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.
It rained every day on the Bosporus as we ferried back and forth across Istanbul’s grand waterway to discuss current and impending conflicts in the globe. Inside the windowless room, sitting in a large square facing each other, former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a former NATO commander toured the world in words and debate to find paths to end these conflicts, to encourage the opening up of political systems and to keep those systems, their leaders and others from killing their citizens. Reports from seasoned, on-the-ground researchers informed the discussion of the board of the International Crisis Group.
Outside the meeting room, the Middle East continued in a state of foment. Its citizens had taken by surprise many of the experts in the room. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s regimes had fallen through nonviolent resistance comprised of strikes and mass protests by its citizens. However, Libya’s President Gaddafi was attacking and threatening to slaughter his dissenting citizens and had sent that country into civil war. Syria and Bahrain, slightly more restrained, had also killed hundreds of protesting citizenry.
The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was a focus of the debate. At what point does the international community have a responsibility to intervene when a government not only doesn’t protect its citizens but attacks them? Can the international community prevent such actions so that there will never again be another Rwanda or Srebrenica? Does the responsibility to protect inevitably lead to military intervention as it has in Libya? How does the U.N. and NATO unwind its commitment? Can it? Should it? And what about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?
These questions unfurled and swirled with no definitive answers. Rather, the answers were iterative, inching towards solutions. Even with some of the brightest minds around the table, foreign policy and diplomacy is not so much an art or a science; it is more like a grand bazaar, a trading of perceptions and perceptions of national interests.
In the forums on the Bosporus I was able to offer only a small window on civil society, on citizens who do not sit at such tables but have been willing to go to jail and even die because they have written or spoken their protests for freedom. I was more of a deputy sheriff in the gathering, without a global answer but with a reminder not to forget to open the stable door if the barn was being set on fire.
The freedom to tolerate without imprisoning or killing and the freedom to be tolerated without constraint is a rare and essentially modern concept in the world. When thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions rise up insisting on this freedom, it is a fearsome and transformative sight. Freedom itself is a concept still developing. Is there a point when my freedom depends on your captivity?
No easy answers, but I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comment forum below.
The Potomac River in Washington is frozen, though only with a light crust of ice, not like the Charles River in Boston which appears a solid block that one might stomp across all the way to Cambridge, though in the center a soft spot could crack open at any moment. Measuring the solidity of surfaces can be a matter of life and death.
The image of frozen surfaces arose as I was reviewing for a talk the appeals sent on behalf of writers in prison or killed for their work in the past year. Around 90 Rapid Action alerts (RANs) were sent out by PEN International, which tracks the situation of writers worldwide. I’d sent appeals on approximately half of these. I reviewed the risk and judgment of the writers in these countries. Some regimes were relentless; others, more arbitrary. Governments, like China and Iran, appear to be solid authoritarian regimes that brook little dissent, yet beneath the surface and at the edges, writers and others chip away, laying the groundwork for change that might yet crack open their societies.
The suppression of the writer is a barometer for political freedom in a country and can often be a predictor of events to come.
In July, the arrest of Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist sentenced to four years in prison for “harming public order” by covering demonstrations, foreshadowed both the recent suppression and the protests in Tunisia where the government’s crackdown on writers preceded the fall of the regime itself. Boukaddous and seven other writers have now been released.
In May, the arrests of Belarusian writers, including Vladimir Neklyayev, President of Belarus PEN, for “dissemination of false information” foreshadowed the sweeping arrests of writers, activists and opposition leaders during the presidential elections in December when Neklyayev and others were also candidates. It remains to be seen how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko will hold, given the widespread charges of a flawed election and unrest in the population.
At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government detained and arrested writers, including Zhao Shiying, Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Zhao protested the arrest and sentencing of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years for his role in drafting Charter ’08, a document that called for democratic reform in China. The year continued with the detention of Chinese writers supporting Liu and democracy and also the arrests of writers in Tibet and the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If the suppression of writers is inversely proportional to freedom and democratic change in a society, then China remains at the top of the list of frozen governments.
The year also began with writers, journalists and bloggers in prison in Iran, followed by further crackdowns on writers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh, a writer and lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years on charges that included: “cooperating with the Association of Human Rights Defenders,” “conspiracy to disturb order,” and “propaganda against the state.” Other charges brought against writers in Iran included “congregation and mutiny with intent to commit crimes against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “insulting the President,” and “disruption of public order.” The arrests, imprisonments and executions in Iran may give the appearance of a solid block of state power, but it is a block that may yet crack from the edges and the center as citizens continue to stomp across it.
It is worth remembering the precipitous fall 20 years ago of the Soviet Union as pressure for freedom sent fissures through the system that eventually broke the harsh authoritarian surface. As the world watches the current upheavals in the Middle East, one can track back and note the suppression of writers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.