Risks and Possibilities: The role of the OSCE in the democratic transition in Tunisia

Tunisia has expressed its preference to work with the OSCE in its democratic transition rather than the EU. This organization started a program of support to the civil society in this country. But is it enough to foster democratization? Is the OSCE still capable to apply in Tunisia the same policies than in Eastern Europe after 1989?

By Alejandro Marx, 19th September, 2012

The Arab Spring has unleashed the hope that home-grown democracies will be created in the region. However, after the revolution comes the time for stabilization and democracy-building. The failure of democracy-building or the start of chaos would be used by authoritarian governments to maintain their power or advocated controlled “democratization” to their population. The legitimacy of the revolution in Tunisia is based on popular support, placing the leadership and the civil society in a new situation. In addition, the uprising has changed the relations that the Tunisian government shared with the ex-colonial power in the region, France. The Tunisian leaders want to follow the path they decide for their country, not the one dictated by other countries. The Arab countries can share their experience of the democratic transition, and exchange advices with countries with longer-established democracies or recent transitions to democracy. However, when a country asks for advice and support to another one, it risks to be in a position of dependency. How to keep the same level of exchange between countries without a country becoming dependent from the support of another?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is an organization, created in November 1994 from the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe which aimed to encourage negotiation between Western States and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. During the 1990s, this organization helped the new governments of the ex-communist countries to develop their democracies. An experience, the OSCE and the Northern African leaders can use in the region. It has now 56 members which include the United States, Canada, Russia and the countries of Europe and Central Asia. Decisions are taken at the Permanent Council in Vienna by consensus between the representatives of the member States. Also, a Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) exists in Copenhagen, Denmark, where parliamentarians meet to express the views of their national parliaments. In continuation, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) based in Warsaw, Poland, focus on monitoring elections, the implementation of Human Rights commitments and the development of civil society in the OSCE region. The OSCE does not have the capacity to enforce policies on its member States.

Tunisia has relations with the OSCE. Despite not being a full member, it is part of the OSCE Mediterranean Partnership for Co-operation with other countries of the region (Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Israel and Jordan). Discussions in the past often covered issues such as illegal migration from and to the region, Islamic extremism, and the creation of confidence-building measures between the armies of the Mediterranean Partnership. The OSCE did not focus particularly on civil society in the region.

The interest of governments to cooperate with the OSCE lies on the role of the OSCE as an organization which provides advice and support to the sectors the government has chosen as needing reform. In opposition to organization like the European Union (EU) which can impose sanctions to States, the OSCE does not have such power. A decision of the Tunisian leadership to ask the EU to support democracy-building in the country could let the French government, a major member of the EU, to reassert its political influence in the country and its leadership. The government of Tunisia has already announced its preference to work with the OSCE for the establishment of democracy. In addition, the OSCE regroups countries which have different agendas for the Mediterranean region. This disagreement is particularly visible on the divergence of Russia with the USA, the United Kingdom and France on the intervention in Libya and Syria. The Russian government is hostile to the involvement of foreign countries in the internal affairs of sovereign States. The new authorities in Tunisia can use the disagreement between the countries members of the OSCE to gain the support and training they want for their democratic reforms, without placing themselves at the mercy of a particular country.

However, the OSCE is mostly funded by the USA, France and United Kingdom who count for a third of the contribution to the OSCE field operations for 2012. Russia counts only for 2.5 % of the total contributions by the 56 member countries1. On the other hand, the need for consensus in the organization to take decisions means that a middle ground must be found between countries with different agendas for Tunisia. The Northern African State seems to have chosen an organization which is adapted to the situation.

