Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tunisia By Henk Overberg


 It has been interesting to follow from afar as a disinterested but not uninterested observer the developments that have been taking place in Tunisia since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked off the Arab Spring.   I have been fortunate to lead groups to visit Tunisia three times: twice prior to the revolution and once just before the recent elections.   We enjoyed all our visits to Tunisia, were made very welcome, and learnt a lot about people and country.  Within the time of our three visits, the country has certainly changed.

Two things that struck us especially were the changes in attitude: of the bureaucracy we came in contact with, and also of the people we met while travelling city and country.   We well remember how custom officials obstructed and delayed our arrival at Tunis Airport.  We had us wait for hours for no purpose, before they even started to think of issuing visas.  This upset our people greatly: we spent much time afterwards calming them.   Whenever we had to deal with officials we struck the same unfriendly attitude.  On our last visit officials and police had lightened up considerably, welcoming us with open arms, and were in general enthusiastic and helpful.   People we met on our pre-revolution visits were circumspect in their comments about officialdom. Where a comment was made they often mentioned frustration with the corruption of officials, unreasonable levels of taxation, restrictive rules of business, and the like.

Such attitudes had disappeared on our last visit early October 2011.   People had energy: they expressed hope that long established problems could be resolved and that a new future was dawning.   The hope was mixed with fear: hope that things might become better, but also fear that the old patterns might linger.   Much was expected of the forthcoming elections.

Looking at the situation from afar, it seems that the elections have had a positive effect on Tunisian society.   Moderate Islamists form the majority in government, and they are allied with centre-left groups: there seems to be no wish to establish an Islamist state.   A new constitution has been introduced.   The violence seen in Egypt, Libya and Syria has largely been avoided.
MR Henk Overberg in Matmata, Tunsian south east.
He is a senior lecturer in Deakin university Melbourne Australia

I think a number of factors have been at play here.   First, the old authorities, symbolized by ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, went quickly.   Second, there was little foreign interference, so that the proxy wars in Libya and Syria have been avoided.   Third, the army played a far less intrusive role in the transition than it has done in Egypt, which led to a greater public acceptance of transitional arrangements.   Fourth, Tunisian society is relatively homogeneous, and there has neither been the inter-tribal warfare that has so disfigured Libya, nor the Islamic-Christian confrontation that is complicating the situation in Syria.   Without wishing to trivialize the suffering of Tunisians during the revolution, the level of antagonism in Tunisia was lower to a degree than it has been in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Will it last?   There is a real chance that it will.   The West had hoped for a transition to a Western-style secular political establishment.   Given the situation in Tunisia before the revolution, that was never likely to happen.   The polity under President Ben Ali was secular, but its secularism was linked with deep-seated patronage which generated wide-scale corruption.   In this context a secular outcome of the revolution was too much to hope for.   Yet with a moderate Islamic government in charge there is hope for the future.   Some of the signs have been good.    First, relatively uncorrupted elections were held.   Second, the population has by and large accepted the outcome.   Third, a constitution with reasonable democratic safeguards has been put into place.   Fourth, the whole process of transformation has been achieved in a context of relative absence of violence.   The next elections will provide a further measure of the success of the revolution.   If the present government is returned, well and good.   If such elections point to a change of government, then it remains to be seen whether the present lot in power will relinquish power without violence or corruption.   If such is the case, then Tunisia may well feel that a new future has dawned.