After the spring, the thaw: Tunisia
The year of revolution: In the second part of our series, Rachel Shabi sees grounds for cautious optimism in the new Tunisia
Tuesday 27 December 2011
When Jannet, a 57-year-old woman in Tunis, started to cry, with relief and joy, at the thought of voting for the first time in her life, it captured all the potency and meaning of her country's elections. She was one of those I spoke with in the run-up to Tunisia's ballot, held in October – the first free elections of the Arab Spring, in the country where the first Arab uprisings had inspired a chain reaction across the region. Later, pro-democracy protesters in other Arab countries told me that they had pored over these images – of Tunisians celebrating their historic vote – captivated both by the moment itself, and by the possibility of feeling like that, too. Because in the tears of one woman in Tunis was also a distillation of what those fearlessly fought uprisings were for: the desire for involvement and inclusion in the running of a country, after decades of being shut out, cowed down and tyrannised. To be able to stand up, finally, and say: "This counts. I matter."
If the common theme of the Arab uprisings was the desire for dignity, Tunisia's historic election showed what that could look like. During the campaign period, voters were rising up to the responsibility, declaring it a "duty", studying the copious campaign leaflets – there were more than 100 parties and 11,000 candidates – and grilling potential politicians. This was worlds away from the openly rigged elections of the ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime, which one Tunisian described as running to this script: "Every five years, we would just watch a rerun of the same movie, where Ben Ali would win the election by 99 per cent."
Last Saturday, we saw the result of that election: a new, interim government was sworn in by a new president, the once-jailed former dissident Moncef Marzouki, whose centre-left party is in coalition with the moderate, once-banned Islamist Ennahda party, which took the majority of the vote.
After the government ceremony, Marzouki gave the new cabinet a simple instruction: "To work, to work, to work." It's what Tunisia needs – unemployment is currently at 20 per cent and economic growth has flatlined this year. The ordinarily robust tourism industry this year took a 40 per cent dive as travellers were put off by the upheavals. The new Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, of the Ennahda party, said last week that job creation and compensating victims of the former regime would be key priorities.
There are other concerns, too – and as one Tunis-based blogger pointed out, pro-democracy protesters now need their critical capacities not to be blunted by a paternalistically over-rosy analysis of the post-election period. Civil rights have still to be set in legal stone; transparent government and freedom of speech are still high on the list of issues for Tunisian campaigners.
But the cabinet now sworn in was the result of heated negotiations in the 217-seat assembly over the suitability of each minister – in particular Rafik Ben Abdessalem Bouchlaka, whose appointment, critics say, is more to do with his being the son-in-law of Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannushi than about actual merit. Meanwhile, hundreds of tents, in the spirit of the global occupy movement, stand outside parliament, a symbolic and practical means of keeping it accountable. Tunisia's Labour Union is currently holding its first post-revolution congress, where women are demanding that gender equality be enshrined in the union constitution. All this difference of opinion, debate and protest; every tent rally and workers' congress – these look like good signs.
Timeline: Tunisian change
17 December 2010 – Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, sets himself on fire.
14 January 2011 – Weeks of protest sparked by Bouazizi's death ends with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
20 June – Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, are sentenced in absentia to 35 years' imprisonment and £48m in fines, for theft and misuse of public funds.
27 October – The Islamist Ennahda party is declared winner of the election, with 40 per cent of the seats.
13 December – Former opposition leader Moncef Marzouki is sworn in as President, elected by a parliamentary majority.
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