As Tunisia continues its transition to democracy, it will need to balance the urge for radical political change against the requirement of stability; integrate Islamism into the new landscape; and, with international help, tackle deep socio-economic problems.
Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the origins of the revolution and the political and social situation in its aftermath. Despite a rocky period after President Ben Ali’s departure, Tunisia has displayed remarkable ability to reach consensus on critical political issues. It has done so by ensuring that a wide variety of social and political forces have a voice.
“Significantly, the transition is not being led by a strong army any more than it is by a handful of politicians”, says Nicolas Dot Pouillard, Crisis Group’s Tunisia Analyst. “Rather, a heterogeneous blend of institutions, political forces, trade unions and associations is finding its way through trial and error, negotiations and compromise”.
To build on that encouraging start, Tunisia must first continue to find ways to address competing concerns: fear of a return to the past versus fear of a plunge into chaos. Secondly, dialogue must be deepened between the Islamist party, An-Nahda, and secular forces. Mutual mistrust still lingers. Women’s groups in particular doubt the movement’s sincerity and fear an erosion of women’s rights. The Islamists still recall the brutal era of the 1990s when they were systematically suppressed by Ben Ali’s regime.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, social justice remains a central concern. For the many ordinary citizens who took to the streets during the uprising, material despair was a key motivating factor. But the political victory they achieved has yet to change the conditions that triggered their revolt. Particular attention ought to be given to creating jobs and redressing imbalances that hurt the centre and south of the country. Growing tensions between those regions and the coastal areas could trigger renewed instability. International assistance will be critical in this regard.
“Tunisia is where it all began”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa Program Director. “It also is where the promise of a successful democratic transition is greatest. For the region and the rest of the world, that should provide ample reason to pay attention and help Tunisians pursue their path”.