Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tunisia Must Hold Its Nerve For Democracy's Sake

Post-revolution, Tunisia's political class must build on national goodwill and work collectively to ensure transition to democracy

By Rachel Linn
Tunisia protestors January 24 2011
'Goodwill is arguably Tunisia's strongest asset from its cross-ideological revolution', which began in January. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
The idea of a revolution is inherently romantic and, after watching the scenes of defiance that gripped Tunisia during the overthrow of President Ben Ali, I was eager to return and observe how much has changed since my visit for PhD research last year.
From my conversations with the country's emerging political class, as well as ordinary citizens, it is clear Tunisia is confronting the challenges of practising real pluralism for the first time.
On the surface, the most encouraging aspect is the attitude of its population. Tunisians carry a well-deserved sense of pride and purpose from the revolution. Everyone I spoke to seemed politically engaged and eager to voice opinions, even if most Tunisians do not yet know precisely what they want from a future government.
A healthy – if at times controversial – protest culture has been sustained by a consortium of youth activists and civil society groups. They have forced successive waves of old regime members to leave government, and continue pressuring the interim institutions to deliver on their promises.
There is also a clear path for moving forward. Elections for a constituent assembly are planned for 23 October. That body is to deliver a new constitution within a year, and parliamentary and potentially presidential elections will then proceed based on the new rules.
In short, the country stands a reasonable chance of emerging as a full democracy within the next 18 months. My impression is that the Tunisian transition may well succeed because clear signposts exist to maintain the trust of a vigilant population while democratic institutions are being built.
However, those actually working within the transitional process see the country as being "calm on the surface only". Despite their undisputed support for the revolution, the politicians involved in implementing its aims are struggling to establish pluralism within an elite culture that has no experience of it.
With more than 80 political parties registered since January, there has been a cacophony of new political voices accompanied by smear campaigns. Almost all major political figures have already been disgraced in some manner, and many Tunisians I spoke with seemed despairing over their political choices. An estimated 54% of the population remain undecided as to who they will vote for in October.
Rather than working to reduce the chaos, however, most political parties seem more interested in squaring off against one another, and are not building a framework of trust to enable power-sharing in an eventual government. Part of this negativity has resulted from the rapid ascendance of al-Nahda (Renaissance party), a previously banned, moderate Islamist movement that is polling the strongest at present. Nahda has an edge over its competitors due largely to its reputation as the movement that consistently challenged both Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
Tens of thousands of Nadha supporters were imprisoned or fled into exile during the 1980s and early 1990s. The movement was essentially absent from Tunisian public life after 1991, though its members began to meet in secret again from 1999 onward.
This history gives Nahda's leaders a certain credibility with the population, and the movement has reorganised aggressively since obtaining legal recognition in March.
Though few observers – including Nahda's own leaders – believe the party could realistically attract more than 20-30% of the vote, its re-emergence has created a sense of paranoia within the rest of the political class that is feeding a dangerous polarisation.
As Nejib Chebbi, the leader of the second largest party, the Progressive Democratic party, puts it: "I am not worried about the Islamists so much as the democrats." His point is that many pro-democracy politicians have united in their criticism of Nahda, but without offering sound political alternatives themselves.
The media is rife with anti-Nahda discourse and, while it is fair that the movement's leaders should be questioned on issues important to Tunisians – such as their position on the country's liberal personal status code – Nahda-bashing should not be used as an excuse by other parties to avoid developing clear programmes.
If citizens are not happy with the options available in October, or if the elections do not deliver a result that shares power among a broad range of viewpoints, there is a fear that Tunisians' patience with the transitional process could unravel quickly.
Then there is the economic situation. Though the removal of Ben Ali's corrupt regime will undoubtedly be positive for Tunisia's long-term growth, Mohamed Ben Romdhane, an economist affiliated with the leftist Ettajdid party, explains that in the short term the situation has worsened dramatically. This is due largely to a complete lack of private-sector job growth (which usually accounts for 80% of new jobs created annually) while domestic and foreign investors wait to assess the stability of the new government.
In the best-case scenario, Romdhane estimates that, if a democratic system is in place by the end of 2012, investors will begin to return. However, because of the time lag between investment decisions and actual job creation, Tunisia may face another four or five years of social and economic crisis before citizens start to see any improvement.
Asking the thousands of unemployed young Tunisians who took part in the revolution to wait another five years is not so easy. The fury of youth displayed in the revolution is a real fear, and hence it is vital that a strong, national consensus supporting the work of the transitional institutions is maintained while change comes gradually.
Tunisia's politicians may succeed in building on the existing national goodwill (arguably their country's strongest asset from its cross-ideological revolution) but there is still a risk they could lose the faith of the population before October. Avoiding polarisation and practising real pluralism – by accepting different viewpoints and exchanging ideas in a respectful, transparent manner – is vital at this stage. If the political class can hold its nerve, Tunisia stands a chance of becoming the Arab world's first self-determined democracy.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 11/08/2011
Rachel Linn is a PhD candidate in International Studies at the University of Cambridge

No comments:

Post a Comment