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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Economic problems and protests persist but, for many reasons, Tunisia is a success story

It is seven years since revolution transformed Tunisia. We should mark the accomplishments that have been achieved and recognise the work that still need to be done

Tunisian people march with national flags during a rally to mark seven years since revolution in Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. AP Photo / Hassene Dridi
Tunisian people march with national flags during a rally to mark seven years since revolution in Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. AP Photo / Hassene Dridi

This week, the people of Tunisia marked the seventh anniversary of their revolutionary uprising. It’s a bitter sweet occasion for some, owing to the many challenges that still face the people. And it is good to remember those challenges, but it is at least as appropriate to recall what Tunisians have gained.

Let us take stock of where Tunisia was and where it is today. Seven years ago, Tunisia was an autocracy, with little to no hope of incremental positive change occurring under a dictatorial ruler. In that regard, it wasn't unique in the region. And then, taking themselves and the region in general by surprise, Tunisians rose up – and their erstwhile "autocrat-for-life" was forced out of power.

Seven years on, it is understandable why a fair few express nostalgia for their lives under Ben Ali. After all, it was a simpler, easier time, that was, arguably, less tumultuous and chaotic. But it would be a mistake of the highest order to claim that Ben Ali’s regime was stable. To put it bluntly, if his regime had truly been stable, then it would not have been overthrown by ordinary Tunisians going to the streets. There was a mass protest in Britain 2003 to demonstrate against the Iraq war, but the government wasn’t swept from power. Something was deeply wrong in Tunisia and Ben Ali’s overthrow showed it.Something was deeply wrong in Tunisia and the uprising showed it.

Nevertheless, the promise of the Tunisian revolution has not been fulfilled. The economic situation is still difficult, which has led to new protests taking place, although they are very different from those that took place during the years of 2010 and 2011.

So while I am realistic about what has been accomplished since 2011, I am also sanguine about the state of Tunisia in 2018.

When it comes to the security sector and economic reform, there is a long way to go. Indeed, a number of basic structural reforms remain outstanding in Tunisia’s democratic experiment.

But the democratic experiment continues to exist, which is a significant accomplishment considering the surrounding environment and the hitherto dashed experiences of so many in the region. Tunisia has succeeded in constructing a consensus-based constitution that would be the envy of not only many more Arabs in north Africa, but people all around the world. No one should forget how important that attainment is and what kind of cost was paid for it to become a reality, in the blood, sweat and tears of the Tunisian people.

Certainly, there are reasons to be incredibly cautious – because, indeed, this is a democratic experiment. It is not a consolidated transition to a truly well entrenched order, underpinned by accountability, the rule of law, and fundamental rights. Tunisia may be far closer to that than it was in 2010 – but it still needs help. It still needs assistance from its regional neighbours, and beyond. It’s not a charitable donation when that assistance comes, it’s an investment in a more stable region. It’s a pushback against the idea that the future can only look more like autocracy or extremism of various types – and that’s an investment that is worth its weight in gold. We should all remember that, and take stock of it.

Against the backdrop of so many crises in the region, it is easy to let the Tunisian story fall by the wayside. It’s not on fire – and we do not pause long enough to realise that is in itself a feat of quite some proportion, considering how easily it might have gone that way, given the various scenarios that have played out elsewhere. Too much is at stake to just let that kind of cynicism rule the way in which we view this beautiful country, and its noble people. We must do what we can in order to ensure that the democratic experiment is no longer an experiment – but the beginning of a new, institutionalised reality, where the fundamental rights of all Tunisians are protected and upheld.

For the time being, nevertheless, Tunisians can take pride in what they have done thus far. Because every single day that the Tunisian democratic experiment continues, against so many odds, in spite of the machinations of so many against it, from within and from without – well, that’s a success in and of itself. And for that, Tunisians deserve a hearty round of applause – every day.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London

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