Tunisia: The old is dying, the new is yet to be born

Tunisia is heading towards democracy, even if wounded and limping.

Tunisia protester with flag
The goals of the revolution in Tunisia have not yet been achieved but the country is seeing some progress [AFP]

As with landmark events which caught scholars of International Relations and political analysts off guard, the Arab Spring has been one such phenomenon, provoking countless heated debates as to why it happened, how to deal with it and where it is heading.

Three years later, Tunisia, where everything started, is still struggling. However, it looks like that country will be the last glimpse of hope in the region.

“Work, freedom, and national dignity!” have not yet been attained. Although not dead and not even on hold.The process is as slow as the constitution-writing, it, however, remains work-in-progress. The ancien regime did not collapse entirely, but counterrevolution is not succeeding either. The “Islamist Winter” appears to be an all-seasons mixture. And as the country enters its fourth year in the age of revolution, a new government is taking office, imposed by civil society and political compromise rather than by police or the army. Revolution is in transition.

“Is it better now?”

This is the question journalists like to ask in Tunisia’s coffee shops.

“No”is the easy answer. “Yes”is the hard one.

By the end of 2011, as the “Jasmine Revolution” – a mushy orientalist concept which denotes the Tunisian contribution to the Arab Spring – was blowing its first candle, it was common to hear statements such as “Nothing has changed”. In late 2013, “It was better before” became the mantra of the street.

Tunisia marks third anniversary of uprising

A grim assessment of the situation today would suggest that three years on; the economy is collapsing, commodity prices are going up, unemployment is rising, while the tourism industry is facing uncertainty. Strikes and workers’ demonstrations are also a common occurance in all institutions. Many state-owned factories are subject to sabotage by former regime employees. Meanwhile, the rulingTroika (The ruling coalition of al-Nahda, the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR), and the centre-left party Ettakatol) was busy allocating more state positions to its sympathizers than to competent people.

Security situation continues to deteriorate. Terrorism-related news is a daily routine by now, with a series of attacks on the police and the military, as well as a number of (failed) bombings targeting civilians. Horrific crimes rates are reported on TV while robbery and burglary became more frequent and it is widely advised to avoid certain roads after dark.

But those nagging about such issues do not consider the global economic crisis, the Euro crisis and the regional political and security conditions. They tend to forget that there was a time, not long ago, when reporting the tiniest issue in the media was a risky business under the former regime. They fail to realise that workers are finally able to reject the injustices imposed on them and demand their rights. They skip the fact that they have moved from a police state to an embryonic democracy.

Nevertheless, economy and security were Ben Ali’s two success stories; losing them for freedom is not what the average citizen wants. Their regression marks the failure of all the governments brought by the revolution. They should be the next prime minister’s priorities.

Freedom and National Dignity

Freedom is the highest reward of the Arab Spring. Tunisians can speak now about anything, anywhere, to anyone. They can also widen the scope of their dreams, think of projects without fearing the bullying of the “ruling family”, and have the opportunity to apply them on the ground as restrictions relaxed. This is what Al Bawsala, and Tunisia Live, are doing. Both are  youth-led initiatives; while the first is an NGO monitoring the Constituent Assembly and its irregularities, the second is an independent e-journal also created and managed by young people.

Scores of Tunisians, especially students and young adults, participate in civil society actions or have a very active (socially committed) Facebook life. This reclaiming of the public space will usher in the birth of Tunisia’s civil society, the direct consequence of freedom and the fulfilment of national dignity.

Moreover, there is a growing interest in the country’s history and more willingness to discuss politics. In fact, the assassination of culture and the depoliticisation of society were among Ben Ali’s deeds: archaeological lootings, censorship, propagandistic forms of art, sports as quasi-religion, etc. So It may be a “youth revolution hijacked by the older generation” until now, but it is up to the younger generation to act and push.By learning his/her past and discussing politics or organising community service, a leader of his/her own destiny, if the economic and security situation improves, is born.

‘Arab Spring, Islamist Winter?’

The period following al-Nahda party victory in the October 2011 election, and the emerging of fundamentalist Salafist groups, were dubbed the most sensitive time in the post-revolution setting. The way the Islamist party appointed its affiliates in different positions, how its associates – the Leagues to Protect the Revolution (LPR) – crushed their opponents, the different attacks and killings, presumably perpetrated by Jihadi Salafists, were factors that contributed to creating a culture of  legitimate fear among segements of society.

As time went by, however, al-Nahda was isolated and weakened, internally because of the economic situation, and internationally due to the regional transformations climaxing in Egypt’s July 3 putsch. Its leaders also understood that flirting with Salafists was a dangerous game. The US Embassy incident served as a grim reminder of that reality. Therefore, a conflict emerged between the government and Ansar al-Sharia, the main Salafi movement in Tunisia. The LPR, on the other hand, are keeping a low profile recently.

The several compromises that al-Nahda accepted to make – willingly or under pressure – by refraining from including Sharia, the Islamic law, in the constitution to having its officials resign and handing over power, are all indicators that the Spring is still shining: Arab, Islamists, secularist and Universal.

While the trumpets of counterrevolution announce the triumph of its forces in Egypt, Libya and Syria, Tunisian revolutionaries continue their advances slow, but steady. Its transitional process seems to work, its institutions function against all odds. If the “Tunisian scenario” succeeds, it can become the trigger of another revolution.

Tiny Cuba was, after all, the (non-democratic) launchpad of a socialist revolution which thrived decades later. Democratic Tunisia can similarly become the locomotive of the greatest Arab Revolution, giving Arabs their freedom and dignity as citizens, allowing them to become the makers of their own history and future. 

Youssef Cherif is a Tunisian award-winning blogger (Fayla) and a frequent writer/commentator on North African Issues, with focus on Tunisia. He holds two masters degrees, in Ancient History/Archaeology (Fulbright MA, Columbia University) and International Relations (Chevening MA, King’s College London).