen is in the midst of a civil war between forces supported by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Most tragically, a democratic revolt against the brutal Syrian dictator,Bashar al-Assad,has been hijacked by hardline Islamist rebels, and later by the terror group Islamic State. Libya is in a state of chaos with the nominal government unable to control much of the country. As a result a large number of people have been displaced. This in turn has created a refugee crisis in Greece, Italy and the Balkans.

Why did things go wrong in these countries?

The main reason is that there were substantial vested interests against the spread of democracy. In some cases these were internal, such as the powerful Egyptian military, which controls large swathes of industry. In others they were external, such as the role of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. Syria seems to have a combination of both factors with Assad brutally suppressing the initial protests, driving the opposition into the arms of radical elements.

These hardline elements were then bolstered by support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State. For their part, Russia and China blocked attempts to find an international solution and have provided weapons to the regime. Interestingly, Mark Leonard has suggested in the New Statesman that Russia has turned a blind eye to Chechens moving to Syria to join the jihadist cause, thus further isolating the moderate opposition.

So, what is Britain and America doing?

Sadly, not a lot. For the first years of the Syrian war, the UK and US stayed on the sidelines, in the vain hope that the Assad regime would either collapse or reform itself. While it came close to bombing the regime in 2013 after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, it ultimately agreed to cancel the strikes in return for Assad agreeing to give up his weapons.

Since then it has half-heartedly supported the rebels, though there are concerns that this is either ineffective or is going to the hardliners. While there are calls for a no-fly zone, Russian president Vladimir Putin's decision to intervene makes this unlikely. Even in Libya it has essentially cut loose from the country after helping to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri