Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

Muslim Matters

Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Washington–The first post-“Revolution” election over this modern Punic realm on the twenty-third of this month is essential to the direction of the future of the Arab “Spring,” and whether a truly Islamic democratic form can be fulfilled over the region.

Your narrator takes his report from a panel, “The Jasmine Revolution and Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy” which was the first segment of the Center for Democracy and Islam (CISD), headquartered here in the District of Columbia (D.C.), Twelfth Annual Conference, “Tunisia and Egypt’s Revolution and Transitions to Democracy.”    

Radwan Masmoudi, president and founder of The CSID, began the proceedings by stating that the recent rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt “…have been [something we were] dreaming of for a long time.” The revolutions have changed the perceptions of Arabs in the West.  What outsiders conceived to be stability was rotten to its core of corruption and repression.  NATO’s allied Arab elite grew out of touch domestically, failing to address chronic social and economic problems.  Now, it is important that these nations of the Middle East succeed!  Whereas, “The whole region is going through…changes…a lot of work has to be done…,” too.  Regarding the United States in particular, Dr. Masmoudi warned that now “…the United States must realize that change is coming, and they should not be afraid of change!” He  suggests that this meeting recommend how the United States (and other international actors) can best support the spread of democracy in  the Islamic world.

The panel of the middle of this April last consisted of Radwan Ziadeh, founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (Syria) as moderator; with opening comments by Mohamed Salah Tekaya, the current Ambassador of Tunisia to the United States; Jaloul Ayed, Minister of Finance in Tunis; and, finally, Mondher Ben Ayed, a Tunisian businessman and a board member of the CSID chapter in the Tunisian capital.

Jaloul Ayed, Minister of Finance for Tunisia, asserted that, “We have a real opportunity…We can create a democratic political system free of corruption that truly respects human rights.” Minister Ayed said Tunisia’s Revolution was the first of the so-called Arab “Spring” because due to our previous history (and traditions).

Minister Ayed paid tribute to the “spontaneous, leaderless and party-less” Revolution.  At the present, among the primary challenges facing the current transitional government preparing for elections are maintaining security and managing the expectations of the people.  Although the security situation is improving, “the reality is, the government cannot meet the people’s demands immediately.”
The transitional government is focusing on four main priorities: reducing unemployment, restoring economic growth, reducing regional disparities, and assisting Tunisians in need.  With a population of 10 million, 600,000 are unemployed, with large numbers of recent graduates unable to find work, also.

Curiously, the country’s tourism and export sectors employ about one million workers and support 50 percent of the population, but both have been severely impacted by the Revolution. 

The new government intends to create twenty thousand additional jobs in the public sector and to recruit an additional twenty thousand more into the military.  We, further, anticipate a growing economy to absorb another twenty thousand workers in the private sector, yet it is “a drop in the bucket,” but, moreover, “a good start.”  Their Program Hope, an expanding new project, will provide small cash stipends to recent graduates to help them enter the labor market.

To restore economic growth the Ministry of Finance is commencing major initiatives on infrastructure and finance reformation.  “We need a serious reform of our entire financial system…. These problems developed over a long time and will require a long-term solution.”    

Efforts have begun to reduce regional disparities in microfinance projects and advice to small and medium-sized enterprises.  Simultaneously, on the social front, the government is providing subsidies to families that have suffered financially since the Revolution.

The government is attempting to obtain the wealth with which the former President Ben Ali absconded.  The Finance Minister attested that the process has been “complicated and technical,” so as not to disrupt viable companies or to destroy the banks.  Real estate rightfully belonging to the State will go back to the government while stolen financial assets will go back to the banks.

The transitional government acknowledges it does not have a mandate to engage in major structural changes; therefore, it simultaneously wishes to prepare for the next (elected) government while meeting the current pressing demands of the people. “We believe that the spark that began in Tunisia will give us a tremendous responsibility to make sure that this transition becomes a successful one!  Failure is totally unacceptable!”

Your reporting author summarizes that Minister Jaloul Ayed acknowledges the necessity of stemming the institutional corruption of the past; there is a requirement for a wide-ranging political debate; also, to commit the Republic to development; and, thereby, the establishment of stability for foreign investment capital to thrive.

Mondher Ben Ayed, a Tunisian businessman and a board member of CSID-Tunis, opened his remarks with a review of the security situation.  The army and the police are smaller than both internal and external threats demand.  In actuality, “The army is…only 35,000 troops that are not even trained well or equipped.”  Succinctly, external and internal securities are issues.

Mr. Ben Ayed gave the exact figures to which Jaloul Ayed only intimated in his assessment of the economic challenges ahead.   The latter predicted that unemployed might rise to 700,000 before it starts to fall.  To be exact, 350,000 persons are employed in the tourism industry.  This will be a bad year for that sector!  “Right now, foreign debt is up, foreign investment is down, and the budget deficit is exploding because of food and energy subsidies to the people…We have lost our trade with Libya…and the banking system is weak with lots of bad debts.”

“We are facing major economic challenges,” but despite this gloom, Mr. Ben Ayed still remains optimistic. “Before the revolution, Tunisia had strong economic fundamentals,” a high literacy rate, equal status for women, and a strong middle class.  Even with the massive corruption, the country experienced four years of 5-percent annual growth. “If we can take out corruption, we should be able to achieve 7 or 8 percent of growth per annum,” but “We need financial aid for a two-year transitional period, after which we will be fine.” The United States and Europe are essential to our “Revolution’s success.

“We have had more political change in the past…months than in the previous fifty years… all these changes have been made under existing civil law in an ad-hoc environment.”  A new Election Commission and Code has been produced. The upcoming elections scheduled (for this month) will engender a new 200-member parliament that will, likewise, draft a new constitution.

We have experienced momentous political changes.  After a new Constitution we shall proceed towards a Presidential election, and, thus, hopefully, will be “…solving our problems…”

Finally, the convener of the Conference, Radwan Masoudi, noted that, while religion will continue to be a major force in the country (Tunisia is 98 percent Muslim with a long tradition of moderation), “…no one wants a theocratic state—everybody wants a democratic civil state that fully respects human rights and Islamic values and culture.”

The challenge will be “to find a good balance between Islamic religious values and democratic values….I think Tunisia is well placed to develop…a moderate Islamic state.”


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