Tunisia Seen As Laboratory For Arab Democracy

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution." i i

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution." Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution."

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution."

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In this season of uprisings in the Arab world, Tunisia was the first country to throw off its dictator. That event inspired similar revolts across the region. Four months later, with the country's first democratic elections approaching, Tunisians are both hopeful and fearful.

Tunisia, and especially its capital, Tunis, is a bubbling cauldron of excitement and ideas. More than 70 new political parties have sprung into existence and hundreds of citizens' organizations have formed. Fares Mabrouk, head of the Arab Policy Institute, was finally able to create a think-tank — something inconceivable under the former regime.

Mabrouk says Tunisia is a laboratory for democracy in the Arab world.

"Is democracy possible in the Arab world?" Mabrouk asks. "The question will be answered here in Tunisia."

A Fragile Situation

But amidst the excitement, says Mabrouk, the situation is still very fragile. Many Tunisians fear the former regime will return. Over the weekend Tunisian authorities had to set a curfew after violent protests were fueled by rumors of a coup.

But although there are occasional setbacks, the freedoms brought by the revolution are obvious everywhere. Upbeat and peaceful street demonstrations have become a part of daily life as everyone clamors to be heard.

The once-harassed street vendor now plies his wares freely from the sidewalk. The young Tunisian who ignited the revolution by setting himself on fire last December was a street vendor, and today the profession is sacrosanct.

Once cowed, Tunisians seem to burst with creativity and gall. The words of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's last speech, mockingly set to a rapper's beat, blares from a cafe.

Mustapha Saheb-Ettabaa, who is running for a seat in the 260-member constitutional assembly, says for Tunisians it's like a dream.

"Because perhaps 70 or 80 percent of the Tunisian people never went to put an envelope in a box," he explains. "So for us it will be a very, very great day the day we will go to the elections."

Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule. i i

Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule. Hassene Dridi/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hassene Dridi/AP
Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule.

Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule.

Hassene Dridi/AP

It will be the assembly's job to draft a new constitution. The election is scheduled for July 24.

'How Can We Actually Trust A Political Party?'

At a town hall meeting in a middle-class Tunis neighborhood, Ettabaa fields questions from citizens. Many people are concerned about the economy and security.

One woman asks, "How can we actually trust a political party?"

Such uncertainty is stoking fears. For the first time, bearded men in religious clothing walk the streets of Tunis. And many women now speak of being harassed by Islamists who tell them to cover themselves with a veil.

Ali Larayedh spent 13 years in a jail cell for membership in the outlawed Islamist party Ennahda. Today, with the ban lifted, he's the party's official spokesman. Larayedh says the fear over his party is unfounded because it wants a democracy too — but one that reflects the Tunisian identity.

"The Tunisian people are at peace with their identity as Arabs and Muslims, and they don't want this questioned," Larayedh says. "We must have a space for religion. Only a small minority on the left thinks this is a problem and wants a strictly secular state that would deny our Muslim identity."

But more radical elements have split off from the mainstream Islamist party. A group of about 1,000 religious conservatives — mostly bearded, robed men — held a rally in the center of Tunis to demand the implementation of Islamic law. English professor Mounir Khelifa watched the demonstration from a cafe.

"Tunisians feel that this is un-Tunisian. Tunisians are moderate and pragmatic people. The kind of radical, extremist discourse does not ring true to a Tunisian ear," Khelifa says.

Taking A Patriotic Year

As it turns out, the hardliners have no permit to assemble, and their demonstration is soon disbursed by riot police firing volleys of tear gas. Cafe patrons also scramble for cover. It's a typical afternoon in Tunis.

Whatever their viewpoints, most Tunisians agree on protecting the values of the revolution: democratic elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech. This sentiment is especially strong among Tunisian youth, and thousands of young people are now taking what they call a "patriotic year," dropping whatever they were doing to help build their country.

Omezzine Khelifa, 28, left her husband and an engineering job in Paris to return to Tunisia at this historic time.

"The feeling is that something very important is happening in our country," she says, "and if the young people continue to live their life and don't involve themselves in what's happening in Tunisia, it will be done by others. Maybe we will regress."

We can't trust anyone with the fate of our revolution, says Khelifa, except ourselves.

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