The grassroots revolution in Tunisia has raised several questions among observers about the prospects for democracy and whether Tunisia will be able to achieve a genuine transition into a real and sustainable democratic regime. There is no need here to go back to the nineteenth century and recall the rooted origins of political reformism in Tunisia inspired by constitutionalism. It is worthy mentioning, in this respect, that Tunisia was the first Arab and first Muslim country to adopt a bill of rights in 1857 and a constitution in 1861. Since 1956 Tunisia has been--and remains until now--the sole Arab country to abolish polygamy and ban traditional marriage and divorce.
To focus exclusively on the recent events in Tunisia, we can say that serious challenges to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had begun at least in 1998. Indeed, during his entire rule, Ben Ali only benefited from a short respite from these challenges, mainly from 1992 to 1996. During this period, the dictatorship reached critical levels and rare were those who had the courage to defy the dangerous regime's authoritarian drift. Civil society and the political opposition were mercilessly oppressed. A huge number of militants from all sensibilities were jailed after unfair trials and widespread use of torture and other abuses. All these violations were regularly reported by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. The year 1998 was the beginning of the first break in the silence when some militants decided to create the National Council for Liberties, a national organization that was never recognized by the regime. Some interesting reports issued by the NCL on human rights in Tunisia had a great impact among activists and opened the way to more challenging actions against the dictatorship.
The brutal oppression wielded by Ben Ali's regime forced Islamists and secular militants to cooperate and unify means in the struggle against dictatorship. Consequently, the various political sensibilities and trends have learned to work together with mutual respect and tolerance. It is rare indeed to see in the Arab region secular political parties accept Islamist movements or to see Islamists and communists fighting together against dictatorship. The seeds of a genuine democratic and peaceful coexistence between the actors of a future democracy were already (albeit unconsciously) planted by Ben Ali himself. In other words, the ingredients for a constructive political life exist in Tunisian society. Ben Ali aimed to create a total void in society to avoid any alternative rule except his own one. This plan has, obviously, failed thanks to great sacrifices made by the Tunisian elite and militants.
Moreover, the important role of professional organisations in Tunisia should be taken into account. In the first line of resistance, we find mainly the General Tunisian Union of Labor that is a unique workers' union in Tunisia that includes all professional categories except the liberal professions. The UGTT has been in existence since 1945 and has always played an important role in modern Tunisia. It fought for social justice and defended the material and moral interests of all categories of workers without exception. The most important role assumed by the UGTT was obviously the promotion and protection of the middle class, the real motor of political change and reform in modern Tunisia.
In addition to the UGTT, professionals such as journalists and judges have played a notable role in recent years. Lawyers in particular had a decisive role in the resistance against dictatorship. The Tunisian Bar Association has always been an open challenger of Ben Ali and in the last few days of the dictatorship, lawyers wearing suits were in the streets, demonstrating with ordinary people.
The Tunisian revolution against dictatorship is thus the result of an interesting dynamism within Tunisian society over the last few years. Political parties, non-governmental organizations and other actors have all played a decisive role in making the end of Ben Ali's dictatorship possible.
And as a result, the basis for a genuine and sustainable democracy already exists in Tunisia. The first phase of the transition, from January 14 to October 23, 2011, showed that a peaceful rotation of power is possible in the Arab region despite the absence of democratic traditions. However, the most important challenges of the Tunisian revolution have yet to be tackled by the Tunisian government. These problems, if they remain without efficient solutions, could undermine the future of democracy in Tunisia. Indeed, the young and jobless cannot wait longer to see change in their lives. Marginalized people need a concrete and positive transformation to believe that democracy will be useful for them.-Published 19/4/2012 © bitterlemons.org