The importance in supporting Democracy and Human Rights effectively

The proposal of the OSCE to support the democratic transition was formulated after the fleeing of former dictator Ben Ali from Tunisia, on the 14th of January 2011. In February 2011, the OSCE Chairman-in-office, Lithuanian Foreign minister Audronius Azubalis proposed the help of the organization to Tunisia and Egypt. In April of the same year, the Chairman-in-Office visited Tunisia to look in which areas the OSCE can help Tunisia. Azubalis meet the Foreign Minister of Tunisia, Mouldi Kefi, and stressed that the assistance from the International Community is instrumental in the democratic transition. Azubalis emphasized the experience of the OSCE in this sector, since the role of the organization in the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe. He met representatives of the UN in the country and reminded the need to coordinate international support to Tunisia with other International organizations2. The cooperation between international organizations should again ensure that the influence of a particular country in Tunisia would be minimal.

The democratic transition in Tunisia was again discussed at the OSCE Human Rights Conference in Warsaw, Poland, in September 2011. Khadija Chérif, the Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights and a prominent Human Rights activist from Tunisia, said that the uprisings in the Mediterranean region were the result of the repression of authoritarian governments. She added that a strong civil society, not authoritarian leaders, is the guarantor of security and stability in the region3.

The OSCE has reacted very fast to the political change in Tunisia. The organization has now shown to prefer a stronger emphasis on the Tunisian civil society. It has multiplied the events during this last year to foster and give to the civil society’s organizations, a prominent role in the transition. This shows that the OSCE understand that the involvement of the civil society in the political game is important to continue what was unleashed by the Tunisian uprising. In addition, it means that the members States have understood that authoritarianism is not the solution to stability in Tunisia.

In October 2011, the OSCE has monitored the elections for the Constituent National Assembly in Tunisia after the Tunisian provisional authorities agreed to have a transparent transition. The elections monitors were 75 parliamentarians from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly coming from 21 member states of the OSCE and Algeria. The observers said that the elections were marked with fair media covering and a plural choice of parties. However, they criticized the restrictive policies on public advertising, the exclusion of followers from the old regime from the elections and an imperfect voter registration system4. However, due to the soft power policy of the organization, criticism formulated by the OSCE cannot go further that verbal warning, making difficult to put pressures on the Tunisian leadership. On the other hand, the reputation of the OSCE as a neutral body allows it to be an arbiter between political parties in Tunisia, avoiding tensions between the different actors.

In addition, during the same period, the ODIHR has given training to elections observers from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco at the Budva OSCE Mediterranean Conference, in Montenegro, on topics identified by the North-African participants themselves5.

The support of the ODIHR for representatives of the Mediterranean partners’ civil society continued after the Budva Conference. In December 2011, in Vilnius, Lithuania, a special conference saw the meeting of representatives of civil society’s groups from the Mediterranean region and the OSCE to discuss and share experience on the challenges facing the transition to democracy in the region. Achref Aouadi, the founder of the Tunisian NGO “I-Watch”, addressed the opening of the conference. The discussions focused on Electoral Good Practice, Political participation (including Gender participation), Justice and Legal Reform, and on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination during Democratic Transition.6 This action gives visibility to the organizations of the Tunisian civil society. However, their meetings with representatives of foreign States may make them vulnerable to accusations of being agents of abroad in Tunisia.
However, the democratic transition in Tunisia is facing risks. In June 2012, Salafists rioted in protest to an art exhibition. Two sculptors, who exhibited their work at the exhibition, have been charged in August by Tunisian prosecutors. The appointment of new journalists in the State-media, without the approval of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, is criticized as “government interference in media”7. The instability in Libya has caused the movements of many refugees to Tunisia. If the situation in Libya does not improve, the Tunisian authorities will have to accommodate these refugees and protect them from discriminations they may face. Also, insecurity in Libya could spread in Tunisia through the illegal arm trade. The drafting of the new Constitution is taking time and some citizens may become frustrated at the slow development of the Constitution. Also, the presidential elections will take place only after the definitive adoption of the Constitution. Tunisia has not shown exactly which relations it wants to have with the former colonial power, France. The Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki met in July 2012, the French President François Hollande8. This seemed to show that relations between the two countries are good again, but Marzouki has sometimes been ignored by members of his government, in particular those from the Islamist party, Ennahda9. It is difficult to know to what extent this visit was supported by the whole Tunisian government.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly continues to support the transition in Tunisia. At the Monaco Summit of July 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly called its members States to continue their economic and political support to emerging Arab democracies10. The 30th and the 31rst of October will see the organization of the OSCE Mediterranean Conference in Rome, Italy. However, the agenda of the conference will mostly cover the economic aspect of the transition in the Mediterranean partners of the OSCE. Human Rights will probably only be discussed when covering the participation of women in political and public life in the last session of the conference11. The emphasis of the OSCE in economic development, despite being praiseworthy, is taking the organization away from its original goals.

