Wednesday Jan 29

North African Democracy – an Interesting Test: SPECIAL REPORT Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue – Tunisia

Having been in North Africa exactly three times, none of which lasted more than a week, I am a confirmed NON-expert. And yet, on this most recent Organizer’s Forum week in Tunis, one experience managed to coax out a conclusion that something has definitely gone right in what many refer to as “the most stable” among the post-Arab Spring states.

The Arab cultures that inhabit the southern shore of the Mediterranean and northern tier of the Sahara are a highly diverse group — in no small part due to divergent colonial experiences. Primarily a competition between Britain and France, thought the Spanish and Italians had their moments, the colonization of these places — just as in sub-Saharan Africa — completely jumbled up tribes, territories, and natural systems and left in its wake a widely differing set of opportunities as post-WWII independence movements gained ground and displaced a tired tradition of European superiority. Through the latter half of the Twentieth Century, these countries steadily ejected the Europeans and took on self-governance, some violently (Algeria), some less so (Morocco). While most settled on some modified version of European systems of government, the underlying theme has been authoritarian. Post transition leaders stayed in power for long periods, and, inevitably, corruption wormed its way into the structures of society. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco all shared in this in one way or another. After sixty odd years, and decades of choked off economic growth, in 2011 something changed.

In mid-December, 2010, a classic drama of corruption and poverty played out in Sidi Bouzid, a rural town in the center of the country. A street vendor who sold fruit from a cart had borrowed money for fruit to be sold the next day. Police, as they had many times before, hassled him relentlessly, demanding payment, and then confiscating his cart and scales under the supposed need for a “permit” that many suggest was not a requirement for cart sales. After being slapped and humiliated by a city official, and then refused an audience with the Governor in seeking return of his scales and cart, Mohamed Bouazizi secured some fuel from a nearby gas station and lit himself afire. Eventually doused by onlookers, he survived his 90% burns for several weeks before succumbing.

Almost immediately, within hours according to some reports, protests began and steadily grew. It was as if the society had been waiting for the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back. The young, and especially the poor, keyed off the tragedy to raise the focus on corruption and economic injustice. While still in the hospital, protests forced even the President to visit. After Bouazizi’s death, demonstrations spread across the country and became violent. President Ben Ali — in power for 23 years — fled the country with his family and the Arab Spring was ignited, in no small part the result of a social media phenomenon. And soon it was to spread across North Africa — even to the harshly autocratic regime in Cairo.

In an article published in the Jordan Times a year later, a school teacher from Hay Al Noon seemed to capture the meaning of the tragedy best: “It is important for us on this day to remember what Mohamed Bouazizi stood for: the dignity of all Tunisians. And that is something that not even time can take away from us.”

After a halting period of transition, initially controlled by the exiled President’s party, the tumult continued until an election was held in October of 2011 — a mere 10 months following Bouazizi’s death — to appoint a 217 member assembly to write a new constitution, with the leading Islamist party (Ennahda) garnering more than a third of the vote. Two years of wrangling later, a new constitution was settled upon and approved by 200 of the 217 delegates. It was characterized by three significant factors, all of which are continuing to play out today.

First, the Constitution contains favorable bias for Islam as the official state religion but protects the freedom of belief. Interestingly, Ennahda has declined in popularity in subsequent elections from their highpoint in 2011, with the secular Nidaa Tounes more recently outdoing them in Parliamentary Elections. Second, and somewhat surprisingly, the Constitution outlines a goal to have elected bodies achieve gender parity — a very far cry from traditional second-class treatment of women in many parts of the Arab world.

Finally, though, and most interestingly, the Constitution established standards for “open government” — access to documents and meetings that enables citizen accountability. In splitting executive power between a President and a Prime Minister, it furthers the aim of resisting future tendencies toward authoritarian regimes. But it is this commitment to open government that sets Tunisia apart from many of its neighbors.

In the years following its adoption, a non-governmental organization — iWatch — has formed to take seriously this commitment to open government and has achieved remarkable scale, capacity, and credibility with an almost community organizing approach to the challenge. Funded by international sources, but governed by an elected leadership, iWatch may well be the key to Tunisia’s future. The Organizers’ Forum met with the president of iWatch on our final days in Tunis.

So, back to the test referred to in the title. During our Organizer’s Forum in Tunis this past week, we were meeting with a student group — described by some as “the conservative group” associated with Islamist sentiment. Another, more secularly focused group, was on the schedule for the next day. As the session — heavily dependent on translation — wound along, I noticed several women at the table next to ours staring — actually glowering — at us in a remarkably un-shy, almost hostile manner as you might discern from the photos above. But what is much MORE interesting is that on departure, the woman in the center stopped by our table to berate the student at the left for spreading conservative ideas that were not shared by many, including herself. She went on to describe herself and her friends as decidedly liberal or progressive. It would almost be as though an Elizabeth Warren fan had witnessed some young GOP volunteers talking to a table full of foreigners and decided to intervene on behalf of a more complete picture. Now that is not something I think many of us might believe likely to happen even in Berkeley or NYC, and certainly not in Tunis just a short period of years from decades of repressive dictatorship?

The fearlessness of newly enfranchised and emancipated people is palpable in Tunisia, and needs to be both nurtured and respected. Here in our decaying democracy, replete with dishonest leaders and out-of-control corporate power, we have a lot to learn.

Drummond Pike is the former founder and CEO/President of the Tides family of philanthropic organizations.

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