An Arab Exception? The Role of Civil Society in Tunisia's Democratic Transition

Published: Wednesday 8th July 2015


ACU staff have been offered complimentary registration to an international symposium on democracy in Tunisia hosted by the UNESCO Chair, Cultural Diversity and Social Justice Professor Fethi Mansouri (pictured) at Deakin University on Monday 27 July. 

"An Arab Exception? The Role of Civil Society in Tunisia's Democratic Transition will feature international and domestic speakers. We anticipate that this event will be of interest to colleagues at the Australian Catholic University and would like to offer complimentary registration," Prof. Mansouri said. "If you would like to attend, please do let my assistant, Cayla Edwards know on or 03 9244 6658." 

"In the mean-time, you can find out more about the event at and please do feel free to forward to any colleagues as appropriate."


The so called 'Arab Spring' that began in December 2010 saw a wave of uprisings across the Middle East that promised a new beginning for many countries in the region. However, for the vast majority this has not been the case and the notion of 'spring' has not eventuated in the majority of countries across the region. Indeed, Egypt which seemingly transitioned to a democratic party-based system has returned to old-style autocratic military rule, while both Syria and Libya are locked in protracted civil wars, with Iraq and Yemen looking set to join them.

In comparison, Tunisia has made a much more measured and stable transition to multi-party democracy that culminated in the successful legislative and presidential elections late in 2014.

This consolidation towards democratic governance  is due to a large degree to the country's  vibrant civil society structures; the well-developed labour movement in particular its peak organisation UGTT, and the critical role of long-standing  opposition parties who embraced the notion of consensus politics and mastered the art of pragmatic compromise.

Focusing on the role of civil society, it is worth-noting that  in the period from 1988 to 2009, the number of civil society organizations in Tunisia  increased from nearly 2,000 to over 9,000.

In particular, women's organizations have long been very active and well organized. This vibrancy, resilience and reach of Tunisia's civil society organisations (CSOs) proved critical in the toppling of the Ben Ali regime as well as in the post-revolution transitional phase. Yet,  the following questions might need further analysis:

  • How did Tunisia's CSOs contribute to the ousting of an authoritarian regime, adapt to revolutionary changes and remain un-stifled in the midst of a messy transition phase?
  • Furthermore,  how do CSOs now envisage their role in the fledging democracy where the challenge of consolidating democratic gains is being tempered by the twin challenges of an ailing economy and a rising terrorism threat?

To debate and explore these questions this international symposium, in partnership with DFAT, brings together a number of key figures from both Tunisia's civil society arena and academia to engage in a critical and multi-dimensional round table discussion.