Tunisians wave their national flag and chant slogans during a march against extremism outside Tunis' Bardo Museum on March 29, 2015. (Fehti Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia: An Imperfect Blueprint For Post-Arab Spring Reform

As much of the Middle East remains in upheaval, the North African country offers a blueprint for relative stability

The Arab Spring swept across the Middle East like a sandstorm, creating a wave of political change, some positive, much negative. One country that appears to have come out the other side of instability in better shape is Tunisia, where the upheaval started.

It was on December 17, 2010 that lowly fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, having been embarrassed by a female officer, set himself on fire outside of the local police headquarters. His self-immolation set off a chain of popular protests that, less than a month later, led to the ouster of longtime Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. By then, mass demonstrations had spread throughout the region, toppling governments in their wake and ushering in hope of a democratic revolution.

But as Egypt, Libya and Syria, among other countries, reverted back to dictatorship, military rule or descended into civil war, Tunisia distinguished itself by holding elections that for the most part were deemed free and fair. Thus, as government officials ostensibly represent the people, Tunisia perhaps is the best post-Arab Spring model for reform.

After Ben Ali’s exit, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, an Islamist political party, won 37 percent of the country’s first vote for the Constituent Assembly, more than the next four biggest parties combined. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi thereafter made the historic decision to form a coalition with secularist and nationalist parties, a perceived moderation and open-mindedness that prompted Time Magazine to name him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012.

Had Ghannouchi instead clamored for power and attempted to consolidate religious rule—not unlike Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, for example—it likely would have been impossible for Nidaa Tounes, a “big tent” secularist political party, to win a plurality of seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, beating out Ennahdha by a margin of 85-69. Nidaa Tounes’ founding leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presidential vote one month later, and since August 2016 fellow party member Youssef Chahed has served as premier.

“Tunisia’s history as a mercantile nation helps with its politics,” according to Gordon Brown, Secretary of the American Tunisian Association. “It’s only 90 miles from Italy and even when it was in the hands of the French, it was generally very liberal and cosmopolitan compared to its neighbors Libya, Algeria and Egypt,” he elaborated to The Media Line.

Nevertheless, Brown noted that Tunisia’s government remains dominated by “personalities” and there exists a large political divide between the country’s more populous coastal regions and the rural interior. “You’re starting to see the current government relax some commercial laws to allow more native Tunisians to invest, build new businesses and create jobs,” he stressed, “but, by and large, most of the economic power lies in the hands of a few families.”

Indeed, while Tunisia has benefited from relative political stability the nation is still plagued by many of the problems that stimulated the rebellion, particularly economic stagnation and inequality. “The economy isn’t doing too well and there’s high unemployment. It’s not as picturesque as it seems,” Robert Rabil, Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, explained to The Media Line. He also highlighted attempts by Muslim extremists to subvert the government through terrorism, most notably the 2015 attack at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, which killed twenty-two people; and the massacre of thirty-eight people only three months later at a resort near the city of Sousse.

In both instances, terrorists chose to target foreigners with a view to harming Tunisia’s economy, which depends largely on tourism. In this respect, Rabil made clear that “there is still high underemployment, especially among young adults it’s around 40 percent, and a situation like that makes it difficult for the government and makes it perfect for groups like the Islamic State to come and recruit people.”

In fact, a tenuous security situation coupled with economic uncertainty—specifically, austerity measures implemented by the government which included a hike in fuel prices and new taxes on goods—once again triggered a series of protests in January of this year. At least one individual was killed in clashes with police, who made hundreds of arrests over a two-week period. For many, it was a reminder of Tunisia’s ongoing fragility; this, despite being held in high regard by the international community and as an example of what a post-Arab Spring government could look like.

As for the citizens of Tunisia, they will soon have the opportunity to again make their voices heard through the ballot box. “There are going to be some elections happening in May,” Brown concluded, “so we’ll find out how the Tunisian people feel about their government and whether they want change or to keep the course.”

(Nate Nkumbu is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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