Tour of the Middle East- Part 4: Tunisia
– This series of posts will take you on a country by country tour of the Middle East, showing how economic and social development occurs in one of the most unstable regions in the world.
Later this month, Tunisia will cap off a year of unrest and political change with the first free and fair election of the Arab Spring, electing a constituent assembly whose job it will be to draft a new constitution. By doing so, the country will set an example for accomplishing change through a systematic approach.
Extremely polarizing figure and current interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, has projected two divergent personalities during his tenure in office. He has been labeled a voice of reason in an often unreasonable government, working to promote democratic ideals. On the contrary, opponents have tagged him as a new Ben Ali who has not followed through on his promise to execute the progressive ideas of the revolution. These arguments do have credence as there have been instances during his time in office when the actions of civil society were quelled in a Ben Ali-esque manner. While advocating for the arguments of the revolution to be fulfilled (i.e. job creation and inflation), protests in May were met with armed authoritative response. However, under his leadership, Tunisians are at a point ahead of other citizens involved with Arab Spring who are anxious for their voice to become law. Essebsi argues against statements that label him as a repeat of the past:
“Sometimes the proponents of freedom have demands that go beyond logic, and it is more difficult to protect freedom from the proponents of freedom themselves than from the enemies.”
The role of civil society to develop progressive ideals in Tunisia is vastly different from pre-January 2011. Before January, freedom was very restricted –journalists’ stories were not their own words, blogs were continually disbanded and/or changed by authorities, and protests were violently dismantled. However, when protests started to become more prominent in December and January, finding a way to express concerns and rally support through social media played a significant role in the success of the Tunisian revolution. However, this freedom of expression aspect that spurred and cemented the revolution in January has come under a great deal of international scrutiny in 2011.
The Index on Censorship has been extremely critical of Tunisia in its handling of the right of expression since the revolution. Although some positive changes are underway. Recently, an imprisoned whistle blower punished for releasing the names of authorities still loyal to the ideals of ousted oppressor Ben Ali was released. Now, his voice can legally be heard. This is a crucial step to re-instill international and domestic confidence that Tunisia is working towards a fair democracy.
Ultimately, a combination of fair government and a strong civil society will be the key to establishing a truly democratic nation that has the best interest of all citizens at the forefront of policy.