With a growing traffic of world leaders, international institutions and civil society, this former police state is emerging as a regional hub of free discourse.
Tunis gains allure as a new laboratory for democracy
TUNIS // One afternoon last week, Ursula Schulze Aboubacar returned to her Tunis office smiling with satisfaction after a meeting long deemed unthinkable: a sit-down with a Tunisian interior minister.
During decades of authoritarian rule here, visitors such as Mrs Aboubacar, who heads the new Tunis office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), were not welcome.
That changed last year with the toppling of the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Today, with a growing traffic of world leaders, international institutions and civil society, this former police state is emerging as a regional hub of free discourse, a laboratory for democracy.
With just 10 million people and modest oil resources, "Tunisia's importance is moral and symbolic," said John Entelis, the head of the Middle East Studies programme at Fordham University in New York. "It's the first Arab country to achieve the overthrow of its dictator."
Last October, Tunisians voting freely for the first time ushered in a coalition interim government of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and two secularist parties.
"The world, in particular the Arab world, will be watching carefully to see whether the experiment works," Mr Entelis said.
That experiment could offer lessons for other Arab countries, notably Egypt and Libya, where long-persecuted Islamists now stand to gain a degree of power in their first free elections.
For Arab leaders, Tunisia's once sleepy capital beckons increasingly as a place to make friends and influence people.
Last weekend dignitaries from Algeria, Qatar, the UAE, Libya, Morocco and elsewhere flocked to Tunis for the one-year commemoration of Ben Ali's fall.
The city has also played host recently to the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and Syrian opponents of their country's president, Bashar Al Assad.
While Tunisia's governing parties ran on pledges to honour the country's Arab-Muslim heritage, it remains unclear how that might affect foreign policy long geared towards Europe.
One sign of a shift would be greater focus on the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), a planned North African trading bloc stalled mainly by Moroccan-Algerian bickering over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, Mr Entelis said.
Last week Tunisia's national assembly speaker, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and his Moroccan counterpart, Karim Ghalleb, called for progress on the AMU while meeting in Tunis.
The more such dialogue takes place, the keener are European countries to strengthen trade across the Mediterranean.
The European Union backs the AMU as a step towards economic integration with Europe, said Lorenzo Kluzer, the chief political officer at the EU's office in Tunis. "Instead of dealing separately with each country, we could deal directly with a union."
Tunisia could play a leading role in such integration as the EU vows support for Arab countries that strengthen democracy, Mr Kluzer said. On that score, "there's no doubt that Tunisia has done the most."
In the past, cities such as Beirut and Doha have been seen as oases of openness in a mistrustful region, said Mr Entelis.
"For the moment, Tunisia is more open than any Arab country," he said. "And it's seen as more authentically open because it has happened through democracy."
Tunisia's leaders have pledged to reform state institutions inherited from Ben Ali's regime, while the national assembly is to draft a new constitution ahead of elections expected in about a year.
For Mrs Aboubacar, interim authorities have already proved a welcome change from Ben Ali's regime, which refused the UNHCR official recognition and largely snubbed its four officers in Tunis.
Following Ben Ali's removal, war in Libya threw the new Tunisia onto a steep learning curve in handling refugees as tens of thousands arrived seeking housing, food and medical care.
"They could easily have closed the border, but they kept it open," said Mrs Aboubacar, whose agency worked with Tunisia's army and interim government to set up a refugee camp.
The UNHCR signed a cooperation agreement with Tunisia last June and last month opened a new office in Tunis with more than 30 staff including officers whose work spans North Africa.
The agency is helping Tunisia draft laws defining the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, Mrs Aboubacar said. "In my view, this really shows that there's a different mindset."
Tunisia's new openness has also made it a popular rendezvous for civil society from around the region, with Tunis hotels often doubling as conference venues.
This month Canal France International (CFI), a French media support agency funded by France's foreign ministry, partnered Tunisian media NGOs and the news website Tunisia Live for a two-day conference in Tunis on media freedoms and online journalism.
"Tunisia is a good laboratory; you can speak freely and be heard by the world," said Eric Soulier, CFI's Mediterranean and Asia director. "The conference was well-followed on Twitter."
Such changes are taking place amid "the reconfiguration of political life," he said, citing protests by Tunisian journalists this month against the government's appointment of state media directors.
"There's no Tunisian model yet," said Mr Soulier. "It's being created."