Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. But the country’s future will not be assured without international support. It must fortify a weak economy, combat crime and terrorism, and continue government reforms.
By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Op-ed published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2014
In Roman times wild animals paced beneath Tunisia’s El Jem colosseum, ready to spring into mortal combat with gladiators – usually slaves fighting for their lives and sometimes freedom – as an audience looked on. Recently I paced the floor of this same amphitheater, trying to imagine its history – and future.
Today, Tunisia is engaged in its own struggle for the life of its new democracy. Though a small country – 64,000 square miles with 11 million people – Tunisia is vital to regional stability. Now this ancient North African country where the Arab Spring began is poised to become the first success in the region – but only if it can shore up a weak economy, curb the dual threats of terrorism and crime, and continue needed government reforms.
Three years after a young street vendor set himself on fire to protest the authorities’ harassment and corruption, three years after the citizens rose up and ejected their longtime autocratic leader, Tunisia has laid the groundwork for its future. In January, the citizenry adopted a new Constitution that was widely debated and passed with the votes of more than 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly. All sectors endorse and are proud of the forward-leaning Constitution, which balances the secular and religious and is looked at as a model for the region.
As a further mark of progress, the Assembly recently passed a law establishing a judicial body to determine the constitutionality of new laws. It will be replaced by a new constitutional court after the next election. This opens the way now for the Assembly to pass a law to set up elections, which are anticipated this year.
Many donors and investors, particularly in the West and in the Gulf, are awaiting these elections before they commit further aid. Citizens are hoping the partisanship that divided the country after the revolution won’t reemerge. As one trade union leader told me, this frustration helped pave the way for the new government: “Technocrats were accepted as an interim government because people were fed up with political parties.”
A Marshall Plan for Tunisia
Still, large challenges lie ahead for Tunisia. The greatest is the economy, which remains state-controlled and relies on large subsidies it can’t afford. Some say the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa visited the United States and the Gulf in April looking for financial assistance, including loan guarantees.
Mr. Jomaa has agreed with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund that the subsidy programs must be cut back or ended, but there are political and societal costs when prices on energy and food suddenly rise and government employment decreases. Unemployment is already more than 15 percent and as much as 40 percent among youth. In a show of good faith, President Moncef Marzouki recently announced he is taking a two-thirds pay cut.
But Tunisia’s future will not be assured without international support. As Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, said to me and a small gathering of international observers: “We need a Marshall Plan for Tunisia and the Maghreb.”
The threat of terrorism
Another threat to Tunisia’s progress is terrorism, along with weapons flows and black market smuggling across the borders of neighboring Algeria and Libya.
“Gangsters control weapons and drug traffic,” Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent journalist and human rights activist, told me. She explained the context that gives rise to violence and illicit activity. “We don’t want to give religious cover to jihadists who are really criminals. The violence is created by poverty. There is a generation of young people marginalized. The state doesn’t have money. The money is in the gray economy, which some say is 60 percent of the economy.”
In order to curb the threat of violent extremism and its links to crime, Tunisia must continue to address the poverty and disillusionment that fuel it. Economic reforms and foreign aid to support economic growth are thus doubly important to Tunisia’s future.
Out with the old
Tunisia must also dismantle and reform the structures of the old dictatorship, including the police and the Ministry of the Interior. Close observers say that the success of the country’s democratic transition depends on the government’s ability to decentralize as well.
The concentration of government at the national level has bred corruption. As Ms. Bensedrine put it: “As long as [the] administration is centralized, it gets many privileges.” Decentralization (establishing more empowered regional governments) has been enshrined in the new Constitution to allow a more equitable distribution of revenue and governance.
“The country has long been divided by its coastal wealth and poorer interior,” former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali explained to me and our small group of international visitors. Some legislators are thus looking to redraw regions so each includes both coastal and interior areas.
Reasons to hope
In spite of the challenges it faces, Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. For one, it has an educated population (both women and men) and has a 90 percent literacy rate. Women also hold key positions in the public and private workforce.
