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With Elections on the Way, Tunisia Still Unsettled

Tunisian police officers disperse hundreds of demonstrators during clashes in Tunis, May 5, 2011

Two months before scheduled elections, Tunisia remains a country in flux. Protests continue, discontented Tunisians are still migrating to Europe and the country is grappling with unrest spilling over from neighboring Libya.

Tunisia was at the vanguard of the protests still roiling the Arab world. The self-immolation of a young man in southern Tunisia set off a popular uprising that drove long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in January - and inspired similar anti-government movements elsewhere.

Now the country is looking ahead. Elections are scheduled in July for a constituent assembly, tasked with drawing up a new constitution and preparing for elections for a new government. Dozens of parties have sprouted on the political scene.

Fares Mabrouk, who heads the newly established Arab Policy Institute, a Tunis-based think-tank, is upbeat. "I think that today all the ingredients are here for the success of this transition in Tunisia. Yes, there are more than 70 parties, but they are all organized to communicate a project and their program, so it's a very exciting and very interesting period," he said.

But Tunisia's interim government has already raised the possibility the July vote will be delayed. Demonstrations continue for faster reforms. Tunisia's once-vibrant economy is struggling to get back on its feet and young Tunisians continue to head in droves to Europe - prompting talk of tightening Europe's open-border Schengen agreement.

Men, who used to work in Libya and fled the unrest in the country, carry their belongings as they walk during a sand storm in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, March 15, 2011
Men, who used to work in Libya and fled the unrest in the country, carry their belongings as they walk during a sand storm in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, March 15, 2011

Libyan refugees

Unrest in neighboring Libya has already spilled across Tunisia's borders. Over the past few months, several hundred thousand people have crossed over, fleeing the fighting. According to reports, that includes the wife and daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Libya's oil minister.

In an interview with France's Europe 1 radio this week in Paris, visiting Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi acknowledged the challenges.

Essebsi said the Libyan unrest was practically a domestic problem. Tunisia has protested and threatened to take the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Fear factors

There are also reports of al-Qaida's presence on Tunisia's soil. And fears about the mounting popularity of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party, Ennadha.

Ennadha leaders argue they support a multiparty democracy. In a recent interview on French radio Ajmi Lourimi, a member of Ennadha's executive committee, scoffed at those who doubt them.

Lourimi said Ennadha was for a modern, democratic state with a separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a free press.

Analyst Mabrouk also downplays fears about Ennadha. "The movement did not radicalize despite 23 years of repression [under Ben Ali's rule]. Despite the torture and imprisonment of the members. Yes, Ennadha will be one of the leading political parties in this now and open and democratic political arena. But Ennadha is also popular," he said.

U.S. aid

In a keynote speech on U.S. Middle East policy this week, President Barack Obama announced billions of dollars in aid for Tunisia and Egypt, which also overthrew its authoritarian government. He said Washington had asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan to help both economies at the upcoming G8 summit in France.

"Together, we must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near term financial needs," said the U.S. president.

Wire services report that France will announce a partnership for financial aid and investment for Tunisia and Egypt during the G8 summit, which takes place next Thursday and Friday in the French city of Deauville.

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