Between Burqas and Bikinis: Tunisia in Transition
By Blair Glencorse. What do in-depth analyses of political processes, discussions with perfume shop owners and singing German Ambassadors have in common? The BMW Foundation Arab-European Young Leaders Forum (of course!)- which I was lucky enough to attend in Tunis in early March. The Forum brought together over 40 diverse change-makers from across government, the private sector, and civil society for three days of interactions which took place, appropriately, where the Arab Awakenings began over two years ago. From Tunisian politicians and EU policymakers on one side to Palestinian civil society representatives and German corporate decision-makers on the other, the discussions about the history and future of the region were both unique and illuminating.
There are unmistakably a number of difficult issues that are still to be addressed as part of the transitions in the Middle-East and North Africa (not least agreement on constitutional reforms and job creation). Our experiences during the BMW Forum, however, filled me with hope for future stability and prosperity of Tunisia in particular, for a number of reasons:
i) Historical Perspective. There was a sense throughout the weekend that Tunisians- from policymakers to the public- are aware of the long arc of history in which the changes in their country are taking place. Tunisia has been a crossroads of civilizations for millennia, and has been uniquely influenced by the confluence of Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs. This backdrop seems to frame the national psyche to the point that it generates a shared understanding that current political differences are both inevitable and surmountable as part of the historical process of change. As the President of the Constituent Assembly explained to us, the key will be for decision-makers to ensure that they delineate a clear process for this transformation.
ii) Open Debate. Fadhel Moussa- a key member of the Al-Massar party- pointed out that while political troubles continue in Tunisia, the space for dialogue has widened considerably and rapidly in the country in a way that was inconceivable during the Ben Ali regime. Indeed, it is clear that the shape of society and the core values it should embody are now discussed openly from the cafes of Avenue Habib Bourguiba to tea rooms in villages. While differences on these issues- particularly the role of religion and women- are complicating political progress, they are important because they allow citizens to engage in the essential process of balancing societal continuity and change.
iii) Outsized Potential. The economic challenges in Tunisia are serious- youth unemployment is nudging up towards almost 50% while growth is slowing. At the same time, in the medium to long-term the country has huge potential to set an example for the region in economic terms. From its young and well educated population, to its service-industry oriented and bilingual labor force, to its impressive infrastructural base and agricultural capacity, it has a variety of resources it can draw upon. We interacted with social entrepreneurs who demonstrated significant acumen and knowledge across a variety of sectors. If the conditions can be created in which these can be better harnessed, the economic future for Tunisia is extremely bright.
iv) Vibrant Civil Society. For someone engaged in work on accountability issues, perhaps the most impressive discovery in Tunisia was the depth and thoughtfulness of the nascent civil society movement. Two of the truly creative groups we met included Al Bawsala (“The Compass”), an organization that is working on innovative ways to ensure the transparency of politics; and Bus Citoyen (“Citizen Bus”) a traveling civic education and citizen engagement initiative. Organizations of this sort are young, dynamic and deeply committed to positive social change, and are playing a central role in Tunisia’s transition as catalysts of positive reforms. Arabic does not have an analogous word to describe the concept of accountability- but these groups are working hard to entrench the idea of responsible and people-focused decision-making among those in power.
v) Externally-oriented Mindsets. In Tunisia, despite the potential and progress noted above, disillusionment with the pace of change is palpable. It is, however, a small, costal, outwardly facing country which by necessity has generated an externally oriented perspective. While domestic politics remain paramount, there still appears to be a capacity to look further afield to understand change processes and identify how best to shape a more positive future for its people. I had the opportunity to chat with representatives of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, for example, which is doing exactly that. Meanwhile, goodwill towards Tunisia is abundant and partners such as Germany- as the Ambassador explained- are deeply committed (and heavily invested) in supporting a positive transition.
While there is only so much perspective that a short visit can provide, the Young Leaders Forum combined an incredible diversity of viewpoints, mix of experiences and range of learning in Tunis that was hugely enlightening. Unfortunately, the people of North Africa and the Middle-East have few examples of positive reform within the region from which to learn lessons and draw hope. But I left Tunisia- after three busy days of discussions, site visits, workshops (and revelry!)- convinced that Tunisians are making continued progress towards blending Islam with democracy and tradition with progress. And I made plenty of wonderful new Middle-Eastern and European friends with whom to work to support this process.