At the University of Carthage in Tunisia between Thursday and today the international community has been engaging with Tunisian civil society. The Fifth Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy – Decentralisation by Participation exchanged views and experiences with all sectors of Tunisian civil society: young people, women and trade unionists were at the forefront, with very passionate views on the Tunisian roadmap to democracy.
Why has the Arab Spring in Tunisia provided different results from those reaped in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria?
Yahd Ben Anchour, lawyer, former Chairman of the High Commission for the Preservation of the Revolution, and charged with overseeing constitutional reform in a post Ben Ali Tunisia, emphasised the fact that the roots of this more successful outcome can be traced to a number of policy decisions in the late 1950s. The then Tunisian strongman Habib Bourguiba had championed free access to education, including higher education. He had, moreover, championed gender equality right from the first days of independence. Tackling these issues made Bourguiba an exception in the Arab world.
From outside Tunisia, Bourguiba’s personality cult, the large scale clientelism over the years as well as the leadership of a one party-state naturally overshadowed his otherwise significant social achievements, which are considered by many as the essential building blocks of today’s Tunisia civil society.
Even though a number of Tunisian women are still shackled by tradition, the number of them active in public life is impressive. It is this exceptionalism which has given the Arab Spring in Tunisia the edge over neighbouring countries and consequently the reasonable chance of success.
Mohammed Bouazizi’s self immolation and subsequent death on the 4 January 2011 brought together all those dissatisfied with the Tunisian regime, leading to its downfall and laying the foundations for the first democratic state in the Arabic family of nations.
The debate in the Global Forum focused on the discontinuity of the electoral process in contrast to the permanence of political dialogue and participation. In a society which has rediscovered its hold over its own destiny, it is emphasised that political participation bridges the gaps of political time and goes beyond political monoplies. All Tunisian participants emphasised the fact that direct democracy reinforces – and is complimentary to – representative democracy.
Power originates from the people, who ultimately remain its sole arbitror. This can be done through referenda, not just to delete legislation but also to propose measures which the elected representatives did not consider necessary.
It is an ongoing debate that sees young people, women and trade unionists together with a new generation of political activists debating the next steps to be taken by a democratic Tunisia.
It is in Malta’s interest to nurture this democratic development on our southern borders. We are not accustomed to having this type of neighbour! During a recent meeting with Tunisian Premier Habib Essid, Malta’s Foreign Minister George Vella stated that Malta was willing to support Tunisia’s democratic process. Back in 2012, in the first months after the revolution, Michael Frendo, then Speaker of Malta’s House of Representatives, had also been in Tunisia, offering Malta’s hand of friendship and cooperation to our neighbours.
Some positive developments for a change to our south.
Published in The Independent on Sunday : 17 May 2015