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    Tunisia: Impressions of a country in democratic transition

    In 10 days time, I will be traveling to Tunisia for what will be the 6th time since the fall of Ben Ali on January 14th 2011. I’ve come to have a deep affection for this complex yet serene country, which astonished the world with the speed with which it overthrew a despised dictator and inspired revolutions in other Arab countries. Over the past 7 months, I’ve talked to countless Tunisians from all walks of life about living under Ben Ali, the revolution, and their hopes for the future.  Without exception, every person took the time to thoughtfully discuss all these issues in detail. I remember thinking during my first visit: Tunisians talk more politics than the Lebanese! But, whereas Lebanese political talk has been largely reduced to factional accusations and counter accusations, Tunisians were discussing democratic transition, reforms, policies – that is, real politics.

    Since my first visit in early 2011, the mood in Tunisia has progressively changed from euphoria and pride to something more somber and even pessimistic. The overthrow of a dictator and his family is only really the beginning of a revolution. It’s when the political and economic systems are overhauled to meet the demands of the people, that we can say the revolution is complete. Here, I’m not talking about a radical/communist/proletarian takeover of the state; its more about stamping out corruption, making the system more representative and accessible to people and sensible economic planning which benefits everyone and not just the dictator and his cronies. These are radical changes for Arab regimes, deep systematic shocks.

    During my last visit, most Tunisians I talked to felt that the interim government was moving too slowly on many fronts, not just in terms of improving the socioeconomic situation of citizens, but also failing to bring to justice many of Ben Ali’s cronies. As a young Tunisian waiter told me: “Yes, we’ve got freedom of speech, but now what?” Ordinary Tunisians are feeling that the ownership of their country that they felt during and right after the revolution is rapidly slipping away from them; it’s back to business as usual, albeit with the freedom to criticize.

    One important indicator is that whereas earlier this year, many Tunisians I talked to were enthusiastic about casting their first free vote during the October 23 elections for the new transitional council (which will write the new constitution), during this last visit, I felt people were pessimistic about voting, with some even saying that they would not vote at all. The main reason is that people simply don’t know who to vote for: there are approximately 105 parties registered for the elections, and worse, about 1600 electoral lists competing in Tunisia’s 24 governorates. The downside of democratic transition is that suddenly everyone wants to be politically active and run for office, thus creating a surplus of political parties, which is confusing for citizens who are voting in a free election for the first time. What is worrying for many is that the failure to have more unified lists will fracture the vote in so many directions, that the Islamist Al-Nahda party (which is considered to have roughly 30% support), a more established and organized group, will be the main victor on October 23rd.

    Another reason that people may not vote is that they don’t know what they’re voting for. While the role of the new body is mostly limited to writing the new Tunisian constitution (and thus the political system as whole), political parties are treating the elections as full-fledged parliamentary elections, concentrating on political manifestos, instead of their ideas for the new constitution.

    One major issue of discontent is the sluggish pace with which the judiciary has pursued Ben Ali’s cronies (compared to Egypt), and the lack of sufficient support and justice for the families of the victims of the Revolution. Several prominent members of the former ruling party are also either running for elections or supporting electoral lists, when according to many Tunisians, they should be prosecuted for corruption and other crimes.

    Another problem that while the revolution was instigated by young people, they are barely represented in the interim government. My impression is that the people ruling Tunisia now are a mix of old Bourguibians (allies of former President Habib Bourguiba who was deposed by Ben Ali) who fell out of favour during the Ben Ali era but are still seen by some as essentially part of the regime, and members of the traditional civil society organizations who have a long history of opposing the former regime. Both groups appear to be reluctant to allow the younger elements of Tunisian society a role in political decision-making. In other words, Tunisia’s new politicians, despite their complete support of the revolution, are struggling to reconcile their elite culture with the demands of pluralist democracy. Many new CSOs were created after the revolution by young dynamic and professional Tunisians who have a fresh outlook on reforming the political system. Yet I felt that there was minimum communication and coordination between both ‘generations’ of activists. One of the main bones of contention, for example, is that ‘older’ generation of civil society activists are concentrating too much on general human rights, and not addressing socioeconomic rights, which was one of the main demands of Tunisian youth during the revolution.

    Ultimately though, I don’t see these problems are insurmountable obstacles to a strong democracy in Tunisia. I might be wrong, but I feel that, there is still strong national goodwill which has so far prevented polarization. For this to continue, the post-revolution political class (both politicians and traditional civil society) must be forced to self-democratize and become much more transparent and inclusive in its actions.

    On a final note: however many times you visit a country, you will never know it as well as its citizens. So I’d like to ask our Tunisian friends to offer as much comment and criticism as possible!

    Doreen KHOURY

    One response to “Tunisia: Impressions of a country in democratic transition”

    1. Nadim Jalbout says:

      Doreen,

      To what extent do you believe the youth of Tunisia will be able to structure a system that captures most of their dreams and aspirations that they so passionately chanted during the revolution?

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