x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In Tunisia, democracy flexes its newly born muscles

Democracy is like a body – if it's not exercised properly, its muscles atrophy. As Tunisia prepares for its first election, it must continue to flex its newfound strength if it is to grow its democracy.

Outside the Municipal Theatre in downtown Tunis, a crowd gathers and shouts slogan. An enterprising salesman appears, rapidly selling his collection of Tunisian flags and patriotic trinkets. Cars inching along Habib Bourghiba Avenue, already slowed down by the military roadblocks, now have to stop for the people crossing the street.

I try to hear the slogan chanted, a variation of the one first heard in this country and now heard across the region: "The people demand...", but I can't catch the end above the noise. I ask a man in a passing car if he knows what they are saying. He shakes his head distractedly. "The people are demanding something every day."

In three months, Tunisians will vote for their future and almost every week there is a political gathering, rally or demonstration of some sort. Tunisia's political parties are blossoming, though with 44 currently legal, many are little more than special interest groups.

Even the political parties that were legal under the rule of the ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, are adapting to a new reality, able to explain themselves to the public without the fear of being watched. Such was the surveillance of political activity that most legal parties were used to talking only to their supporters. Suddenly, they had a wider audience.

"There are many, many people outside of political parties," says Dalenda Largueche, a professor of history at the University of Tunis. "They are looking and demanding information. They are the majority now - it's hard to give a percentage, but it's really the majority, at least 50 per cent."

Tunisians, especially the young, have adapted to this sudden change quickly. Just a few short weeks ago, the idea of openly debating politics was fanciful. Even uttering the president's name was troublesome - now, I notice many people still simply refer to Ben Ali as "him". Some habits take a while to change.

Yet the transition to being able to talk about anyone and anything seems to have been smooth. One explanation, furnished by a young Tunisian, is that people had already been talking freely online: "They were used to expressing themselves in one area. Once the regime fell, they simply transferred that openness to the public arena."

Uncorking the ability to speak freely is one thing, exercising it carefully is another. For many people, this is the first time they are hearing competing political ideas and it is easy to be swayed by each one, or by none at all. Remaking the mentality of participation will prove crucial to Tunisia's future.

"We are talking about the roots of the people," says Asma Mnaouar, a painter and visual artist. "The real change has to be in the mentality, to go back to our initial mentality, because we are a tolerant society before it was manipulated by Ben Ali."

That ability to critically engage is the hardest part, says Prof Largueche. "For Tunisian people, and especially for ordinary people, this is the first time they have prepared for elections. Many, many people are floating voters and they don't know who they will vote for. It's this population that interests me and my movement."

Prof Largueche is part of a group of intellectuals who created the Citizen's Initiative, a civil society movement to engage people as citizens, rather than persuade them of a particular party. The charter they ask people to sign up to is broad, dealing with issues like the separation of powers between the three branches of government and free and fair elections.

It is a way of trying to enshrine the values and political gains of the past few decades in a new Tunisia. The elections on July 24th will rewrite the constitution and, in a real sense, define the future of the country. For Prof Largueche and others, what is more important is that certain values are enshrined in the governing institutions than the political beliefs of those who lead the institutions.

Being in Tunisia and seeing first hand the complexity of a fledgling democracy is humbling. Repressive states not only destroy the capacity of civil society to function, they also affect the ability of people to choose their futures. Democracy is a muscle - just as the body politic with a long experience of democracy can atrophy by making bad choices, so too do young democracies need time to build up their strength.

How much time Tunisia has is unclear. One of the reasons civil society campaigners are keen to enshrine values in the coming constitution is the fear that a political party that gains a significant share of the vote might take the chance to amend the constitution. That would obviously have repercussions for Tunisia, although it would be a function of democracy.

But it would also have repercussions for the region. What Tunisia does will be felt across North Africa.

If its political landscape can reflect the country's societal openness, Algerians, Moroccans and Libyans who visit this small country for its congenial atmosphere may one day take back home something more than souvenirs.