Tunisia: 2011 historic by all measures

Lassaad Ben Ahmed, Saturday 31 Dec 2011

After a year of momentous transformations in which dictatorship was overthrown, Tunisians are looking forward to a bright future having elected a democratic assembly and formed a popular coalition government

Mohamed Ben Bouazizi, known as Basboosa, the street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and sparked the Tunisian Revolution (Photo: AFP)

Tunisians are starting 2012 with a new government that has no links to the past or its figureheads; for many this is an achievement in itself.

The euphoria of the "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia, with a peddler desperate to support his mother, uncle and siblings from his meager earnings. Mohamed Bouazizi’s chilling act of protest was very simple. On the morning of 17 December 2010, Bouazizi walked in front of a government office in his hometown, poured gasoline over his head and set himself on fire. “How do you expect me make a living?” the desperate peddler screamed before he lit the match. Street protests began in Tunisia immediately after his self-immolation.

By all measures, 2011 was an historic year. Who would have thought that the iron grip of the deposed president would end this way? Who would have thought that the Islamic movement had so much influence in a society that Borqeba, followed by Ben Ali, had painstakingly worked on Westernising and “modernising” for more than half a century? Who would have ever imagined that Arab societies would rise up with such courage and valour?

Although social and economic conditions have not yet settled down, the people of Tunisia have already reaped many rewards and are now focusing on enforcing them with a new constitution and laying the foundations for a new historic epoch that promotes pluralism and diversity within society.

One of the key gains of the Tunisian revolution is freedom of the media and expression after decades of silence; a second advantage is doing away with the injustice and tyranny that the ruling family had inflicted on the public in the last days of the deposed regime.

Third, is the model that Tunisians gave to the world on the day that the Constitutional Assembly was elected on 23 October. They demonstrated their ability to decide their own fate although many observers had doubted that the revolution was spontaneous, arguing that events in Tunisia were part of a US plot for “a new expanded Middle East”, although the US had pressured the fugitive president to carry out reforms and not use excessive force against protestors. Some even propose that the US mobilised Internet-savvy youth and supported the revolution covertly.

Tunisian leaders succeeded in holding the first free plural elections in Tunisia’s history. Forming the first coalition government is a revolutionary feat in itself that Tunisians could have never achieved without a united will to sever all ties with the injustice of the past and enthusiastically embrace a bright future. A future where all Tunisians are equal in front of the law and each citizen has the right to live with dignity and without fear of discrimination based on family, colour or belief.

It was not an easy journey. Until the new government took over the reins of power in state institutions, the situation was volatile and could have collapsed at any moment amidst political and ideological battles, and a counter-revolution by remnants of the former regime who obstructed every reform measure that stripped former figureheads of their illegal gains.

First, there were statements by Al-Raghi, minister of interior in the first interim government, in April who claimed that there was a plot by the army to take over power if Islamists won the elections. Second, the airing of the film Persepolis, that personified the deity, during elections provoked the anger of hardline Salafists. Third, attempts to disrupt the flow of basic commodities to the market throughout the year — such as the milk, bread and natural gas — as well as attempts to paralyse the economy through random and unjustified strikes.

The people of Tunisia overcame all these obstacles. Since the new government came to office this week, there has been a stream of good news. The sit-in by chemists at Gabes, 400 kilometres south of the capital, has come to an end; the distillation of phosphate, a key source of hard currency for the country, was restarted; and the government has abandoned a decision to cut four days’ pay from salaries in the public and private sector. This was preceded by an announcement to expand investment in industry that would create new jobs for the unemployed to offset the effects of the revolution on the economy. So far, revenues from tourism have fallen by 40 per cent and 120 foreign firms have fled the country’s instability.

Some analysts believe that the precarious phase of political void is over and only better days lie ahead for Tunisians. Al-Monsef Al-Marzouqi, the new interim president, called for a social and political truce for six months to give the country a chance to recover its strength and regain the confidence of investors after Tunisia dropped by several points in business indices. Hamadi Al-Jebali, head of the government, called for a combined effort that differences of opinion and belief should not divert the people from safeguarding the future of the country and securing a brighter future for coming generations.

This current second interim phase should end by ratifying a new constitution within one year and holding presidential or legislative elections, or both at once depending on what the Constituent Assembly decides.

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