On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest corrupt local officials who made it impossible for him to work.
Bouazizi sparked a Tunisian revolution that day that toppled the current regime and fanned the flames for what would later be known as the Arab Spring, consuming several Middle Eastern and North African dictators in its wake. The Tunisian uprising has since been hailed as a model for other Arab revolutions.
Today, Tunisians wait as their country takes its first steps towards democracy, even as political, social, and religious clashes polarize the country.
On June 29 the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted a discussion on the road Tunisians have travelled thus far and what lies ahead.
Leila Hilal, co-director of New America’s Middle East Task Force, moderated a conversation between Amine Ghali, program director of the Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, Alexis Arieff, Africa analyst of the Congressional Research Service, and Tamara Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Although the country has made progress by holding elections, creating a representative government, and writing a nascent Constitution, Alexis Arief said many obstacles still lie ahead. The Constituent Assembly is trying to navigate the transition as it simultaneously attempts to embody both legislative success and the legitimacy of the revolution.
The Troika, the ruling coalition, is fragmenting along ideological lines and needs to incorporate other political stakeholders, Ghali said. The media, civil society, lawyers, labor organizations, and even law enforcement must have a voice if the new government is to gain political legitimacy and unite the country.
While Tunisian politics keep the people’s representatives occupied, Tamara Whittes cited border security, an influx of refugees, and the faltering Tunisian economy as other pressing domestic policy concerns.
With so many internal problems, should Tunisia really be held up as a model? Amine Ghali said we should not look at Tunisia through the lens of a standard democratic transition, but rather see Tunisian democratization as a unique process that will unfold on its own.
“None of the complications or challenges are any worse than some other transitions we have seen around the world,” Whittes said.
— By Lauren Glass