When Freedom House, the influential human rights monitor, recently released its annual report on the state of global liberty, the bottom line was discouraging: For the ninth year in a row, there was a marked decline in political rights and civil liberties. In only 33 countries in 2014 was there measurable improvement in the protection of democracy and human rights, far fewer than the 61 countries where repression grew worse.
“Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government . . . is under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years,” Freedom House warns. Crackdowns on liberal norms, such as competitive elections, religious freedom, and personal autonomy, have accelerated in every region of the globe. Authoritarian rulers increasingly don’t even bother paying lip service to democratic standards. Last year, heads of government like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel el-Sisi, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán openly proclaimed the inferiority of liberal democracy, arguing in favor of one-party control.
But amid the gloom, there was one unmistakable ray of light: Tunisia became the first genuinely free Arab country since the start of Lebanon’s civil war 40 years ago.
After the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia embarked on a democratic transformation. In free and fair elections that year, Tunisians chose a multiparty legislature that drafted a new constitution and saw the formation of a working coalition between Islamist and secular parties. Unlike so many countries where “democratic” revolutions have turned out to be “one person, one vote, one time” takeovers, Tunisia’s new leaders resisted the authoritarian temptation and have respected the principle that legitimate government requires the consent of the governed. In no other country touched by the sadly misnamed “Arab Spring” was that the case.
A crucial milestone was passed when Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party that won the largest bloc of seats in the first round of elections after Ben Ali’s ouster, agreed to peacefully step down in favor of a caretaker government in 2013. Last October, when the secular Nidaa Tounes party triumphed in Tunisia’s most recent parliamentary elections, Ennahda’s leaders calmly accepted the result. And when the anti-Islamist Beji Caid Essebsi won the country’s presidential election two months later, his chief rival gracefully acknowledged the voters’ decision and conceded defeat.
It was in Tunisia that the upheavals of the Arab Spring began, with the self-immolation of a 26-year-old fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi. Tragically, those upheavals have not led to a freer Arab world. As Freedom House notes, the Middle East and North Africa remain “the least free region” on the planet. For decades, Israel has been the sole exception, one island of liberty in a sea of dictatorship. Now there is a second island. Tunisians have freedom, if they can keep it. Mohammed Bouazizi didn’t die in vain.