September 7, 2011 in Opinion

Tunisia is region’s bellwether

TrudyRubin
 

While the media are saturated with stories from Libya, we rarely hear what’s happening in next-door Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

That’s too bad, because Tunisia is a far more important barometer of democracy’s prospects in the region than Libya. Its positive attributes – see below – give it better odds than its neighbors to make democracy work.

Indeed, if Tunisia’s experiment fails, there is far less hope for Libya, Egypt or Syria, let alone a stitched-together tribal state like Yemen. That’s why it’s important for Americans to watch developments in Tunis and help in any way we can.

“We have institutions which work, we have well-educated people and educated women,” says Chema Gargouri, the dynamic president of the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, a nongovernmental organization that helps women start small businesses.

Gargouri, a vivacious Tunisian with flowing blond hair who speaks fluent French, English and Arabic, personifies the large segment of working women in her country. Her mother was a school administrator, and her daughter Zainab, who is traveling with her on a visit to the United States, wants to be an engineer.

She points out that, unlike Libya, Tunisia is not a tribal society, and its institutions were not crushed by a former ruler. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia’s population is small (10.5 million) and 90 percent literate, unburdened by a huge, barely educated rural population. Unlike Syria or Iraq, Tunisia is not plagued by sectarian divides; 99 percent of its people are Sunni Muslims.

Tunisia is a former French colony, and its population is still mostly bilingual. “We are Muslim Arab, but we are open,” Gargouri says. “Our location (in North Africa, but on the Mediterranean coast, just south of Italy) is part of who we are. We have 5,000 years of history, but all of us are a mixture. Our legs are in Africa, and our head is looking toward Europe.”

Perhaps it was geography that inspired the Tunisian revolution. The country’s educated youth, aware of the outside world, were frustrated by the joblessness and corruption they faced under the former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A distraught young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being humiliated by the police. His deed galvanized youths, women, the active Tunisian trade unions and the middle class to take to the streets. The army stayed neutral, Ben Ali fled, and the Tunisian example lit up the entire Arab world.

But, as Gargouri is ready to concede, these Tunisian positives do not guarantee an easy transition to democracy. Although Tunisia is quiet and its beaches glorious, its crucial tourist industry collapsed in the wake of the revolution. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians who worked in Libya had to return home because of the fighting there, while a flood of Libyan refugees burdened the Tunisian economy.

Discontent is rising. Young Tunisians who expected immediate results – and jobs – from their revolution are growing impatient. Tunisian officials say there are 700,000 unemployed in the country, including 170,000 university graduates.

Elections for an assembly that will write a new constitution are set for October. But, unused to free politics, Tunisians have registered more than 90 political parties. This will split the vote of those who want a nonreligious state.

The faltering economy has boosted the previously banned (and well-funded) Islamist party, Al Nahda, which is expected to win 20 percent to 30 percent of the vote. This will give the Islamists substantial influence in writing the constitution.

Al Nahda favors a constitutional provision that would ban the normalization of relations with Israel. It also wants to redefine Tunisia as an Islamic republic and to revise Tunisia’s liberal personal status law. The current law forbids polygamy and creates a judicial procedure for divorce, which upsets conservative Islamists who want women’s status defined by Islamic law.

But Gargouri says the Islamists cannot easily impose new provisions that go against the wishes of those who rose up against oppression. “It’s the street that is the bulwark against a return of dictatorship,” she says. “It is the people who will say no to the Islamists.”

She insists Tunisia’s educated women will not let their rights be taken away. “We say individuals matter, not just the umma (the collective Muslim community). Individuals are saying, ‘We want to choose.’ ”

Let’s hope she’s correct. But to buy time for democratic institutions to develop, it is essential for the new Tunisian government to create more jobs and give young people hope for the future.

More U.S. attention can help.

Tunisians and the U.S. business community have little experience with each other. “Europeans are familiar with Tunisia, but it has few links to U.S. business opportunities,” says Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia businessman with long ties to Tunisia.

Sorkin would like to see the Obama administration encourage U.S. companies to explore business prospects in Tunisia and help Tunisia develop its small-business sector, along with cultural tourism. More academic exchanges would also boost ties between the two countries.

I’d add that, as soon as Libya stabilizes, President Barack Obama should urge the new Libyan government to invite back its former Tunisian workers and many thousands more.

After all, it’s in America’s interest (and Libya’s, too) that the Tunisian experiment work. Tunisia started the Arab revolution. With its homogeneous population and educated middle class, it has the best prospect of providing a role model for the rest.

That’s why we should listen to Chema Gargouri when she urges: “Don’t forget Tunisia. We started this. If it doesn’t work with 10 million Tunisians, with strong Tunisian women, it won’t work in Egypt or elsewhere.”

She’s right.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her email address is trubin@phillynews.com.


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