Landing at the Tunis-Carthage airport, I noticed something unexpected: order, two months after a revolution that still shakes the Middle East. While the reporters and cameras have moved on from Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, Tunisians have quietly but determinedly begun building their democracy, keeping the wheels of government turning all the while.
One of the most remarkable parts of Tunisia’s revolution happened after Ben Ali left and the international media crowed victory. The Tunisians I spoke with told me that, in a last ditch attempt to retain power, security services freed prison inmates and began shooting people at random. They hoped to create chaos, which would delegitimize the revolution in the eyes of the Tunisians and the world.
But, in a remarkable display of community resilience, Tunisians responded by forming neighborhood watches. Armed with baseball bats and kitchen knives, they set up check-points, searched cars and arrested suspected militiamen. Within days, the chaos subsided.
The international airport, which often acts as a weathervane of stability, closed for a single day before resuming operations.
Note that despite these exceptional circumstances, the succession of governments occurred strictly according to constitutional requirements. Contrast this with Egypt, where the army is left in legal limbo.
As the dust settled, the interim government hit several key notes crucial to success:
First, it quickly legalized most banned parties, notably the much maligned islamist parties. The moderate Renaissance party Nahda, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, pledged its support for multi-party democracy and liberalism. A far more extreme party, El Tahrir, advocates Sha’ria law and remains banned. Yet rather than seek arrests, the interim governments simply let secular and feminist groups work as counter-balance, the essence of democratic discourse.
In the desert oases, it redistributed Ben Ali’s plantations to landless farmers, permitting the uninterrupted maintenance of this fragile ecosystem. The holdings of Ben Ali and his family were vast and included factories, school and huge swaths of land. Closing them down pending legal action would have caused a huge economic shock, so instead the government nationalized these holding and encouraged citizens to run them in the interim.
Finally, it started a public works program, employing youths to pick up trash and plant trees. This stopgap measure addresses the pressing issue of youth unemployment, which helped fuel the revolution. And more help is coming, as the World Bank and Afircan Development Bank are mobilizing hundreds of millions of dollars in develop aid and soft loans.
This isn’t to say that problems don’t remain: there are still near daily strikes in downtown Tunis, and tanks still straddle the main boulevard. But the seeds of democracy and prosperity have been planted. Come watch them grow.
By the Barefoot Economist