In addition, Tunisia’s proximity to Europe (geographically, culturally, and historically) facilitates exports and manufacturing. Tunisia also offers a historical bridge between Islam and secularism, one that has played a key role in its democratic transition – and will help it maintain international support going forward.
As I stood in Tunisia’s famous amphitheater (the setting for the movie “Gladiator”), two things were clear to me: The beasts of poverty, terrorism, and criminality wait just beneath the surface to destroy Tunisia’s democratic dream. But Tunisia is also poised to show that more-benevolent and more-moderate forces, including the citizens’ own determination to have democracy, can prevail.
We – the international community – are the spectators in this great match. But we cannot just sit in the audience and watch. For the sake of Tunisia – and the region – the world must engage and support Tunisia’s economic and political progress. As one local governor told me, “We are determined to succeed with a democratic state. We will not go back!”
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman visited political, business, and civil society leaders in Tunisia as part of a recent trip with the International Crisis Group, of which she is a board member. Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is also a former reporter for the Monitor.
Grandstands are rising around Washington, DC. The U.S. is preparing for the Inauguration of a new President whose campaign mobilized a record number of citizens and focused on themes of hope and change.
Half way around the globe in the world’s most populous country, a relatively small group of citizens are proposing radical change for their nation, change which reflects in large part the ideals upon which the United States was founded. However, the proponents of this change have been interrogated and arrested.
On December 10, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 300 leading mainland Chinese citizens—writers, economists, political scientists, retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession and human rights defenders–issued Charter 08. Charter 08 sets out a vision for a democratic China based on the citizen not the party, with a government founded on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Charter 08 doesn’t offer reform of the current political system so much as an end to features like one-party rule. Since its release, more than 5000 citizens across China have added their names to Charter 08.
Before the document was even published, the Chinese authorities detained two of the leading authors Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua and have since interrogated dozens of others who signed. Most have been released though they continue to be watched. However, Liu Xiaobo, a major writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, remains in custody with no word of his whereabouts and fears that he will be charged with “serious crimes against the basic principles of the Republic.” The Chinese government has also blocked or deleted websites and blogs that carry Charter 08.
Charter 08 was inspired by a similar action during the height of the Soviet Union when writers and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia issued Charter 77 in January, 1977. Charter 77 called for protection of basic civil and political rights by the state. Among the signatories was Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned for his involvement but went on to become the President of the Czech Republic after the Soviet Union ended.
Citizens around the globe, including Vaclav Havel, Nobel laureates, human rights defenders, writers, economists, lawyers, academics, have rallied in support of those who signed Charter 08. The European Union has expressed grave concern at the arrest of Liu Xiaobo and others. Petitions in support of Charter 08 and in protest over the detention of Liu Xiaobo are circulating around the world.
The arrest of Liu Xiaobo happened on the eve of Human Rights Day and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year 2008 is also the 110th Anniversary of China’s Wuxu Political Reform, the 100th Anniversary of China’s first Constitution and the 10th Anniversary of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the soon-to-be 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown against students.
Charter ’08 is well worth reading. It sets out the political history of China in its forward, then proposes fundamental principles–freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional law—upon which the government should be based. The document advocates specific steps–a new constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, independent judiciary, public control of public servants, guarantee of human rights, election of public officials, rural-urban equality, freedom to form groups, freedom to assemble, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, civic education, protection of private property, finance and tax reform, social security, protection of the environment, a federated republic, truth and reconciliation.
Charter 08 lays forth an ambitious agenda, one that would revolutionize the political climate and governing structures of China, but it advocates for change not through violence, but through citizen participation. Is this naive? Foolhardy? Or is this vision for China one that will inspire and empower its citizenry?
“We dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08,” declare the signatories. “We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free and constitutional country.”
As citizens in the U.S. prepare to inaugurate a new President, the first African American President, the country is not so much realizing change as realizing in its electoral process the ideals set forth over 200 years ago.
Ideas may be repressed for a time and their authors may be persecuted, but ideas and words matter. Eventually they are the fuel for the engine of change. Those who have the courage to set them down and publish them may turn out to be the founding fathers on whose shoulders generations will stand.