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Transatlantic Dialogue VII – Assessing reform potential in Lebanon and Tunisia

Lebanon and Tunisia are the only Arab countries that the Transformation Index BTI 2020 classifies as (highly) defective democracies. Still, institutional performance is rather deficient and the integrity of political decision-makers significantly compromised. The discrepancy in both countries is glaring: on the one hand an active and vocal civil society, on the other hand a fractured parliament and dysfunctional institutions obstructing democratic progress. The results of the Transformation Index, presented by BTI regional coordinator Jan Völkel, set the scene for sounding out the potential for reform and democratization.

With experts from Lebanon and Tunisia, we discussed how institutional gridlock can be overcome. Maha Yahya of Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut decribed how deeply engrained sectarianism is in the current political system. The different ethno-religious groups basically “took the conflict from the streets into parliament,” she explained, who would be claiming their political positions as “war bounty.” What is crippling political progress in Lebanon currently, she emphasized, are the clientelistic and nepotistic networks, leading her to conclude that “the power sharing model is no longer tenable.” A hope-instilling aspect was, however, that many young people – as illustrated by powerful demonstrations – are fed up with this kind of gridlock and are increasingly crossing the sectarian lines.

Quite the opposite in Tunisia, Amine Ghali of Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, Tunis explained. Many young people had had high hopes in democracy, but became increasingly disillusioned and lost confidence in political parties. He acknowledged the successes of Tunisian democratization but held at the same time that it was “much harder to establish a democracy than to bring down a dictator.” The main problem was “democracy not delivering,” pointing at the failure to close the socioeconomic divide and to offer economic perspectives in general.

If he was still optimistic, moderator Anthony Silberfeld of Bertelsmann Foundation North America asked the Tunisian panelist. Of course he was, Amine Ghali replied, to be a civil society activist necessitates an optimistic outlook, and the strength of Tunisian civil society was promising and giving hope. Maha Yahya agreed with such an optimistic outlook for the North African beacon of hope and had one piece of advice from her own experiences: “Do not let identity politics take center stage.”


Amine Ghali
Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, Tunis

Maha Yahya
Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut

Jan Claudius Völkel (Introduction)
Senior Researcher
Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, Freiburg
BTI Regional Coordinator Middle East and North Africa


Anthony Silberfeld
Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation

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