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Tunisia Continues on Democratic Path, But Future Remains Uncertain

  • Lisa Bryant

Thousands hold banners during a silent demonstration as they demand that Tunisians return to work and stop protests, March 5, 2011

Thousands hold banners during a silent demonstration as they demand that Tunisians return to work and stop protests, March 5, 2011

Tunisia's interim president has announced elections for July. But nearly two months after protesters ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the future of the North African country is anything but certain. Many are watching Tunisia's political transition closely, hoping it might serve as a prototype for democracy in the Arab world.

It has become a familiar sound in Tunisia, protesters calling for the ouster of all government members tied to the former regime of ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

So has young men clashing with security forces in downtown Tunis.

On Friday, the demonstrators folded up their tents in the capital, where they had been camping out in front of government headquarters. Many of their demands have been met. Several ministers have resigned in the latest government reshuffle, including interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, a holdover of the Ben Ali government.

And Tunisia's interim president Fouad Mebazaa has announced a July vote for a council that will rewrite the constitution, paving the way for general elections.

Speaking on state television, Mebazaa said Tunisia had entered a new phase toward establishing a system that breaks from the old regime.

But ask Tunisians what kind of system that should be, in the short or the long term, and you will get many different answers.

Twenty-six-year-old student Ibtissem Sabry wants the army in control until democratic elections take place. "I am sure that the country will be safe, very safe, in the hands of the military system," Sabry said.

Another student activist who gave only her first name Yiefa, has other ideas.

Yiefa wants Tunisia to elect a communist government.

Meanwhile, instability continues. And many Tunisians, like rights activist Khadija Cherif, are worried.

Cherif fears that holdovers from the old regime are intent on sowing panic and chaos. Former Prime Minister Ghannouchi has also warned of a counter-revolutionary "conspiracy" and announced the arrest of dozens of suspects.

Tunisia's economy continues to struggle with strikes and high unemployment, which helped fuel the popular revolt. There are also questions about whether former President Ben Ali and his extended family pocketed billions of dollars of state funds.

And the country has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people fleeing the unrest in neighboring Libya. Last week, the Paris-based international bond rating firm Fitch Ratings again downrated the country's long-term debt rating, reflecting fears of ongoing instability.

Eric Goldstein is deputy director of North African and Middle East programs for Human Rights Watch. "Even if they can make the current transitional government [leave], it does not meant they are going to provide jobs for all the people who are unemployed,” said Goldstein. “It does not mean the cities of the interior are going to have thriving economies. These things take a long time."

But these are also exciting times. Tunisians are taking their future into their hands. In the southern town of Zarzis, residents have ousted their local government and are running matters.

Berlin-based Tunisian journalists Zuhir Latif came back to his country in January for the first time in 17 years.

"This young generation, we see it in the streets, still continue to defend their rights on many issues,” Latif said. “They know the big sacrifice they did. They are determined. They will not come back again to see the same situation (as) before Ben Ali."

Tunisia's protests have inspired the uprisings now washing across the Arab world. Farez Mabrouk, head of the newly opened Arab Policy Institute in Tunis, says how this country emerges from its so-called "Jasmine Revolution" will be critical.

"I think Tunisia can be a laboratory for democracy in the Arab world ... the success of the Tunisian case is very important for the whole Arab world," said Mabrouk.

Mabrouk does not believe all Arab countries will experience similar revolutions. But he is certain of one thing; authoritarian Arab governments will be forced to open the political arena and respond to their people's calls for change.

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