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Tunisians Fear Democracy Transition Stalling

  • Lisa Bryant

Almost a year after Tunisia held its first free elections, many fear the North African country's transition to a vibrant democracy has stalled. The economy is struggling, the government is divided, and Tunisians are locked in intensive debates about their future.

After a tumultuous 2011, things are getting back to normal. As the evening falls, Tunis residents gather in cafes to drink tea and maybe smoke a water pipe.

On the main Habib Bourguiba Avenue, coils of barbed wire and the occasional tank spark memories of last year's revolution - a revolution that triggered the wider Arab uprising.

Looking forward

Many here are worried about the future. Among them: architecture student Miriam Kricha, 19, who is strolling down Habib Bourguiba with her boyfriend.

Kricha says she's worried about finding work, even with a university diploma. She believes it will be especially difficult as a woman.

Young people aren't the only ones looking for jobs. Former minister and diplomat Hatem Ben Salem says the government has sidelined a cadre of experienced civil servants from the old regime.

"They wanted to build Tunisia, to build a state, to develop the country. And they are here, looking at what is happening, and they are excluded," Ben Salem says, adding that what is happening in Tunisia is worrying.

Economy

The economy is struggling to get back on its feet. Tourists are back, but not in the droves of pre-revolutionary days and Tunisians complain that basic services and security have eroded.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, says despite its problems Tunisia is moving forward both economically and politically.

But Ghannouchi acknowledges that Tunisia is experiencing a very difficult democratic transition. After half a century of dictatorship, Tunisians are learning how to balance freedom and order.

Striking that balance isn't easy. Along with economic problems, there are enormous political and religious tensions.

Today, Arab Policy Institute head Fares Mabrouk says, a negotiations are underway over the role of government, civil society and human rights.

"Actually, it's a negotiation about what type of democracy we want. We have to create something new, something that does not exist. We don't have a reference," explains Mabrouk.

Islam's role

The role of Islam is among the biggest issues being debated in this young democracy. Rights advocates worry that conservative interpretations of the Muslim religion will roll back free expression and women's rights.

Extremist Islam is one of the biggest worries. Salafists are increasingly visible, not only on the streets but in politics.

Mokhtar Trifi is a senior member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights. Little by little, Trifi says, extremists are trying to impose an aggressive form of Islam. Sometimes through violence, sometimes through fear.

But Ghannouchi says Salafists have the right to air their views and form political associations - so long as they don't break the law. Free expression, he says, is one of the victories of the revolution.

Tunisia's transition to democracy is taking longer than many anticipated. There are growing doubts that parliament will complete the new constitution by its October deadline. Or that elections will be held early next year, as was hoped.

But hope is still something Tunisians like Mohamed Aouani believe in.

Aouani says completing the revolution will take time. And people here appear willing to wait for a better future.
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