Change in the Casbah: Optimism in Tunisia

While serious challenges remain in Tunisia, the country is slowly moving forward

After the fall of President Ben Ali in January (and then Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi in February), protests have quietly continued throughout Tunisia, even as the interim government organizes elections. Slow demonstrable change and periodic violence have led some to question many to wonder if the revolution has stalled in Tunis. This pessimism is compounded by the decision to delay elections until October and the formidable task of registering over 7 million Tunisians in time for the first true elections in the country in decades. The interior of the country remains just as neglected as it was under Ben Ali and the rejuvenation of the  once-banned Islamist party, al-Nahda, under the previously exiled Rached Ghannouchi (no relation to the deposed Prime Minister) has many worried about the future of the country. Despite the issues facing the country, there remains significant optimism that Tunisia is facing a positive future and, eventually, a successful revolution.

In the interior of the country, even in the city of Sidi Bouzid where the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazzi took place, there has not been much change for the youth of Tunisia. Unemployment remains twice as high as along the coast and poverty is five times that of the capital. Meanwhile, the security situation has devolved in the political vacuum created by the revolution. Security forces clashed with militants in May and in Islamists attacks a cinema last month; the security situation has reached a point that there is occurrences of political violence “every few weeks.” Meanwhile, al-Nahda, despite promises of moderation, has earned deep mistrust among many Tunisians by allegedly offering different platforms in French and Arabic media. Regardless, al-Nahda is supported by around 25% of Tunisians and is posed to earn a significant number of votes in the October election that is to include 90 political parties. Yet perhaps the most basic concern is that the temporary government lacks legitimacy, the country remains without a functional constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections have yet to be scheduled.

Despite these issues, it seems as though many in Tunisia understand that the country’s problems – both new and old – are symptoms of a transitional period. Moreover, compared to next door Libya, the Tunisian revolution is looking extraordinary and the post-revolution transition is more advanced than in Egypt. Postponing the elections has been widely seen as a wise step and many expect the popularity of al-Nahda is not extensive enough to give the party a free hand in drafting the new constitution. Even the continued economic woes seem to be a temporary obstacle as the potential candidates in the October election and many already within the interim government are skilled technocrats able to handle the billions of dollars that will pour into the country from G8 countries over the next three years.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the new sense of freedom and empowerment that is being felt across the country; Elizabeth Dunningham, in Tunisia for Al Jazeera, wrote that:

Most people told us that, while there might be problems between different parties, or difficulties in this transition period, at least now they have freedom: freedom to debate these issues in a free press, freedom to join whichever party or association they want, and, above all, the freedom to vote.

Everyone we spoke to, from activists to party leaders, said there was much to be done.

But the overall impression is that Tunisians would roll up their sleeves and relish, rather than resent, this work in the new, free, Tunisia.

Tunisia is still facing serious social and political problems that must be tackled, but it is certainly moving slowly in the right direction. While it may take some time for the revolution to result in a fairly elected government (the elections in October are for a constituent assembly, while full elections could take another year), it is clear that the Arab Spring’s first revolution is on a path that should breed optimism, despite the challenges it is facing.

Photo from Al Jazeera

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