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Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, struggles to reset its democracy

November 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Nearly three years after Tunisia's revolution inspired citizens across the region, the nation that sparked the Arab Spring has struggled with the transition away from authoritarian rule. Filmmaker Jessie Deeter filed this report, narrated by Hari Sreenivasan, about the mounting pressures as the society tries to find its way.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to an update from the birthplace of the Arab spring, Tunisia.

The North African nation has struggled with democracy since the ouster of its former leader nearly three years ago. That struggle is not unique among the region’s new democracies, but its attempt to right its course is without precedent in the new Arab world.

Producer Jessie Deeter recently visited the country and filed this report narrated by Hari Sreenivasan.

ANIS MOEZ, Tunisia (through interpreter): When I used to pray, they would stop me and take my taxi permit. But now they give it back. And I went back to work. This is the only thing I gained from the revolution.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Anis Moez suffered under former President’s Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia, when Muslims were not allowed to show outward signs of their faith, including wearing head scarfs.

Now, like many Tunisians, he’s still searching for the great promise offered by the revolution that kicked off the Arab spring nearly three years ago.

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Nabiha Ben Said is an unemployed seamstress who had high hopes after the revolution, but has become disillusioned with the ruling Ennahda party she helped vote into power.

NABIHA BEN SAID, Tunisia (through interpreter): My wish? That Tunisia would stop and go back to the way we lived before. Life has gotten more expensive, too expensive in Tunisia. The population can’t handle freedom. It’s true. I swear to God. Look what freedom has done, where it’s taken us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tunisia’s revolution gave hope to the rest of the region that democracy was possible, but the transition from decades of authoritarian rule remains difficult.

Over the summer liberal politician Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated. It was the second murder of a political figure in a year. The killings, combined with frustration over high unemployment and security concerns, set off a month-long protest and calls for the ruling Ennahda party to dissolve government.

BEJI CAID ESSEBSI, Nidaa Tounes Party (through interpreter): They haven’t been able to achieve the goals of the revolution, in other words, the unemployment, the poverty in the marginalized regions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi heads Nidaa Tounes, the secularist main opposition party to Ennahda.

BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): There have been serious incidents, assassinations of politicians, which have never happened before in Tunisia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In an extraordinary move, Ennahda, led by Rashid al-Ghannushi, agreed to exit, rather than experience the fate of an ouster, like Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi.

RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI, Ennahda Party (through interpreter): We in the Ennahda party have accepted to step down from the government without elections and without a coup. We will just work toward the transition and toward democracy.

Monica Marks studies Tunisia’s political system at Oxford University.

MONICA MARKS, Oxford University: They realize that’s probably the best strategic option for them, because they’re sitting at the helm of government at a time of great strife.

MUSTAPHA K. NABIL, former Central Bank of Tunisia: We’re in a situation now where growth is very weak, job creation is very weak and the social tensions are high.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mustapha Nabil is the former governor of Tunisia’s Central Bank. He fears that if a new transitional prime minister isn’t chosen soon, it will be hard for Tunisia to pull back from the upheaval created by ongoing political uncertainty.

MUSTAPHA K. NABIL: You have a balance of payment under pressure. You have banking system under pressure. So, a lot of these things are coming now to bear, and the risks of some slippage, of some crisis, serious crisis, are there.

TAREK SPIKA, Tunisia (through interpreter): I voted for Ennahda. The next time, I’m going to cut off his finger, this finger that voted for Ennahda.

HARI SREENIVASAN: TAREK SPIKA is a shop owner from Gabes, an industrial town in the south of Tunisia. He says that the government hasn’t helped him gain the work and security he sought by moving to Tunis.

TAREK SPIKA (through interpreter): Before the revolution a woman could go out in the street around 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Now no, because the country isn’t safe.

MONICA MARKS: The security situation makes a lot of people nervous, because they are used to the eerie stability of a police state, in which nothing really ever happened.

But, for average, Tunisians this is a fragile situation, but it’s also a frightening situation. And that kind of fear and feeling of instability I think, make people very vulnerable to these discourses of stability, of authoritarianism bringing more stability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The main alternative to Islamist Ennahda is Nidaa Tounes. The party has been accused of having links to dictator Ben Ali’s old regime, which was notorious for torture and corruption. It’s alleged that much of the country’s business community had direct ties to the former president.

Nidaa Tounes leader Essebsi says that he and his party shouldn’t be judged by the transgressions of some in the pre-revolution government.

BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): I have been in politics since March 1956, independence day. I was here, and I’m still here. But the old regime isn’t all dirty, you know? There were two million Tunisians with Ben Ali. We can’t exclude them all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the new government by its own admission has not held members of the old guard accountable for past crimes.

RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI (through interpreter): We have failed in some things. We didn’t hold accountable those who were corrupt. And so the protest against us are back because we were not strong enough in punishing the corrupt individuals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ennahda and its political opponents are in gridlock over the country’s future. And attempts to agree on a caretaker prime minister have been delayed. A new election won’t happen until six or seven months after that leader is chosen.

KACEM AFAYA, Workers Union of Tunisia (through interpreter): We are currently pressuring them to convince them to reach a consensus in order to save Tunisia.

Kacem Afaya of the UGTT union that is mediating negotiations between the two parties is worried about the consequences of not reaching a deal.

KACEM AFAYA (through interpreter): It is critical that we avoid a bloody confrontation. It is essential that we succeed in bringing back safety and social stability. If we don’t find a solution in December, it will be the bankruptcy of this regime.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The constituent assembly, the body charged with rewriting Tunisia’s constitution, is more than a year past its mandated deadline and must wait until a new acting prime minister is chosen to finish. But it, unlike other parts of the government, will not be dissolved until the constitution has been completed.

Amel Azzouz is an Ennahda member and constituent assembly representative.

AMEL AZZOUZ, Ennahda Party: We will dissolve the government, but this constituent assembly will remain, because it the center of democracy. It’s the symbol of democracy. It’s the symbol of the will of people. And it is thanks to this assembly that we will guarantee the movement or the transition to another period, to an entrenched democracy and republic, a new republic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As difficult as this transition seems, experts like Monica Marks are still hopeful.

MONICA MARKS: If Tunisia can pull through these next number of years, if people can together work for compromise and have that blitzkrieg mentality, we’re going to get through this no matter what, then Tunisia could become the first democracy in the Arab world, and no longer can people say Arabs aren’t ready for democracy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the longer Tunisians like Anis Moez wait for the critical next steps, the further away the democracy becomes.