Tunisia's Fight for Democracy

The new Prime Minister explains how revolution is leading to freedom and a country of laws
Sharon Kahn |  April 8, 2014
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En route to a meeting with President Obama in early April, the Prime Minister of Tunisia stopped by Columbia Business School to address a standing-room-only crowd. Jet-lagged but brimming with a kind of determined optimism, Mehdi Jomaa declared, “We don't speak of Tunisia as being part of the Arab Spring. We think of our country as on the road to democracy.”

In the three years since a produce vendor from the small city of Sidi Bouzid set himself afire in protest — igniting a wave of dissent not just in Tunisia but throughout the Arab world — the country’s citizens have proven unwilling to settle for less than democracy. “The revolution was leaderless,” Jomaa said. “The aim was not fully political, but encompassed the right to jobs, the rights of freedom.”

Jomaa, whose transition government took office on January 29, promised elections by the end of 2014. The previous Parliament gave the Prime Minister a running start by ratifying a new constitution in December. Since then, Jomaa has laid the groundwork for reforms through talks with various political, financial, and educational groups. He has wooed investors in friendly countries such as France and the United States (“Did you know Tunisia was among the first countries to recognize the United States as its own country in 1799?” he told the Columbia Business School audience.) And Jomaa is gnawing at a state budget that ballooned under the previous government, which increased staff in an attempt to boost employment.

But most importantly, the current administration has stabilized the country. “The best thing we can do for democracy is to restore the authority of the state, the authority of law, and the authority of human rights,” Jomaa said. “It’s safer each day in Tunisia than it was the day before.”

A Brief History of Tunisian Revolution

Tunisia’s transition from brutal dictatorship to self-rule has been marked by surges and pullbacks, public outcry and acrimony, shifting allegiances and violence. The revolution began in late 2010, when a policewoman confiscated the produce cart of Mohamed Bouazizi, piling physical and verbal abuse onto the 26-year-old, who was the sole wage-earner for his eight-member family. Further humiliated when he was denied the opportunity to pay his 10-dinar fine (roughly equivalent to a day’s wages), Bouazizi set himself afire outside police headquarters. Peaceful marches the next day protesting the economic and political system that led to Bouazizi's death quickly turned to riots when the police responded with force.

On January 14, less than a month after the incident, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after 24 years of rule. The Constitutional Court approved a caretaker government, but street rallies escalated, with protestors angry that key members had been part of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. Several non-RCD ministers resigned. Two weeks later, the acting Prime Minister appointed a new government made up entirely of non-RCD members other than himself, promising elections within six months. As protests continued, he, too, resigned a month later.

Elections were held in October 2011. The Islamic Ennahda Party, which had been banned under the Ben Ali reign, took a plurality of seats, but the country remained restive. The party had supported democracy and outreach to the West, but critics worried that connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and more militant organizations would threaten Tunisia’s moderate way of life.

Two assassinations of Ennahda critics threw Tunisians again into street riots and protests: Chokri Belaid, leader of the rival Democratic Patriots’ Movement, was killed in February 2013, followed by the July 2013 murder of Mohamed Brahmi, who led the People’s Movement. Both homicides were traced to the same gun, with the assassin believed to be a radical Islamist who had been implicated in weapons smuggling from Libya. His organization, Ansar al-Sharia, has been listed as a terrorist group, accused of storming the US embassy and attacks on art exhibits, establishments serving alcohol, a television station that aired the movie Persepolis (because it depicted God), and on shrines it considered un-Islamic.

As calls mounted for the resignation of the Ennahda government, rallies grew even larger and more frequent and general strikes closed cities and industries. When 42 members of the 217-seat constituent assembly resigned, the Parliament unraveled. Last October, Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh announced that the government would disband, but only after the assembly passed a new constitution and set up the groundwork for a new election.

In the next months, as protests continued, members from 21 parties hammered out details in sometimes contentious debate. In the end, though, the assembly adopted a 146-article constitution by a vote of 200 to 12. On Dec. 13, 2013, Mehdi Jomaa, who was serving as Minister of Industry, was elected acting prime minister.

“A Moderate People”

Despite the rancor, Jomaa insisted he was not surprised at the compromises, noting that the new constitution celebrates universal rights, equality of genders, and freedom of worship. “By nature,” he said, “Tunisians are a moderate people. In 1846, Tunisia was the first country to abolish slavery. In 1878, we adopted our first constitution. In 1956, Tunisia legalized equality between men and women.”

Jomaa, a 52-year-old engineer who lived in France for much of his career, appeared reluctant to take on too much as part of his caretaker role, saying “we won’t make many reforms.” However he said that a main priority involves creating a climate for prosperity. Noting that unemployment was a main driver of the revolution, he said the economy has only gotten worse in recent years. “Before the revolution Tunisia was growing at about 5 percent a year,” Jomaa said. “Since then, the economy has only been growing at a two- to three-percent pace. Instability is not a good climate for creating jobs. The economy is a price you have to pay for revolution.“

Pointing out that the produce vendor's home town of Sidi Bouzid is located about 200 miles from Tunis, Jomaa also acknowledged the inequality between the inland regions of Tunisia and the coast.

Still, Jomaa insisted, “Tunisia is a land for investors,” noting that the majority of foreign companies that had a pre-revolution presence in the country remain. Because three cultures intersect in Tunisia, he said, geography is a big draw. “More than 80 percent of our trade is with Europe. We're a part of the Middle East. And we are in Africa, where the future lies.” In addition to the competitiveness of labor, Jormaa said, “one of our best resources is education,” noting that Tunisia’s standard of education is on par with Europe’s.

Audience member and Columbia professor Joseph Stiglitz wrapped up the evening by declaring that one of Jomaa’s biggest duties involve restoring hope to a country that’s been wracked by inequality and violence. “Mr. Jomaa has a huge, heavy responsibility,” he said. “Failure is not a choice.”

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