Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tunisia: What comes next?

by David Goodhart


March 23, 2011

Tunis is oddly calm and normal for the capital of a country that has just triggered the greatest upheaval in the Arab world since the end of the first world war. Nor would you guess from the current provisional government that the revolution was driven by frustrated young people using the latest networking technologies; the combined ages of the new Tunisian president and prime minister is 161 years. But the two old men are bridging the generation gap and, for now, keeping the show on the road.

The attention of the world has of course moved elsewhere since Tunisia, much to its own amazement, lit the torch at the end of December. But on a recent trip to Tunis I discovered that the Tunisians have not been idle since the president of 23 years, Ben Ali, fled the country on 14th January.

They are now on to their third government, having got rid of Ben Ali’s unpopular prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, at the end of February. The new prime minister, 84-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran of the 1950s independence movement and largely untainted by the Ben Ali regime, announced elections on 24th July for an assembly to draw up a new constitution.

From not having had a proper election, ever, Tunisia is poised to have three in quick succession—culminating with elections for a new president and parliament, perhaps at the end of the year. This modest former French colony could now set the pattern for the next, trickier stage of Arab democratic reform. “We can be the test-bed for the whole Arab world, but we must not rush,” says Raoudha Ben Othman, professor of linguistics at Tunis University.

The dilemma for Tunisia—and Egypt too—is that if it moves too fast to elections, new parties and leaders will not have time to find their voice. But if it moves too slowly, activists will become impatient, perhaps violently so. On top of that, Tunisia has to invent a democratic culture—to replace what Ben Othman calls the “allegiance culture”—as well as a free media, a new judiciary, a new party system, and work out how to deal with the legacy of the old regime. Facebook can’t help much there, even if 18 per cent of the population use the site (and more than a third are online).