Tunisia Not Sudden Paradise After President's Ouster

Thousands of people rally in Tunis on Feb. 20, demanding the government's resignation and a new constitution.

Thousands of people rally in Tunis on Feb. 20, demanding the government's resignation and a new constitution. Hassene Dridi/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hassene Dridi/AP

The decision of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country one month ago triggered protests throughout the region, leading to a presidential ouster in Egypt and violent clashes in neighboring Libya.

Tunisians now hope they can forge a new democratic system that will similarly serve as a regional model. But they are finding the transition away from authoritarian rule to be disappointingly slow going.

"We have not seen regime change in Tunisia yet," says Marina Ottaway, who directs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They have removed the president, but it's still the old regime, putting forth a more liberal facade."

A Situation Still In Flux

The interim government has promised to hold elections by July, but democracy activists are nervous that too many people who had served under Ben Ali remain in power.

Their continuing protests led to the resignation Sunday of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, a longtime veteran of the Ben Ali administration. Two Cabinet ministers stepped down Monday.

But Ottaway argues that the government is still only making as many concessions as it is forced to, and that street protests are too blunt an instrument to lead to the compromises necessary to create a new form of government.

A Regional Pioneer

Tunisians are conscious of their place in the vanguard within the Muslim world of shifting to a new form of governance, says Christopher Alexander, director of the international studies program at Davidson College and the author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.

In addition to being the first Arab country to depose a long-standing dictator, Tunisia has advantages that should help it on its path to democracy. It has a relatively large and well-educated middle class, strong and stable institutions such as its military, and a more homogenous population than some of its neighbors, such as Algeria and Bahrain, which are experiencing ethnic and religious divisions.

"There's a consensus that Tunisia ought to have the easiest time in getting it right," Alexander says, "and if they don't, it won't bode well for the region."

Building Up The Opposition

Tunisia is experiencing the same sort of push-and-pull that makes any transition from authoritarian rule to democracy difficult. On the one hand, people are eager to oust holdovers from the old regime. On the other, there aren't any obvious candidates — or even well-organized political parties — ready to take their place.

Ben Ali had been "successful in eradicating the whole structure of the opposition," says Jean-Pierre Filiu, a visiting professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.

For that reason, Filiu says, Tunisia may be the perfect laboratory for an experiment in democratic transition, but it has no recipe for how to get there.

"There is no credible or capable opposition," says Camille Pecastaing, a professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It might take years to build a credible opposition, but there is no longer a ruling party, either. The elders of the old structure were so delegitimized that they have been eliminated one by one."

Ottaway argues that there are still plenty of stalwarts of the old regime in place and that "weak political forces on the other side" make it easier for them to hold on to power.

But because of that very resistance to reform, elections shouldn't be rushed, says Noureddine Jebnoun, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

"The best thing to do is to postpone as long as possible these elections, in order to provide time and space for new parties to organize," Jebnoun says. "Otherwise, you will help the entrenched incumbents and end up with the same party [in power] with a new name."

International Spillover Effects

Tunisia — along with Egypt — faces a "chicken and egg problem," says Alexander of Davidson College. The people within the existing administration won't give up their privileges and power easily. But they can't be replaced en masse, all at once.

Two men stand at the border of Libya in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, on Monday.

Two men stand at the border of Libya in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, on Monday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Yet the fact that Tunisia and Egypt have strong bureaucracies and militaries should ultimately help them move toward democracy. Libya, which sits between them, lacks such institutions. That means that if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi ultimately falls, it could lead to chaos.

"You have to have a functioning state to have democracy," says Ottaway, the Carnegie Endowment analyst. "Assuming Gadhafi cannot last, it's going to be extremely difficult to put together a democratic system, because the state may collapse."

Already, Libya's problems are affecting Tunisia. Tunisia has already seen 75,000 refugees spill across its borders, with thousands more coming every day.

Tunisia, meanwhile, has lost several thousand refugees itself, most going to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Tunisia rejected an Italian offer last month to send troops to prevent illegal immigration.

Limits On Outside Assistance?

Tunisians clearly will remain sensitive about outside interference in their internal affairs. On Sunday, Michele Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, stepped down amid complaints that she had favored Ben Ali over the protest movement.

Tunisians are proud of their homegrown revolution and have a "real ambivalence about the role outside help can play," says Alexander.

But Tunisia may need help from the international community, both in terms of coping with the crisis of refugees from Libya and in figuring out how to build a democracy. The attention of European and United States policymakers, however, has largely been diverted elsewhere by subsequent events across the region.

"There is an appetite in Tunisia for a very carefully crafted form of assistance, one that recognizes Tunisians have to play the primary role," Alexander says. "They're looking for advice — not, 'Gee, this is what you should do,' but, 'Here are some shortcuts.' "

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.