Conflict & Justice

5 reasons why Tunisia should give us all hope


Tunisian children wave the national flag as they gather to mark the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Sidi Bouzid's Mohamed Bouazizi square on December 17, 2013. The square was named after the fruitseller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted the long-standing dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)



Tunisia rose to international prominence when a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010.

Bouazizi knew he had reached his personal limit when a municipal official confiscated his wares, humiliating him in public. What he didn't know was that his personal limit also indicated a threshhold for his country, indeed the entire region.


1) And the Arab Spring was born, inspiring worldwide protests

(Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

Many countries followed Tunisia's example, with masses of people in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya rising up against longstanding regimes. The worldwide Occupy movement, demonstrations in Turkey, ThailandUkraine and now Venezuela all followed Tunisia's example. But in few countries have things turned out as well as they have in Tunisia.

Consider Egypt, where the rollercoaster ride since January 2011 has included seven elections and referendums, but little progress. Egypt now looks poised to elect a military general not far off from Hosni Mubarak, the strongman protesters originally toppled. Libya remains locked in political turmoil, and Syria's three-year-long civil war shows no sign of letting up.


2) Meanwhile, Tunisia just revoked its state of emergency

(Fethi Beliad/AFP/Getty Images)

By contrast, politicians in Tunisia have shown the ability to compromise. Democratic institutions appear to be taking root. 

Just this month, the small North African country lifted a state of emergency that was imposed three years ago. Sure, it's a largely symbolic move, but it's one that shows security has improved in Tunisia — and what that actually means on the ground is far from symbolic. For Tunisians living their everyday lives, that means more freedom and less fear now that security forces have expressed confidence the threat from militants is under control.


3) And its constitution is more progressive than the US constitution

(Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

In January, Tunisia's National Assembly signed into action a new constitution that is being lauded as "one of the most progressive in the Arab world." 

In several key areas it surpasses even the US Constitution in terms of enshrining progressive ideals. There's environmental health: “Contribution to a sound climate and the right to a sound and balanced environment shall be guaranteed,” the constitution promises. And health care: “Health is a right for every person,” the document announces, declaring that Tunisia shall “guarantee preventative health care and treatment for every citizen and provide the means necessary to ensure the safety and good quality of health services.” Not to mention a commitment to bringing about gender "parity in the elected assembly." The charter also recognizes gender equality "without discrimination" in Tunisia.

And while it does designate Islam as the state religion, it also specifically protects "freedom of belief."


4) When things go bad, Tunisia has handled them well

(Fethi Beliad/AFP/Getty Images)

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Tunisia since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in January 2011, after 23 years in power. Two prominent leftists were assassinated in 2013, leading to more protests across the country.

But, as scholar Juan Cole puts it, "the Tunisian political class dealt with those crises about as well as one could hope." He writes:

The youth reassembled and demanded that the ruling al-Nahda or Renaissance prime minister step down. Organized labor stepped in as well. A compromise was hammered out — once the constitution is approved, Renaissance PM Larayyedh would step down in favor of a technocrat. The interim government will guide the country to further elections and referendums.


5) Tatooine

What list touting Tunisia's strengths would be complete without a reference to Tataouine, the Tunisian town in the Sahara desert where George Lucas located Star Wars' "Tatooine." The desert film set was all but forgotten until 2010, when photographer Ra Di Martino rediscovered it using Google Maps. Now it's a pilgrimage destination for die-hard Star Wars fans, with the support of the National Office of Tunisian Tourism.