Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Tunisia has achieved much in so little time

The poster nation for the Arab uprisings continues to lead by example in new elections
A man reads a newspaper showing candidates Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui on its front-page, a day after the first round of presidential elections in Tunis. AP Photo

As the cradle of the uprisings that changed the face of the Arab world, much has been expected of Tunisia and its future. Undoubtedly, Tunisia’s transition of political power has not been without its obstacles. But as Tunisians anxiously await the outcome of this week’s presidential poll, the third free and fair election since dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, the very fact that it is taking place is proof that the country is doggedly determined to stay the course.

But this was not apparent from the start. Victory for the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in the first elections after the uprising appeared to confirm that Tunisia was adhering to the post-revolutionary script. The rise of ultra-conservative Salafist groups, responsible for protests on the streets against events deemed to be “un-Islamic”, was a reminder that Tunisia’s newly acquired status could not be taken for granted.

The country has also had its share of political turmoil and its people still suffer from a sluggish economy. Thousands of Tunisians had joined ISIS at its peak in Iraq and Syria, while terror attacks on a museum and a beach resort in 2015 killed 60 people, mainly tourists – taking a toll on Tunisia’s economy.

Democracy and justice, however, have continued to prevail. In February, seven militants were jailed for life for the terror attacks. The many political groups vying to play a part in the governance of their country continue to put their faith in the ballot box and an uneasy but nevertheless encouraging coalition exists between moderate Islamists and secularists.

Apathy might now be the worst enemy in Tunisia. There are signs that voters are growing weary and, perhaps, disillusioned with the democratic process – or perhaps, with the choice of potential leaders in the hastily organised election, following the death of late president Beji Caid Essebsi in July. In October 2011, 10 months after the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi triggered a wave of uprisings, more than 90 per cent of Tunisia’s electors voted. Today, despite repeated reminders from the electoral commission that “you had a revolution for this moment”, the turnout was just over 45 per cent. While voter turnout has been steadily declining over the last 40 years in established democracies such as the US and countries in western Europe and Latin America, the poor turnout in Tunisia cannot be pinned on the same reasons of taking suffrage for granted. Disenfranchised voters, particularly among the younger generation, must feel they have a voice and say in their future, particularly at a time when unemployment is rife and many are struggling financially.

Voters are growing weary and, perhaps, disillusioned with the democratic process – or maybe, with the choice of potential leaders in the hastily organised election

Despite the election being brought forward from November, there were no shortage of candidates. A total of 26 hopefuls made it through to the first round of polling. Two political outsiders, both populists, have been performing well in exit polls – retired law professor Kais Saied and media mogul Nabil Karoui – indicating that nine years on from the demise of Ben Ali, the electorate could be ready for sweeping changes once again. Mr Karoui is currently being held on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies. If he wins the presidency, but loses his court case, he might not be able to take office – circumstances that could seriously test the robustness of Tunisia’s newly inaugurated constitution.

Regardless, in nine years the nation has come a long way and has much to be proud of. Yes, there is much to be done – unemployment is high and the economy requires reinvigoration. But having been the poster nation of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia continues to lead by example, demonstrating that chaos and misfortune need not be the children of change.

Updated: September 16, 2019 07:50 PM