unisia was once the Jewel in France's Imperial Crown: a tiny country of today under 10 million, with fertile date and olive groves on the Mediterranean coast and harsh Saharan desert south of the mines of Gafsa.
Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourgiuba who is possibly best remembered for allowing women significant rights. Control of the country passed into the hands of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who became its loathed dictator in 1988. Touted around Europe as the ‘most advanced democracy in the region of North Africa and the Maghreb' Tunisia was favoured by the EU with the promise of Advanced (Economic) Status from the Autumn of 2011. Until the events of early 2011 European institutions showed little interest in the documented Human Rights abuses of Ben Ali and his regime: the incarceration of thousands of Muslims, trade unionists, the harassment and virtual ‘house arrest' of Human Rights Defenders and journalists, the denial of a free press and freedom of information.
On 17 December 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi, aged only 24 and a graduate vegetable seller set himself alight in despair at a future of poverty and unemployment in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in Central Tunisia. He died on 4th January and the world watched with wonder as up to half a million young people, trade unionists and others took to the streets to protest daily against the economic and political injustices perpetrated on Tunisian soil.
After the return to school of students on January 6, youths supported by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) demonstrated in violent clashes with police culminating with the shooting of five young protesters in the nearby town of Thala.
After widespread protests, finally, on January 24th 2011 Ben Ali, and his hated entourage, including many from the Trablesi and Mabrouk families, fled. The first provisional government which included 13 ministers from Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) fled after two weeks of sit-ins in Parliament Square.
The New Government
Beji Caid al-Sebsi, aged 84, previously Bourgiuba's foreign minister is now tasked with the precarious job of balancing the multiplicity of competing interests and leading the Interim Government towards elections on July 24th.
Unlike Egypt, where a military council now steers the country towards elections, in Tunisia it is the frail forces of civil society who take the lead. A Transitional Council consisting of national personalities, representatives of political parties, NGOs, trade unions and the Bar Council held its first meeting at the end of March 2011 and from April 2011 became known as the Committee of Public Salvation. It has already produced an electoral code with a view to holding national elections on 24th July. The code is amongst the most democratic in the world and includes Protocols on all civil, economic and political rights providing for an independent electoral commission, parity between the sexes and proportional voting.
The Committee includes prominent members of the only trade union to survive Ben Ali's dictatorship (the UGTT) and members of Tunisia's Bar Association, the National Order of Lawyers which represents Tunisia's 8,000 lawyers, who led street protests in Kasserine, Tunis and other major cities to oust Ben Ali and who are out to reclaim their place in society.
So far many have made concessions in the hope that the Committee can deliver democratic elections although suspicion of Ennadha, Tunisia's comparatively mild form of Islamism runs rife amongst Higher Council members. To attempt to allay these fears Ennadha, led by Rachid Gannouchi, who returned to Tunisia after long exile in January, has voted for parity between men and women and is freely organising candidates for the July elections. It seems certain that Tunisia's post revolutionary constitution will be debated openly by a democratically elected constituent assembly.
Tunisians have been doubly betrayed by both Habib Bourgiuba and Ben Ali. Their current dilemma is between the need to act quickly to get new systems working and the need for time to re-organise a democratic society after 23 years of terror when free expression and organisation was impossible. Promises to reduce poverty, especially in the regions and reduce unemployment will be hard to keep. In a population of 9 million there are 700,000 unemployed almost half of whom are graduates. The youth movement, who should claim ‘ownership' of the revolution have no concrete alternatives to propose to the members of civil society who have flooded in to fill the political vacuum left by Ben Ali's dismantled dictatorships. Many jobs have already been lost in 2011 because of the fall out from the political upheaval. Instability in Libya has led 50,000 Tunisian workers to return home.
An emergency package of $148 million to fund 60,000 new jobs, focused mainly on the 14 poorer regions in the South, named the Bouazizi plan is already in place, but the real challenge is to quickly stimulate the economy.
On 27th May G8 leaders responded to urgent requests for aid from both Tunisia and Egypt by promising a package of £12bn loans and aid to both countries through the World Bank, the IMF and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It remains to be seen whether this aid will actually materialise.
Our Tunisian comrades are relieved to have emerged from the long shadow of Ben Ali's 23 year dictatorship and have high hopes that a democracy will emerge after the July elections. Jalloul Ayed, the Tunisian Finance Minister optimistically stated “It is very clear everybody wants to help us”. Let us hope that this is indeed the case and that Tunisia can freely continue with its democratic processes.