Tunisia's democracy blooms as model for Arab Spring
Smooth elections, a coalition between moderate Islamists and secularists, and an explosion of civic life are propelling Tunisia forward as a model for the Arab Spring.
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They worried that their peers might lose hope or interest if concerns weren’t addressed quickly.Skip to next paragraph
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Forty percent of the population is under the age of 24, and in the south and west, farthest from the developed coastline, opportunities are few. “We all thought that if Tunisia is to step out of this very hard phase, it’s going to be through our culture, through opening minds,” Bouraoui says. “There were a lot of initiatives to go around the country and say to people, ‘go vote.’ ”
Organizing in just months wasn’t easy – especially for groups that, like Generation Tunisie Libre, were scrambling for funds. Bouraoui and his colleagues have poured their own money in. In July, Bouraoui quit his marketing job to work at the new association – which won a small international grant, but only enough to fund a bus trip to several marginalized areas. Now the money’s gone, and paying for a staff, a website, and outreach activities himself isn’t sustainable. “People have their own lives,” he says. “If we have funds, we can make these associations permanent.”
In addition, they will need to get better at navigating government procedures, organizing activities, reaching out to the communities, and remaining transparent.
Perhaps the greatest test of Tunisia’s expansion of civic life is how it fares in a region where the public space seems to be shrinking.
In Egypt, human rights and other nongovernment organizations say that their operations are, if anything, more complicated today than they were under Mubarak. Unlike Tunisia, which took pains to reform laws governing civic organizations, there have been no changes to the legal regime in Egypt. Then, over the summer, conspiracy theories about foreign influence in Tahrir Square reached fever pitch after the U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson suggested that $40 million of American money was dedicated to funding democracy promotion. Almost immediately, Egypt’s transitional military leadership announced an investigation into the NGOs receiving foreign money.
There is also history to fight against. The number of civil society groups worldwide expanded rapidly after the end of the cold war – nearly doubling in the two decades since 1985, according to data from the Union of International Associations, an umbrella group based in Belgium that monitors global NGOs. Yet there have been relatively few transitions to democracy over the last decade in particular. As one of the first countries to abandon dictatorship in recent years, Tunisia could set a precedent for how new democracies balance the debate between politicians and the people.
"The role of civic groups in facilitating further democratic reform augurs well for the country, primarily because these civic groups represent a cross section of diverse interests," argues Rollin Tusalem, a professor of political science at Arkansas State University and expert in non-government organizations in democratic transition. He believes this puts Tunisia's democratiziation well ahead of Egypt and Tunisia.
What seems clear from Tunisia so far is that the new, very public conversation has already attracted too many participants to simply disappear. The expectations riding on Tunisia’s new government will be sky high and growing. Just when it’s needed most, economic growth plummeted this year amid the uncertainty of swift political change. And while many particularly young Tunisians are willing to give their new leaders the benefit of the doubt, they also feel real pressures to keep food on the table.
Politicians have also taken note of the associations’ growing power—and they have so far looked willing to tackle the country’s challenges together. The current transitional government consulted activists when drafting new laws governing the creation of associations and political parties. In November, UNDP also plans to assemble community organizations to draft a list of their priorities for the new Constitution.
If such a spirit continues, believes Bouraoui, democracy will too. “If we maintain the free debate, I think things will only get better.”
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