Reform or Revolution in the Maghreb-Tunisia’s Growing Pains

Tunisia-map.1Reform or Revolution in the Maghreb-Tunisia’s Growing Pains

Reform or Revolution in the Maghreb is a three part series which focuses on Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as they undergo revolution and reform.

A report by Hamid Yazdan Panah

The Arab Spring was rooted in the Tunisian revolution in late 2010, and quickly spread throughout North Africa and the Arab world. Yet Tunisia, remains at a crossroads. Will its transition to democracy lead to a tolerant and cohesive society? Or will it lead to greater divisiveness and strife?

On January 14th 2011, Tunisians rose up to overthrow the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in a revolution which sparked movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East -many of which are ongoing- beginning what is now referred to as the “Arab Spring. Now, two years later, the country of 10 million still remains at a crossroads, with chronic levels of unemployment and uncertain political leadership.

After succeeding in the overthrow of Ben Ali, Tunisia held elections in October of 2011. The Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that had been in active opposition to the previous regime, won a majority of the votes. In a show of pragmatism, the Islamists were able to form a coalition with two other secular parties. However, after more than a year in power, political tensions continued to rise, and there was ongoing fear that political coalitions would break.

The self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Tunisian protests which led to the overthrow of Ben Ali. He remains a symbol of revolution for the Arab world.

The self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Tunisian protests which led to the overthrow of Ben Ali. He remains a symbol of revolution for the Arab world.

The economic situation of the country has also been a cause for concern. Since 2010, the unemployment rate has steadily risen by four percentage points to 17 percent for the country. The youth have been hit the hardest, with many graduates unable to find a job and frustrated with the lack of opportunity.

Over the last few months, there has been ongoing confrontation between labour unions and the Ennahda party. There was even fear that a general strike in December might lead to greater instability and rioting, before the situation was averted by last minute negotiations.

The UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice has also raised concerns about the human rights situation of women under the new constitution. “We are concerned at the persistence of loopholes and ambiguities in the current draft of the constitution which, if not removed, might undermine the protection of women’s rights and the principle of gender equality,” said Kamala Chandrakirana, head of the working group.

Despite these rising tensions and instability, Tunisia has been able to remain a fairly moderate and balanced society. Though some have feared that Islamic radicalism may be on the rise, young Tunisians have countered with strong voices in a growing civil society. Both trade unions and civil associations have held fast and firm against the Islamist government, calling for gender equality in the newly written constitutions, and exposing corruption and abuse.

Tunisian blogger Olfa Riahi serves as an example of the type of grass roots activism and accountability taking place in the country. Riahi, an active blogger and activist has been involved in exposing Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam for his misuse of public funds. Riahi released documents which allegedly show that Abdessalam stayed several nights in the Tunis Sheraton Hotel using public funds.

Tunisian blogger and journalist Olfa Riahi poses for photographers on Jan.7, 2013 in her office in Tunis. (AFP)

Tunisian blogger and journalist Olfa Riahi poses for photographers on Jan.7, 2013 in her office in Tunis. (AFP)

Though Riahi is now under investigation over the leaks, she has won the support of many in Tunisia, including Mohammed Abbou, the secretary general of the Conference for the Republic, who encouraged “freedom of the press and investigative journalism.”

Criticizing governmental figures and leaking documents to expose corruption were once unthinkable in Tunisia, but now it is part of a new and vibrant culture, one which has no clearly defined boundaries of power, or political taboos.

Though the revolution has not been as dramatic as Egypt or as bloody as Libya, the ability for Tunisians to come together and work things out may go down as the most redeeming quality of their revolution. In an era in which feuding parties are so quick to resort to violence and divisive rhetoric, Tunisia’s growing pains have allowed it to continue to grow as a country, without spiralling out of control. Problems have been solved with dialogue and discussion, not threats and bullets. Even amongst riots and political instability, feuding factions have shown a remarkable ability to defuse tensions and work towards a common good.

The ability to reach such agreements whilst maintaining a healthy criticism of power and corruption is not only beneficial to Tunisia’s future as a democratic state, but it serves as an example for other countries undergoing change during the Arab Spring. Just as Mohamed Bouazizi served as an inspiration for Tunisia, the revolution and its ideals may serve as an inspiration for the entire region.

Reform or Revolution in the Maghreb – Tunisia’s Growing Pains

In the next part of our series we examine the future of Algeria, and whether the future holds revolution or reform for the country.


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