Don’t Abandon Tunisia
Tunisia's new democrats have made an amazing start. But they worry the world will forget them.
Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution" launched the wave of popular uprisings that has rocked the Arab world. It has also gone furthest in overturning an authoritarian political system and remains the most likely to produce a genuine transition to democracy. Tunis, which I just visited on a four-day research trip, is today a vibrant capital city full of optimism and impassioned debate. But the spontaneous, leaderless uprising that ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has left in its wake a crisis of political legitimacy that nobody seems to know how to resolve.
The towering building in central Tunis that was the headquarters of Ben Ali’s RCD party is deserted and daubed with graffiti behind its Army guard and barbed wire. It is a vivid embodiment of the sudden and total collapse of his 23-year regime. Ben Ali’s appointees still occupy the posts of president and prime minister, while the interim cabinet is mostly made up of technocrats who had each made his personal accommodation with the preceding regime. On paper, the government has huge power because the parliament (again, still filled with Ben Ali’s lackeys) has given the president the right to govern by decree. But — in striking contrast with the situation in Egypt — no one seems afraid that the interim authorities will try to consolidate their position and stay in office. Instead the danger is the opposite: The old regime is so utterly discredited that the current leaders who have emerged from its wreckage barely have the authority to govern at all.
The government has taken some sensible and widely welcomed steps to dismantle Ben Ali’s authoritarian state. It has liberated the media, allowed political parties to organize, declared an amnesty for political crimes, and moved to dissolve the RCD party. What the government apparently cannot do is enforce its will against public opposition. A month after it drove Ben Ali out, the street continues to rule. The foreign minister in the second interim cabinet was forced out of office by his own staff after he went on television and, as one observer put it, "failed his job interview." Among other missteps, he made a bad impression by refusing to use the term "revolution" to describe Tunisia’s change of regime.
Demonstrations continue daily in Tunis and around the country as people seek to highlight the myriad grievances that went unexpressed during Ben Ali’s oppressive rule. Outside the capital, local administration is paralyzed as townspeople refuse to accept the authority of the remnants of the old regime. Last weekend, tens of thousands of people packed the square outside the prime minister’s residence demanding that he leave office. One Tunisian with whom I spoke told me he knew of other recent demonstrations that called for Tunisians to stop protesting and attend to the needs of their country by getting back to work.
Post-revolutionary Tunisia is a society without ground rules. The most urgent question concerns the political transition. According to the Constitution, there should be a presidential election within 60 days of Ben Ali’s resignation, which happened on Jan. 14. All political groups agree that this is unrealistic, but some favor a presidential election this summer under a revised electoral code to produce a government with the authority to take charge. The more radical parts of civil society strongly oppose this idea. They see it as a recipe for an aborted revolution because the new president would take office under the existing Constitution, giving him sweeping powers that he might then be reluctant to dilute. For these groups, the priority is to elect a constituent assembly that can write a new, genuinely democratic constitution, and only then elect a new leader.
The government has set up a commission on political reform to advise on these questions, and most observers expect it to recommend a presidential election first. But the commission is only a consultative body, and the government appears to lack the credibility to sell its recommendations to the country. In response, a group of activists has launched what it calls the Committee to Safeguard the Revolution, but this has itself become bogged down in disputes about whether it was set up in a sufficiently inclusive way. The situation is all too clearly a consequence of the distinctive nature of the revolution in Tunisia as a self-organizing and decentralized popular uprising. In contrast, again, with Egypt, a popular leadership has not emerged. Rank-and-file union members played a big part in the uprising, but their leaders are compromised by the close ties they had to Ben Ali’s regime. Only the top ranks of the Army retain broad popular support because of the decisive role they played in forcing Ben Ali’s departure, but so far the generals have stayed outside the political sphere.
Another burning question is what role Ben Ali’s officials should play in Tunisia’s regeneration. Under Ben Ali’s centralized and tightly controlled system, the party and the state were virtually synonymous. For the country to start working again, Tunisians will need to reach a consensus on what level of involvement with the regime should disqualify people from public life, while retaining enough people with administrative experience to keep things going in the meantime. Two further commissions, on corruption and on violence against protesters during the revolution, may help draw lines between those complicit in Ben Ali’s crimes and those who were merely official functionaries. Many are dissatisfied, however, that the commission on violent abuses does not have the mandate to investigate the actions of the regime before the uprising began at the end of last year. Handling the police force, at once the hated enforcer of Ben Ali’s rule and an essential element in restoring stability in the country, will pose a particularly tricky challenge.
Tunisia needs to build an entirely new political society from scratch: an effective administration that can lead economic regeneration, as well as organized political parties, an independent and capable judiciary, civil society, and media organizations with national reach. Tunisians are eager for information about the experience of transition and political development elsewhere around the world, but again and again they told me of their strong pride in what their country achieved without outside help. This was not a political or ideological uprising, but above all a national movement of popular self-assertion.
Many Tunisians scorn the European Union and particularly the most prominent member states like France and Italy for their largely uncritical relations with Ben Ali, but Europe could still play a role in offering advice from its experience of transition if requested and in providing investment to help ease Tunisia’s transition to democracy. So could the United States and international institutions such as the World Bank. Finding a solution to the country’s political stalemate, however, is something Tunisians will have to do for themselves.
In the best scenario, economic regeneration and political transition would reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle, leading to a political settlement that enjoys popular support and provides the stability for jobs and economic growth. Although Ben Ali’s immediate circle was highly corrupt, the wider economy in Tunisia functioned fairly well; foreign diplomats are relatively sanguine about the country’s economic prospects, though delivering jobs in the underdeveloped southern and inland regions will require sustained investment.
It is possible too that a charismatic leader might emerge who can mobilize the country’s pride in its revolution into a consensus on national development. Most likely this would not be one of the currently known political figures, but someone younger who can more plausibly speak for the new generation that led the uprising. The biggest danger to the revolution is that the interaction of political and economic challenges will turn negative, leading to serious popular discontent after today’s euphoria has subsided. It matters greatly, too, what happens in the rest of North Africa: Tunisians say they will draw confidence if they are the pioneers of a genuine democratic trend, rather than emerging as a lone democracy amid a tide of authoritarian consolidation in the region.