Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tunisia Heading In The Right Direction

If its electoral course goes according to plan, the country could indeed become a beacon for the rest of the Arab world
End of the road
Former Tunisian president Bin Ali and his wife Leila attend a parade on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence on March 21, 2006. The second trial of Tunisia's former president opened dramatically Monday with the court-appointed defence lawyers walking out after their request for a postponement was denied. (AFP)

Compared with the other upheavals across the Arab world this year, Tunisia's is still the runaway winner. Since the country's dictator, Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, with his wife, Laila Trabelsi, flew off to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after a nationwide uprising that lasted barely a month, there have been political hiccups, sit-ins, strikes and riots, especially in the fly-blown towns of the interior, and several new governments. But under Al Baji Qaed Al Sibsi, an avuncular 84-year-old who first served in a cabinet in the 1960s and took over as prime minister on February 27, Tunisia has calmed down. "People think things are going better than they thought they would the day after the revolution," says a diplomat.
The postponement until October 23 of an election to a constituent assembly originally scheduled for July 24 was widely accepted with good grace after the independent electoral commission said it could not prepare properly in time. The country has a clear path ahead. The assembly, once elected, is expected to draw up a constitution within a year, perhaps even sooner, paving the way for a full-blown election. Tunisia is in with a good chance of having a decent democracy and a perky economy by the end of next year.

Its transitional government has a clutch of competent technocrats in key positions, several of whom worked abroad for many years in western banks but were lured back by the call of patriotism. "Tunisia could be an amazing place," says Jalloul Ayed, the finance minister, a former Citibank man and composer of classical symphonies. "We have a bright, highly educated population. We're close to Europe's markets. We have the right to dream of Tunisia as the Singapore of the Mediterranean. We could achieve it in five to seven years — with a few adjustments."
Islamist influence

The constituent assembly will comprise a range of secular and Islamist parties. More than 90 have registered. In a system of proportional representation in large constituencies, fewer than 10 of them will probably get seats. The new constitution is likely to be both presidential and parliamentary, perhaps resembling the model of France, with which Tunisia still has many links. "But we don't want it to be presidentialist," says Rafaa Bin Achour, a minister of state and constitutional lawyer, stressing the last syllable.
Virtually every opinion poll puts Nahda, the main Islamist party, in the lead. It wins kudos for its courage and incorruptibility under Bin Ali, who imprisoned many of its leaders (and at one time a good 5,000 of the rank and file), some of them for 20 years. But no poll suggests that Nahda would come close to getting an outright majority. A recent one gave it 14 per cent; its main rival, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), in the secular centre, got 5 per cent. More than two-thirds of Tunisians said they had not made up their minds. Few people, even the Islamists, predict that it will get more than 25 per cent.

The big question is whether Nahda, led by a dignified 70-year-old, Rashid Gannouchi, who returned this year after more than 20 years in exile, mostly in London, will emerge as the most potent single political force — and whether secular Tunisians, whose various parties together could easily form a majority, would allow it to wield a dominant influence, let alone untrammelled power.
Many of the three-quarters or so of Tunisians who do not consider themselves Islamist mistrust Nahda, many of them deeply. Secular-minded Tunisians accuse it of speaking in different tongues to different people. "They do not understand democracy or freedom," says Mustapha Mezghani, a businessman who has set up a liberal party. "The least one can say is that they are ambiguous," says Maya Jribi, the PDP's co-leader, while deploring Nahda's tendency, as she puts it, to "use the mosque for sending its political message".

Most Tunisians seem aware that excluding Nahda from power could be more destabilising for the country than letting it in, perhaps even as a partner in coalition, at least during a jittery period of transition.
In any event, Tunisia needs a financial helping hand for the next year or so. In late May the G8 group of rich countries promised $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) to Tunisia and Egypt in loans and grants over the next three years, of which several billion are to go to Tunisia — the first tranche, according to the finance minister, within a few weeks. It is sorely needed. Economic growth, which was nearly 4 per cent last year, will fall this year to less than 1 per cent. Tourism, which accounted for 7 per cent of GDP, has collapsed. Youth unemployment is around 23 per cent, according to the labour minister. The minimum industrial wage for a 48-hour week is about $50. Of the 700,000 officially reckoned to be jobless in a population of 10.6 million, some 170,000 are graduates—the angriest part of a populace that helped spark the revolution.

"If there is another social explosion, democracy will be stymied," says Jribi. Almost everyone in Tunis agrees, often adding that it is also vital that Libya, by far its closest neighbour, also comes right, with Muammar Gaddafi removed. "We consider the Libyan people an extension of the Tunisian people," says the finance minister. If Libya is set free and Tunisia's own electoral course goes according to plan, with the angry young men in such towns as Kasserine persuaded to hold their breath, the country could indeed become a beacon for the rest of the Arab world.
This commentary was published in The Economist on 19/07/2011

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