Tough transition in Tunisia after "Arab spring"

AP News
Posted: Apr 10, 2011 8:00 PM
Tough transition in Tunisia after "Arab spring"

In the new Tunisia, a store window in the capital displays books that were banned under the former regime. Protesters shout for jobs or justice almost daily on tree-lined streets. And after half a century of one-man rule, Tunisians can choose from more than 50 political parties.

Yet the freedom that is intoxicating Tunisia comes with a sense of fragility, a fear that it could spin out of control. So helmeted troops backed by armored vehicles stand guard along the central Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, and some buildings are ringed with barbed wire. Police have sealed off a plaza where Tunisians held days-long sit-ins not so long ago, and have fired tear gas to prevent new rallies there.

The contradictions playing out in Tunisia's streets show how this tiny country's burst of freedom is marred by a growing anxiety over the future. With elections coming up, liberals worry that democracy will bring the Islamists, perhaps the best-organized political movement in post-revolt Tunisia, to power. Economists fear that continued turmoil will scare off investors and tourists. And activists who helped drive out dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January are concerned his die-hard supporters will try to regroup.

At stake is more than Tunisia itself. Just as Tunisia's overthrow of Ben Ali sparked anti-government uprisings across the Arab world, its success _ or failure - in moving toward a stable democracy could once again send a strong signal to its neighbors.

"Tunisia has particular symbolic value as the first Arab revolution," said Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. "If it (the transition) fails, and you see outbreaks of violence or low-intensity civil conflict, that is going to further the arguments of Arab autocrats that democracy equals chaos and instability."

The eagerness for a free Tunisia is palpable.

One morning this week, several dozen activists sipped espressos at a sidewalk cafe on Avenue Bourguiba before their daily protest against the transition government. They said they wanted more drastic change, including swift prosecution of the former oppressors, because they fear Ben Ali's supporters are plotting to regain power.

"We would like to cut with our past," said Tasnim Dridi, a 22-year-old student of Chinese, her hair covered by a headscarf. Her fellow protesters, drawn together by Facebook, included a woman draped in a red-and-white Tunisian flag, a hairdresser from a provincial town, university students and jobless men in their 20s.

The activists then marched across the avenue and shouted through loudspeakers, "Tunisia is for all!"

But first, this country of 10.5 million people will need to rebuild a political system from scratch.

In coming days, the rules will be finalized for July 24 elections for a national assembly that is to write a new constitution. The assembly will decide, among other things, whether Tunisia gets a presidential or parliamentary system, and whether separation of religion and state becomes part of the law.

Ben Ali's government had nominally permitted some parties and groups to function, but secret police harassed, detained or even tortured activists to squash dissent. The dozens of parties formed or legalized since his ouster cover a wide range of ideologies, including socialist, conservative and Islamic.

But with little opportunity in the past to develop, even the Progressive Democratic Party, a political veteran, still has the ad hoc feel of an underground movement.

At party headquarters, a cramped walk up in downtown Tunis, Arabic language posters on the wall celebrated recent post-revolt achievements, including the dismantling of the political police and of Ben Ali's party. A dozen activists huddled in a circle for a strategy session in the main meeting room.

"We won the revolution, but we aren't finished yet," said Maya Jbiri, No. 2 in the PDP, a center-left faction. "There is a long way to go."

Key to Tunisia's identity will be whether it defines itself as an Islamic country. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, had kept Islamists in check, clamping down on political Islamic groups and discouraging women from wearing headscarves. The country has a strong secular feel today, even though 98 percent of its people are Muslim. A majority of women are not veiled, and Friday, the Muslim day of rest, is part of the work week here.

But many eyes are on Ennahda, a mainstream Islamic party that was outlawed for years under Ben Ali. From his modest home in a middle-class neighborhood, Ennahda's secretary general, Hammadi Jebali, said the party's commitment to democracy is genuine.

"We don't want a new dictator, whether Islamist or communist," said Jebali, who was imprisoned by Ben Ali for 16 years. "If the people choose us, with democratic means, to lead the government, we won't change."

