“Winning the Arab Spring”

The term the media developed as, “The Arab Spring” started with the sudden and unexpected flight of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to Saudia Arabia. The media was all over Tunisia, a country that previously, rarely made the news. But following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi and the flight of Ben Ali, Tunisia was suddenly front page news. Within ten days of Ben Ali’s departure, the media left nearly en masse for Egypt where mass government protests started on January 25th culminating with Mubarak’s stepping down from office on February 11th.

The “Arab Spring” continued to subsequent developments in other Arab countries where pro-democracy movements inspired by events in Tunisia, began their protests against their respective governments’ autocratic ways; Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, as well as far more modest protests in Saudia Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. All of these political uprising shared one thing in common, having been inspired by Tunisia, the country perhaps least known to Americans among these so-called, “Arab Spring” countries.

Of all of these countries, the only one to have achieved a democratic system resulting from their protests is Tunisia. Egypt has the trappings of change, but the reality is that the army is in control, with much of its leadership tied to the former Mubarak regime. The recent arrests of the Western NGO’s who have been in Egypt to help with the democratization and now being prevented from assisting in the transition to democracy, certainly does not bode well for Egypt’s democratization. The stories are well known of Libya and Syria, as the media covers the ongoing stories where daily battles have included shelling, bombing and thousands of deaths. Egypt remains a continued media story as the protests continue in Tahrir Square and more and more arrests seem to take place preventing a democratic process from really taking hold.

In the interim, there seems to not be a day that goes by where I run in to someone or speak on the phone with someone who knows my involvement with Tunisia. This usually leads to comments suggesting that in their mind, Tunisia is probably going through the same chaos as all the other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

That’s unfortunate, as Tunisia is the success story!  Not everything is perfect, to be sure…  However, it is quite amazing to think that after decades of autocratic rule, where prior elections were a charade, little Tunisia went from January 2011’s surprise changes to a ten month transition that included: developing electoral systems, citizens learning about political campaigns and forming political parties, all leading to the October 23rd elections that had Tunisians throughout the country waiting upwards of two to three hours to vote in that country’s first fair, transparent and peaceful elections. In the months since, the process of forming the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a constitution has been taking place. Indeed, discussion and debates have been vigorous, but they take place in an atmosphere of openness that is as open as that of watching C-Span covering the debates in the American Congress. Certainly, not everyone was pleased with the voting outcome, but all Tunisians take pride in the fact that much was accomplished in such a short time and all will admit that the elections were transparent and honest.

The Tunisian economy remains in a precarious state, battered not only by the Revolution, but also due to prior economic activities that were often illegally organized by the former regime and “The Family” around it. Labor strikes continue and their impact on preventing economic growth is clear. But, in a true democracy, strikes and labor unrest are part of the process. One only needs to look at Italy, France and even the US to see where the inspiration for Tunisia’s workers to demonstrate and strike originated. Italy and France are certainly the masters in the art of strikes!

While the US Congress has many members who see no place in the United States for a government administered health plan that ensures medical care to every citizen in the wealthiest country of the industrialized world…Tunisia continues to offer health care to all of its citizens, despite one’s ability to pay.

And as Americans struggle to afford to send their children to colleges and universities due to the highest educational costs in the world, one of Tunisia’s biggest problems, that of unemployment, is a result of that country’s policies of having built too many schools in their attempt to provide free education through university, as a right, for all Tunisians. How ironic?

While Tunisia’s problems since the Revolution began are not behind it, and there are many who are looking forward to the next elections in the hope of seeing different political parties in office, the country continues to move forward peacefully, with the democratic process that Tunisians embarked on, continuing. In many ways, rather than lumping Tunisia in with “The Arab Spring”, a better analogy might be the 1989-1990 fall of the former Soviet Bloc autocratic regimes, who also had a large percentage of well educated youth. In a matter of years, success stories developed about economically successful democracies in what is now, the “free” Eastern Europe.

While Tunisia has fallen to the back pages of the media, it should be held up as a symbol of hope to other emerging democracies and encouragement should be given to all those countries coming forward to help Tunisia in its continued democratic transition…the United States among them.

Hopefully, the West will learn from Tunisia and its people, that the Arab world is not a monolithic bloc and once the West comes to know Tunisia and its  people, it will no longer be a surprise as to why Tunisia not only started the democracy movement of January 2011, but leads in the race for success!