As one tyrant is killed, Arab Spring turns back to Tunisia

Days after Libya's bloody uprising culminated in the lynching of the country’s reviled dictator, voters in neighbouring Tunisia are called upon to write another – hopefully more peaceful – chapter in the Arab Spring they fostered.


“Now comes the hard part,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Tripoli earlier this week – perhaps a little unfairly for the thousands of Libyans who paid for Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow with their lives.

She could easily have said as much in Cairo, another Arab capital to have witnessed the overthrow of a dictator this year. But should Libyans and Egyptians feel the need for any encouragement, they may look across to Tunisia as the cradle of the Arab Spring prepares to write a new chapter in its own revolution.

On Sunday, nine months after toppling long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising, Tunisian voters will elect a National Constituent Assembly in the country’s first free election.

The mix of enthusiasm and anxiety with which the country is heading to the polls underscores the scale of the challenge the country faces.

A successful election “will enable us to dispel the myth according to which Israel is the only democratic country in the region,” wrote historian Alaya Allani on Friday in an op-ed published in Tunisia’s leading daily La Presse.

“It is indeed tempting to suggest that a free and fair election will dispel the notion of an antinomy between democracy and the Arab world,” said Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel-Aviv University. “But the vote is first and foremost an immense test for Tunisia itself,” he told FRANCE 24.

Needless to say, should a flawed election derail the country’s transition, it would be seen as a major setback for democracy in the region.

Crash course in democracy

With a well-established secular tradition, a sizeable middle class, and progressive policies on women’s rights, Tunisia is widely regarded as the region’s best candidate for a successful transition to democracy.

But after half a century of absolute rule, the learning curve has proved steep.

“This is a radically new experiment in political and constitutional terms,” said Samy Ghorbal of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), one of the largest parties, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “We’ve worked hard to explain that the Constituent Assembly’s main role will be to write a new constitution, but there are still the odd voters who think they’ll be electing the next president on Sunday.”

Not that there is any shortage of information circulating about the election.

In the nine months since the fall of Ben Ali, five television channels, 12 radio stations and almost 200 newspapers have appeared alongside existing media, freed of the shackles of censorship and deference to the authorities.

Tunisians have been treated to a daily four hours of televised coverage of the electoral process and the various parties – no fewer than 111 of them – taking part in the contest.

But there is still lingering confusion about the constituent assembly’s actual role, its legislative prerogatives and its duration.

Mindful of the latter concern, the High Commission for the Fulfillment of the Revolutionary Goals, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition has given the NCA a non-binding one-year term limit – even though few expect the assembly to abide by it.

The Islamist spectre

Such technical issues and the question of what to do with members of the old regime have long delayed the election, which was initially scheduled for July.

Since January, Ben Ali and his clique have been indicted, his party has been disbanded and media restrictions have been lifted.

But with the old regime’s leading protagonists in exile and most of its lower-ranking officials largely untouched, many feel little has changed and that justice has yet to been served.

Ennahda, a once outlawed Islamist party that has emerged as the election’s great favourite, argues that only religion can help pull the country out of the endemic corruption of the Ben Ali era.

Polls have suggested that the party could win almost a third of the vote, giving it a key voice in drafting the new constitution.

While Ennhada’s leaders have been at pains to highlight their democratic credentials, many of the more liberal parties are openly fearful of its intentions.

“Ennahda is first and foremost a mystery. Some of its members are sincere democrats, others are less convincing; but nobody knows who will prevail,” said Ghorbal, pointing out that the Islamist party is yet to hold its congress.

On Thursday, party leader Rached Ghannouchi warned his supporters would take to the streets in the event of a “manipulation” of the vote, only to then backtrack after secular parties had gleefully seized on his comments as proof that Ennhada could not be trusted.

For Dr Maddy-Weitzman, the party’s extraordinary rise from a severely repressed underground movement to the election’s frontrunner is proof that “Islamist movements are the number one beneficiaries of the Arab Spring”.

He added: “How well Ennahda fares and how it behaves in the democratic process could have major implications for its more powerful Egyptian counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The forgotten emergency

The Brotherhood will not be the only one closely monitoring Ennahda’s result.

“The image Tunisia projects with this election will be crucial to generating economic investment,” said Dr Maddy-Weitzman.

While Western powers rushed to hail the country’s inspirational role in the Arab Spring, investment channels have run dry as countries opt to wait and see which way the revolution goes.

“The debate over Ennhada, while justified, has overshadowed the economic and social emergency we are facing,” said the PDP’s Ghorbal.

By most standards, Tunisia is better off than most of its neighbours. But its economy has been beset by slowing growth, surging unemployment and persistent inequalities between the prosperous coastal areas and the country’s long-neglected interior.

While the vast majority of the population is glad to have turned the Ben Ali page, most Tunisians have seen little improvement in their livelihoods over the past nine months.

Sensing the mounting discontent, rival parties have plastered the walls of poorer neighbourhoods with posters promising economic growth and jobs aplenty.

Left-wing party Ettakatol, whose leader scored a hit in the early days of the revolution by storming out of the interim government in protest at the slow pace of reform, has promised the immediate creation of 100,000 jobs, a figure Ennahda has vowed to reach every year until 2016.

As for the PDP, its leaders have pledged between 40% and 45% growth over the next five years – a remarkable improvement on this year’s 1%.

That’s one thing Tunisians will be used to already. As Mounir Ben Mahmoud of the Tunis-based Business News wryly observed this week, “the measures are strangely reminiscent of former President Ben Ali’s numerous campaign pledges”.


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