A path to democracy paved with pitfalls

Would you like some good news on international affairs? About a place that survived a dictatorship and revolution, and created its own constitution and democratic government? It’s not America, but Tunisia.

Yes, Tunisia! Battered by centuries of invasions and a 35-year dictatorship, four groups forged a new constitution to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

During a week-long School for International Training faculty workshop, seven professors met with historical and archeological experts, members of Parliament and political parties, non-governmental organization leaders, two Nobel Prize-winning groups and the Tunisian president. We found that every Tunisian carries a serious torch for democracy and our local coordinators, Mounier Khalifa and Najeb Ben Lazreg, spun stories from ancient cultures to current political intrigue.

After the fall of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisians set up a “Troika,” an alliance between three parties — the Congress for the Republic, with a provisional president; Ettakatol, led by the president of the National Constituent Assembly; and the Islamic party of Ennahdha, led by Rached Ghnaoucchi.

For a year, National Constituent Assembly President Mustafa Ben Jafar wrote most of the new constitution through 600 meetings with lawyers, technocrats, religious leaders, trade unions, business leaders and party leaders. They developed their “Four Freedoms” — Dignity through jobs, social justice through equality, liberty through freedom of conscience, and democracy through universal suffrage.

The goal was to transform the one-party state into a responsive administration with human rights and gender equality. The election commission now requires each party to field equal numbers of women on their candidate lists.

How successful were they? The new constitution was ratified by 200 out of 217 electoral representatives! Tunisia now has over 200 political parties, 85 newspapers and more than 40 TV and radio stations, one of which (Mosaique) is a well-respected regional news service. Citizens now have multiple internet platforms and engage in spirited conversations at cafes over espressos, mint tea, beer or Turkish ice cream.

Despite factionalization, the best analogy is a rugby scrum — where the players push and pull as the scrum moves around the field. Their fate is truly intertwined with each other.

The path to democracy is paved with pitfalls. Youth unemployment, especially among college graduates is high (an estimated 240,000 are out of work). Endemic corruption (estimated 40 percent of GDP) and low foreign direct investment (only 88 large companies in Tunisia) means low funds for infrastructure or business development.

 Thanks to the internet and social media, demonstrations are frequent. Plus, the establishment of the final check and balance — a federal judiciary — is past its one year due date.

However, several times, Tunisians have turned away from physical carnage. Just before former President Ben Ali left the country, the Army refused to fire on thousands of demonstrators. Even after two assassinations and the most recent killing of two demonstrators in the oil town of Tataouine, the fervent demonstrations have not degraded into the violence of Egypt or lawlessness of neighboring Libya.

We stayed in a vibrant capital city, Tunis, visited Roman ruins and Dougga, a World Heritage site that is waiting for you. Police presence was high in the Tunis City Centre but moderate along the highways and I saw no “baksheesh” (bribes) changing hands. A meeting with current President Beji Caid Essebsi and a tour of the presidential palace included viewing priceless archeological artifacts and a stunning reception room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He met Donald Trump ceremonially in Saudi Arabia but said he would withhold judgment until the Group of 7 summit. Then he smiled.

The strength of the post-revolutionary period is a deep passion for true democracy, a secular state with religious freedom. Despite this preference for a secular democracy, the religious Ennhadha party surprisingly won the most parliamentary seats and the first freely elected presidency. But the party is conflicted over how much Islamization they will tolerate and how money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be used for non-secular purposes, especially in education.

Late in the Second Continental Congress, Ben Franklin addressed the contentious assembly, “Gentlemen, if we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.” Tunisians now recognize the opportunity of a lifetime to become the envy of the Arab world. If they hang together, this could be a bright spot in a region not known for stability and democracy.

Now doesn’t that just brighten your day?

— Ed Kellerman is a master lecturer and Fulbright Scholar in the Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication in the University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His full-length video on the trip is available on YouTube athttp://bit.ly/tunisiatrip.


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