Democracy taking root in Tunisia, with insights from Australia and Indonesia

23 February 2017

Since the overthrow of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisian civil society organisations have been working with the government to implement many of the civic structures that citizens of countries like Australia may take for granted.

The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University has held a number of symposiums to help build capacity among Tunisian civil society, in their pursuit of a more democratic and open society.

The continued success of Tunisia is crucial for the spread of democracy in the Arab speaking world, according to the Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute, Professor Mansouri. In 2017, Tunisia is scheduled to hold its first local government elections. One of the most important measures of the success of this will be whether the population will engage with the process. At the moment, only 70% of Tunisia is covered by local government and the understanding of local government, especially in remote areas, could be improved upon.

Speakers sitting at a long desk.
Guest speakers take part in panel discussion on women and democratic transitions on day one of the symposium. Pictured left to right: Dr Dini Afrianty, Ines Ben Youssef, Ghazoua Ltaief, Najla Abbes, Admira Dini Salim.

In July 2016, the Alfred Deakin Institute hosted young civil society activists from Tunisia with the upcoming 2017 local government elections in mind. Speakers from Tunisia included: Najla Abbes, co founder and program coordinator of the League of Tunisian Women Voters (LET), an organisation dedicated to fostering the effective participation of Tunisian women ability in political and public life; Ines Ben Youssef, Free Patriots and Tunisian Human Rights League, Saber Houchati from the National Federation of Tunisian Cities and Ghazoua Ltaief from the young people’s organisation Sawty, which means both ‘my vote’ and ‘my voice’ in Arabic.

Professor Mansouri said he was impressed with the ingenuity shown by these young activists. One of the key components of the symposium was to facilitate networks between the Tunisian human rights campaigners and Indonesian activists, who were involved in the establishment of a democratic society after the fall of the Suharto regime.

‘The symposium allowed the Tunisians and Indonesians to compare notes with respect to regional experiences and draw on the expertise of the pioneering Australia Indonesia Electoral Support Program (AIESP),’ Professor Mansouri said.

Many of the young Tunisians left the symposium with an enhanced understanding of how to organise the population to participate in democratic processes and the institutions needed to support them. With more than 38% of the Tunisian population under 25 years old, the future of Tunisia’s democracy will depend on the engagement of its youth.

From an Australian perspective, people were able to learn about the impressive work being undertaken by activists and NGOs in Tunisia to progress the cause of democracy. Professor Mansouri hopes that by doing this, the importance of Tunisia in the current geo-political environment and the needs for its efforts to be recognised and supported by established democracies such as Australia, will become better known.

The symposium was supported by the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR), which was established by the Australian Government in January 2003 to strengthen ties between Australia and the Arab world. The next CAAR grants round opens in February 2017, for projects deepening connections between Australia and the Middle East.

Last Updated: 23 February 2017