In Tunisia, democracy triumphs but troubles remain

Birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has become the poster child for Arab democracy with its parliamentary elections this week, the second, peaceful set in three years. But as Sylvia Thomson reports, Tunisia is also the leading source of recruits for ISIS.

Poster child for Arab democracy, Tunisia is also big source of recruits for ISIS

Sidi Bouzid is a poor, agricultural district in the heart of Tunisia, filled with acres and acres of olive orchards.

Its main strip has one three-storey hotel, an Amen Bank, a handful of small restaurants and plenty of men hanging around on the sidewalks — sitting, talking, at all times of the day.

You would hardly know that it is the birthplace of the Arab Spring if it weren't for the poster of Mohamed Bouazizi in front of the post office alongside a stone statue of the cart he used to sell fruit and vegetables.

Bouazizi was the 26-year-old street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest the way authorities harassed and humiliated him.

His immolation, and the reasons for it, touched a nerve in the country, and led to protests and the eventual fall of the increasingly autocratic regime that had governed Tunisia since independence in 1956.

What happened here inspired the 2011 revolts in Syria, Egypt and Libya.

Today, Tunisia stands as the great Arab hope for democracy, the possible light in a region where the other Arab Spring countries have descended into civil war or military dictatorship.

Its parliamentary election this week — the second since the initial revolt — was notable for its transparency, and saw the more secular Nidaa Tounes party overtake the Islamist Ennahda party, which had been forced into a bi-partisan, unity government earlier in the year because of a long-running political crisis.

But with the swing of the democratic pendulum now comes the very real problems of governing.

"There are no jobs," says Ayouni Nasreddine, an unemployed, 28-year-old university graduate who lives here. "That is why the revolution began in Sidi Bouzid. Many men are unemployed and have no money."

The unemployment rate hasn't gotten any better in places like this, since the revolution. Youth unemployment stands at around 34 per cent.

Ayouni Nasreddine is an unemployed 28-year-old-university grad who lives in Sidi Bouzid where he worked as an election monitor for a group called Mourakiboun. (Sylvia Thomson / CBC)

Nasreddine says the country has had many other problems since the revolution, noting the rise of terrorism, the flight of business to Europe and the struggles to establish the new democracy.

"I hope everything will change, inshallah [God willing], as we say. I don't say it's impossible, I say it's difficult."

Where are the young people?

Nasreddine's friend, 36-year-old Chacker Aydi, is also university-educated and unemployed, but he isn't so sure things are going to change for the better.

"It's 'mission impossible' for stability here. Politicians are thieves and history keeps repeating itself. It's all about power and money."

Clearly it has been a difficult path since the revolution, and Tunisians blame their politicians, who have been divided by ideology.

Islamists won the first elections after the revolution. Then secularists led a protest movement against them last year after the assassination of two members of parliament.

In Sunday's parliamentary election, the Islamists were defeated, paying the price for their turbulent years of power.

And while voter turnout was high — somewhere around 60 per cent — many observers were concerned that young people didn't show up.

Mark Green, president of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, who was in Tunisia with a group of election monitors, was one of them.

"What will happen in the days and weeks and months to come will determine the democracy, especially if it's going to live up to the spirit of 2011," he says. "You need more young people engaged."

But the young people who provoked the revolution haven't seen their situations improve.

Some bloggers called for a boycott of the election. Many are involved in civil society, but seem to lack confidence in the political system.

"It disgusts them a bit," says Souhayr Belhassen, a Tunisian human rights activist and president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. "It's up to the politicians to convince them now."

A source for ISIS

The concern over the country's youth is not just in terms of creating jobs and security, it is also wanting to make sure they aren't drawn into less favourable pursuits.

According to the Tunisian government, some 2,400 Tunisians — more than any other country — have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and its so-called Islamic State.

(Richard Grasley/CBC)

Most of them are young men, and thousands more have been blocked while trying to leave.

The Islamic State "is a sort of substitute utopia, which speaks to the defavourized," says Michael Ayari, a senior Tunisian analyst with the International Crisis Group, who has been living in a Tunis suburb since 2011.

"It's important for Tunisia to stay in a disciplined space and not take on the rivalries of the bordering countries," he says. "The election needs to be followed by action."

That almost goes without saying. Many here, such as Jamila Binous, a historian who has been working as a tourist guide in Tunis's historic centre, hope for some stability.

"Ever since the revolution, when there's a problem in a neighbouring country, people stop coming here," she says. She is talking about the French hiker who was kidnapped in the Algerian mountains and beheaded by a group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.

French tourists cancelled their Tunisian holiday plans after that happened, and tourism generally has been suffering with the instability since the revolution.

Binous was part of the revolution in 2011, camping out with the students in Tunis for two weeks before the government eventually fell.

"It was a time of great worry followed by euphoria. It was almost a dream — something unthinkable happened," she says.

Since then, it's been a long period of disenchantment, though she hopes that this past Sunday's election will turn things around.

Sylvia Thomson is a CBC news producer. She was in Tunisia as an election observer with the New Democratic Institute and stayed on after the election to write this article. 


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