Analysis: Tunisia's democracy has a head start


Tunisians demonstrate outside Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's offices in Government Square Tunis on January 25, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia.


Christopher Furlong

TUNIS, Tunisia — You can buy a postage stamp here depicting Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian whose self-immolation last December sparked the so-called Arab Spring.

I say “so-called” because Arabs are unsure of just what to call it. Revolution? Uprising? Somehow “Spring” implies that it will not last, although Tunisians desperately hope it will.

But the reality is that in many places, such as Syria and Bahrain, the forces of oppression still hold the upper hand, while in neighboring Libya, it is uncertain whether the victors can hold together or whether they will fall apart along regional and tribal lines.

Here in the land where it all started, the hoped-for democracy has a head start, even if the politics of Tunisia are chaotic in advance of the Oct. 23 elections. There are well over 1,000 candidates in more than 100 political parties — and all claim Mohammed Bouazizi as their own. For when he burned himself to death following an altercation with a police woman late last year, he lept from total obscurity to hagiography in an instant.

Some say the police woman was stealing the fruit he was peddling. Others say she was arresting him because he didn’t have a permit. Yet others say he grabbed her breasts. But most agree that she slapped him, and that his startling suicide followed his humiliation at the hands of police authority.

That it was a police woman says something about Tunisia, for not all Arab countries have women cops in the street. Here you can see them regularly, for women enjoy more emancipation here than in many other Arab countries. Tunisia has more laws protecting women’s rights than any other country in the Arab world, according to Kadija Cherif, of the International Human Rights Federation.

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There is close to 100 percent literacy in Tunisia. It is also the most highly industrialized country in Africa after South Africa. Exports of auto-parts have been extremely important to Tunisia’s economy, and they have suffered since the economic downturn began in 2008. Youth unemployment, as in other Arab Spring countries, is high and as much as half the population may be under the age of 30.

Americans like to think of the Arab Spring as a cry for democracy bursting forth from the Arab soul, but the bad economy and unemployment may have set the tinder of revolt waiting for Mohammed Bouazizi to light the spark just as much as any democratic yearnings.

Certainly all classes of Tunisians felt the humiliation of the former dictatorship. Businessmen have told me of how in the former regime relatives and cronies of Zine Abdine Ben Ali would simply come along and ask to be part of their successful businesses; Godfather-like gangsters asking to let them “wet their beaks.”

My colleague and friend, Rami Khouri of the Beirut Star, calls the uprisings the Arab World’s “Rosa Parks moment,” after the African-American who just decided one day she was not going to sit in the back of the bus any longer.

Given that women’s rights are so advanced here, and they have the right to a western life style, it surprised me that Islamists are doing so well in public opinion polls in advance of the Oct. 23 election. You can see vineyards growing up the hillsides, and very good Tunisian wine can be bought and consumed in any restaurant. Few women, even in the countryside, go covered.

Yet the Islamist-leaning Al-Nadah, or the “Renaissance” Party, is way ahead in the polls. Some say that the Islamists are seen as more honest than the corrupt secularists and that they suffered more under the repression of the dictatorship. Others say it is because the Islamists are true to their values.

Public opinion polls indicate that Tunisians are much more worried about jobs and the economy than they are about “values,” so the secularists are hoping that voters will break their way when they come to vote in a couple of weeks’ time.

Of course, Al-Nadha has gone out of its way to paint itself as a moderate Islamist party, more in the mold of Turkey’s ruling party rather than the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has even been to the United States to talk up his moderate credentials. But the secularists here fear that he is hiding his Islamist agenda for the time being.

The October election will not be a winner-take-all election. There are party lists, and candidates will be seated in the new constituent assembly according to how many votes each party receives. So although they may run second, third or forth, the secular parties could, in coalition, out number Al-Nahda.

The constituent assembly will be tasked with writing a new constitution, appointing a president and forming a parliament — all in a year's time, although its term could be extended.

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Although there are still armored cars on street corners and concertina wire around public buildings, Tunis remains relatively peaceful, with crowded Parisian-style cafés along its tree-covered, bustling boulevards.

A double dip recession in Europe, which is looking more and more likely, will hurt Tunisia’s exports and add to the dangerous level of unemployment. But in the short run, the new Libyan regime has requested Tunisia’s help in rebuilding their shell-shattered cities, and Tunisians say that could employ almost a third of the currently unemployed.

It is hard to imagine that Islamists could turn all this into another Iran, and even though they will certainly have more to say in how this county is organized than before, the Taliban will not be moving to Tunis anytime soon.