A bright future still has to be created

The Arab Spring has unleashed hope for the people of the region, but a lot of uncertainty too. For the consolidation of democracy, compromise will have to be made between the different political forces. The region is facing challenges that Central and Eastern Europe faced after the fall of Communism. The OSCE, with its experience in the democratic transition of the Post-communist States, can share its experience with other countries. Also, the OSCE is sometime treated as an organization which has finished its role in history. It is time to reassess this view and give to the OSCE the means and support it needs to fulfill in the Arab region the same role it carried out before in Europe. As well, the OSCE must be prepared to criticize actors who commit Human Rights abuses. A cooperating relation with the Arab League is possible, if the Arab States wish to collaborate in the responsibilities of the OSCE in the region. The Arab League can use the experience of the OSCE to develop its own institutions to foster security in the region. Democracy-building and the respect of Human Rights can only be attained if the leaders of the OSCE States and the Arab States decide to work together to ensure that all the classes, communities and generations feel that they are represented and are part of the political process. Tunisia can only go forward through the solidarity of its peoples and political parties.


1. Decision No. 1027, “Scales of contributions for 2012”, 895th Plenary meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council http://www.osce.org/pc/86722

2. Press release, OSCE Chairperson emphasizes need to respect commitments, offers support to partner countries Egypt and Tunisia http://www.osce.org/cio/75754 Press release, OSCE Chairman meets Tunisian authorities, discusses priority needs for OSCE assistance http://www.osce.org/cio/77020

3. Press release, North Africa events highlight link between democracy and Security, say speakers at opening of OSCE human rights conference http://www.osce.org/odihr/82876

4. Press release, Parliamentary observers applaud Tunisian elections: vote shows country on its way to guaranteeing Freedom, Human Rights, Democracy http://www.osce.org/pa/84325

5. ODIHR trains election observers from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/83922

6. Press release, OSCE civil society conference on challenges facing Mediterranean Democracies in Transition http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/85727

7. Human Rights Watch document, “Tunisia: Drop charges against Artists”, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/09/03/tunisia-drop-charges-against-artists Tunisia Live article, Appointment of New National Television directors sparks backlash http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/03/appointment-of-new-national-television-directors-sparks-backlash/

8. Tunisia Live article, Tunisian President’s first official visit to France strengthens bilateral relationship http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/07/18/marzoukis-first-official-visit-to-france-strengthens-bilateral-relationship/

9. In June 2012, the Prime Minister of Tunisia, Hamadi Jebali, decided to extradite the former Prime Minister of Libya, Baghdadi Mahmoudi, to his country. This decision was taken without the approval of the Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki. Tunisia Live article, http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/09/tunisian-pm-confirms-extradiction-of-baghdadi-mahmoudi-to-libya/

10. “Monaco declaration and resolutions adopted at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at the 21rst Annual Session”, 5 to 9 of July 2012, http://www.oscepa.org/meetings/annual-sessions

11. Decision No. 1046, “Agenda and organisational modalities of the 2012 OSCE Mediterranean Conference”, 922nd Plenary Meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council http://www.osce.org/pc/92556

Alejandro Marx is a graduate from University College of London-School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He worked at the Prague Office of the OSCE Secretariat and will start a research fellowship at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is also a contributor to the French publication “Regard sur l’Est”.


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