Closing the Arab Democratic Gap

A Re-Assessment of the Tunisian Democratic Transition


  • Yolaine Frossard de Saugy McGill University



Democratic Transition, Tunisia, Islam


Tunisia is often described as the outlier of the Arab Spring, the one case in which a form of political transition decidedly happened. The fact that this transition first led to the rule of the Islamist party Ennahda has reignited long-standing debates on the role of Islam in politics, the relationship between religion and democracy, and the consequences of their potential incompatibility for the future of Tunisian democracy. A sizeable literature has attempted to address these topics over the years, but it is of little help when trying to understand the events of the Arab Spring and the Tunisian transition, especially when it comes to their impact on the Islamist parties themselves. Borrowing from Villalón’s study of Islam and politics in sub-Saharan Africa, this paper argues that, instead of considering whether Tunisian actors fit within a preconceived notion of democracy, we should consider the process of political bargaining itself as democratic; focusing on the substance of democracy rather than its form sheds new light on the Tunisian case and helps explain various outcomes including the progressive liberalization of Islamist parties and the gradual but distinctive flourishing of democracy in the Tunisian context.