Tunisia's persistence for democracy

While incidents such as the forcible end to demonstrations last Friday might suggest Tunisia has lost the spark that began the region's historic uprisings, the larger desire for democracy remains as strong as ever.

    There’s been much reporting in the past week about a faltering revolution in Tunisia - about looming sectarian battles, confrontation with police, impatience at the speed of change, and derision at what are regarded as show trials of a president in exile.

    Its accurate to say Tunisia has not had the best of times recently. The forcible end to demonstrations last Friday worried many, the shooting of a young boy in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid brought back memories of the violence that accompanied the revolution that began there, and the curfew that is in force in many parts is an all too uncomfortable reminder that things are far from normal.

    But to look at these specifics misses the big picture of what is happening here. It is just over six months since the former president fled the state - a truly brief period in a country that measures its history in thousands of years. And in this time much has been achieved, not least the creation of a new and vibrant political debate.

    More than 90 political parties say they’ll contest the elections in October - they range right across the spectrum from far right to extreme left- with the majority elbowing each other in the middle. The sense that people themselves can make change has not gone away, the belief that the mechanism to do this lies in a democratic political process is one that is clearly held by the majority.

    In recent days, there have been marches for peace, demonstrations in support of the transitional government, gatherings in support of the once outlawed Al-Nahda movement - all of them fairly light-hearted affairs with an air of carnival rather than the aim of imposing ideology on the public.

    Then there’s also been an ongoing debate about what will be the fundamental nature of a new Tunisian society. It has been largely linked to what appears to be a rise in support for Islamist parties - opinion polls indicating that al-Nahda has carved out an early lead in this pre-election race.

    A few have responded with anger and fear, particularly in the wake of an attack last month on a Tunis cinema that was showing a secular movie. There have also been rumours of women with heads uncovered being harassed, of restaurants selling alcohol receiving threats - nothing confirmed but enough to cause some to mutter darkly about the threat to Tunisia’s tradition of secularism.

    Some politicians go so far as to claim that a party like An-Nahda is using the guise of democracy to impose an Islamist society - but this would appear to be largely public posturing. In private conversations there’s general agreement that democracy is not the preserve of the secular, and in the new Tunisia there should be a voice for all.

    Al-Nahda’s support may well rest in the fact that it is the party that most vigorously opposed the previous government, and paid a heavy price for it. Many of its supporters jailed, or forced to go into exile.

    One of these was the party leader Rachid Gannouchi - a soft-spoken man with a shining intellect and perky sense of humour.

    When the issue of Al-Nahda’s democratic credentials is brought up he smiles and gently points out - “ there are a lot of the seculars closer to us than the ex-mufti of the Tunisian Republic who favoured Ben Ali. The confrontation in Tunisia right now is between the supporters of the revolution and those against it. In each of those two groups there are both religious and non-religious people”.

    Things can still go wrong - but somehow there is a sense that they will not - having got this far on the path to a better society few are going to give up.

    Perhaps the ones muttering about gloom and doom are those who never believed in democracy in the first place.


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