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Post-Revolution Tunisia Attempts Painful Transition to Democracy

February 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
One year after the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia faces ongoing economic and political struggles as it attempts a painful transition to democracy. Jessie Deeter reports, as part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the economic and political struggles in Tunisia one year after the revolution that sparked the Arab spring.

Our story is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The reporter is Jessie Deeter, an independent producer and director who’s worked in Africa and the Middle East for more than a decade.

JESSIE DEETER, producer-director: For these demonstrators in front of the building that now houses an elected parliament, it was jobs and economics that brought them into the streets. Unemployment was 13 percent when the revolution began and has soared to 19 percent a year later.

MAN (through translator): Here I am, still selling these rags. I mean, I haven’t gained from it any work, nor a bite of food.

WOMAN (through translator): Unemployment is something unbelievable right now in Tunisia. For the youth right now, they want to cause trouble in this country. They’re not happy that a year has passed with no results.

JESSIE DEETER: Tunisia’s revolution coincided with the debt crisis in Europe and a generally sluggish world economy. Additionally, according to Tunisia Live news founder, Zied Mhirsi, Tunisia’s tourism is in a deep recession.

ZIED MHIRSI, Tunisia Live: For the second year now, we’re having a serious decrease in the number of tourists coming to Tunisia. The number dropped from seven million people a year to three million people a year. Tourism is really paying a high price during this revolution.

JESSIE DEETER: The government has a lot on its plate, not only a struggling economy, but all the rest of the problems involved in establishing a fledgling democracy.

Sana Ouechtati is a law professor and member of an opposition party.

SANA OUECHTATI, opposition party member (through translator): I believe that even if it’s difficult to expect results that are immediate and sustainable, you must present to the people, who have been waiting for one year for something concrete and tangible, right away.

JESSIE DEETER: The parliament is dominated by Ennahda, Tunisia’s mainstream Islamic party. It swept October elections with 41 percent of the vote.

Human rights activist Intissar Kherigi is a Ennahda party member who returned to Tunisia after 20 years in exile in London. She counsels patience with a government that has been in power less than two months.

INTISSAR KHERIGI, Ennahda Party: I think what’s important is that you have people in government who are serious about reform, and they’re there to make change. They’re not there to steal. They’re there to build, just as if you look at history, the American democratic system, the American Revolution took a while to transform into a stable democratic system.

JESSIE DEETER: Members of the new constituent assembly are meeting here in the parliament building to help define the rules that are going to change and shape a new Tunisia.

But assembly members are getting hung up on logistical issues like which language should be allowed in session. A handful of members are Tunisians who have returned from living abroad and don’t speak the standard Arabic many consider correct for parliamentary meetings.

MAN (through translator): Our original language, there isn’t a difference. We are all serving the Tunisian people. I swear on Allah’s name, please let me continue.

JESSIE DEETER: Jawhara Ettis is a member of the constituent assembly who has grown used to working late nights in the parliament.

JAWHARA ETTIS, Ennahda Party: What is agreed upon by the different people is that we have to use the Arabic language because it is the official language of Tunisia. We didn’t reach, let’s say, a consensus, then the — this will delay until tomorrow.

JESSIE DEETER: Citing the Turkish model, Ennahda spokesmen have clearly stated the party’s intention of establishing a sustainable democracy protective of minority rights. But conservative Islamic groups strike fear in the hearts of more secular Tunisians.

Hayet Bouguerra is a civil engineer and blogger.

HAYET BOUGUERRA, civil engineer and blogger (through translator): These young people, Tunisians, real Tunisians, couples that stroll along the beach, and even the veiled ones, even the women in hijabs, they’re in couples, too, and it isn’t a problem.

JESSIE DEETER: People like Bougeurra worry that Ennahda is not standing up strongly enough to more hard-line religious factions.

HAYET BOUGUERRA (through translator): They’re letting the Salafis do whatever they want, so that they look moderate. They’re doing this so that the world accepts Ennahda. So accept us. We’re democratic. We’re not like them.

JESSIE DEETER: But Ennahda party leaders have said that the new assembly will not introduce Sharia law or other Islamic concepts to the new constitution.

Intissar Kherigi, daughter of Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, defends her party’s stance toward women. She says that the fact that Ennahda has 42 female representatives in the parliament speaks of its intention to help women succeed in the public, as well as the private, domain.

INTISSAR KHERIGI: I think you can take a look at the Ennahda women in the assembly and see the kind of work they do. Many of them are professors, many of them are lawyers, many of them are doctors. They are entirely representative of the Ennahda mainstream.

All my three sisters are doing Ph.D.s. And there’s been always a spirit of education within our household, because, without education, you can’t build a democratic society.

JESSIE DEETER: Jawhara Ettis is an English teacher and Ennahda party member who had to quit her teaching job when she was elected as a member of the assembly last fall. She says that women are valuable contributors to assembly sessions.

JAWHARA ETTIS: All of them are strong, and all of them are intelligent, and all of them are enthusiastic about this experience. And they want to be voiced by themselves, and not to be voiced through the male voice.

JESSIE DEETER: Tunisians are deep in the process of discovering what it means to govern themselves. They have much to celebrate, as they have undergone a transition that is by and large peaceful, if also somewhat messy and painful.

Several people we talked to, even with their worries, insist their country will be better off than the repression that came before.

Souhail Benchitima recently returned from Russia, where he studied engineering to start a plastics company in Tunisia.

SOUHAIL BENCHITIMA, Tunisia: I came back to participate in the revolution, to build my country, because I think, like, everyone here, every Tunisian citizen is responsible to improve the economy.

INTISSAR KHERIGI: And I think what happened with the Tunisian revolution is that it gave people the belief that, actually, these governments are not as omnipotent as we thought they are.

And I think Tunisia, given its positions, given its resources, and given its people, I think has a real shot at building a real democratic society.

ZIED MHIRSI: I feel that, in three or four years, which is a really short amount of time, we’re going to see a totally different Tunisia.

We’re going to see a new generation in power. We’re going to see that Tunisia is going to be more open to the rest of the world. Although I can feel that there are a lot of challenges ahead, I have no doubt that the future is much better than the past.

JESSIE DEETER: But Tunisians are still waiting for answers to their immediate and urgent economic problems, for parliament to create a real constitution that guarantees civil rights for all. And the political struggles are bound to continue through the next elections, a year from now.

GWEN IFILL: You can find Jessie Deeter’s impressions of post-revolution Tunisia in her blogs on the Pulitzer Center’s Crisis Reporting web page. You can find a link to their site on ours.