Jebali does not believe in the separation of religion and state. Yet he easily shook hands with female visitors, an unusual gesture for a devout Muslim.

Sofiane Chourabi, a Tunisian political analyst, said he believes Ennahda could win a majority in the new assembly. The movement is well-organized, unlike most of its rivals, and is gaining sympathy because its activists were persecuted by Ben Ali, said Chourabi, a member of the committee drawing up the new electoral law.

Secular Tunisians watch Ennahda's rise with trepidation.

Moufida Belgith, a lawyer for the Democratic Women's Association, says she is worried that Islamists, freed from Ben Ali's shackles, will exploit democracy and impose beliefs that restrict women. She said she would like to ban Islamic groups, but that she cannot say so "because of democracy."

"At the moment, groups like Ennahda say they are for the rights of women, but I think that's just a strategy in order to change the system," she said.

Islamists, in turn, fear that a small secular elite is trying to marginalize them.

On a recent afternoon, hundreds of men wearing beards, white prayer caps or long robes marched to the barbed wire-ringed Interior Ministry on Avenue Bourguiba, chanting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, and kneeling in mass prayer on the pavement. Three soldiers watched from their perch atop a nearby tank.

The Islamist protesters complained that the transition government hadn't done enough to lift restrictions on religious observance. One man in a gray robe said he wants to see an Islamic state established.

Politics aside, the uprising has hurt Tunisia's economy. Tarek Hamza, a hotel porter, lost his job because the unrest scared off many foreign visitors, and the 43-year-old has to live with his parents because he can't afford a place of his own.

"We can't rebuild the Tunisian economy if there are protests every day," he said, as he watched demonstrators.

Nearby, seven British tourists listened as a guide pointed to Avenue Bourguiba sites linked to the uprising. Nine others in their group had decided to stay home, they said. Tourism employed 10 percent of the working age population before the revolt, but tourism revenues dropped by 40 percent from January to February.

A recent opinion poll showed that although a majority of Tunisians are interested in taking part in political life, their top priorities are restoring security and jobs. Unemployment had already risen to 14 percent before the revolt and now is likely higher.

The uprising has cost Tunisia hundreds of millions of dollars, estimated economist Hafedh Ben Abdennebi, though he and others said the longer-term outlook is good because of Tunisia's educated work force and strong ties to Europe.

Before the revolt, Tunisia's economy posted some growth, but not to its full potential because of widespread corruption, economists said. They described a system in which Ben Ali and his cronies muscled their way into major business ventures, and ordinary Tunisians had to pay bribes for anything from landing a teaching job to obtaining a favorable court ruling.

The interim government has dismantled the political police as well as Ben Ali's party, the RCD, and set up a committee investigating corruption. But Sihem Bensedrine, a leading civil rights activist, said Ben Ali supporters remain in powerful positions, including in the judiciary and as advisers to the prime minister. The committee probing corruption refuses to say whom and how it is investigating, she said.

"We have the same administration dominated by Ben Ali's guys, until now," she said. "We cut the head, but the body is still there. They are still powerful."

For some of Tunisia's poorest, the ouster of Ben Ali may have made everyday life worse.

Najet Ayari, a 54-year-old widow who shares a two-room shack in Tunis' Jabal al-Ahmar slum with her 19-year-old daughter Nadia, said she does not miss the old regime but has no hope things will improve. Standing in a tiny courtyard crisscrossed by laundry lines, she said crime and drug-dealing are up because police have been distracted. With two grown sons in prison for criminal offenses, she is struggling to get by on a pension of roughly $50 a month.

Across town, in the Al Kitab bookstore on Avenue Bourguiba, owner Jamila Amar is more optimistic. Her main fear is the rise of Ennahda, and she said a recent dinner table argument with a relative who supports the movement really had her spooked.

Still, she said, a huge burden has been lifted.

"You can say what you think, you can give your opinion," she said. "It's like springtime."