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Four years ago, a dramatic act by a Tunisian street vendor prompted weeks of protests, the ousting of a president who had ruled for 25 years and an eruption of upheaval and transformation around the Arab world. In collaboration with filmmaker Jessie Deeter, Hari Sreenivasan explores Tunisia’s fledging steps to democracy as the nation prepares for elections.
Four years ago this week, the radical transformation and upheaval known as the Arab spring was tripped off in the North African country of Tunisia.
A frustrated and unemployed street vendor set himself on fire after authorities confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a license. That single act prompted weeks of demonstrations, which ultimately led to the ousting of then President Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for nearly 25 years. Other protests quickly erupted across the Arab world.
Leaders in Egypt and Libya were forcibly removed. A brutal civil war began in Syria. And, today, much of the region remains mired in instability. One ray of possible hope, however, is back in Tunisia, where millions of citizens are expected to vote this week in the country's presidential runoff election.
Filmmaker Jessie Deeter has been traveling there in recent months to document the country's fledgling steps toward democracy in parliamentary and then first-round presidential elections.
She produced this report with the NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan.
This is what shoe-leather presidential campaigning looks like in Tunisia.
Candidate Kalthoum Kennou hit the streets of a working-class neighborhood ahead of the first round of elections, listening to and seeking the support of citizens struggling to get out of poverty.
MAN (through interpreter):
There are some villages, trust me, that don't even see the sunlight. I swear to God.
WOMAN (through interpreter):
For the past two weeks, my feet are cooked from walking from village to village. I have toured the whole country.
KALTHOUM KENNOU, Tunisian Presidential Candidate (through interpreter):
It's normal that I would come here in this place, not far from the capital. You see how people are living in misery.
Perhaps normal now, but unheard of in the not-so-distant past.
Kennou is the country's first ever female presidential candidate. And during the Ben Ali regime, the independent judge suffered harassment and arbitrary job transfers for her stance against the former leadership. Kennou didn't make it past the first round of the presidential elections and doesn't think change is happening fast enough.
However, many Tunisians think their country is heading in the right direction. Lofti Garbi is one of them. He's been a metal worker at a souk for more than 20 years. He says that despite some economic hardship, things have improved since the revolution.
LOFTI GARBI (through interpreter):
The situation is better than it was with Ben Ali because Ben Ali didn't allow for freedom like we have now. It's true that for any country that has a revolution, there has to be a period of four or five years.
He proudly voted in the recent parliamentary elections, but kept his ballot choice private.
I am very happy to voted. And God willing, those we elected will do good things for Tunisia.
The Secular Coalition Party — Nidaa Tounes — won that contest, taking over from the Islamist party, Ennahda. What makes Tunisia so unusual among post-Arab spring nations with leadership changes and political turmoil is the actions of that Islamist party.
Instead of holding on to power and fighting when it became clear it no longer had support of the majority, it decided to step down. And in the presidential elections, it opted not to put forward a presidential candidate. Ennahda's leader, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, explains why:
RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI, Ennahda Leader (through interpreter):
We are in a transitional phase between dictatorship and democracy. We need the rule of consensus, the distribution of power among more than one party. For that reason, we chose to limit ourselves.
Although Tunisia has received high marks on its Democratic process internationally, security remains a serious problem for the country.
RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI (through interpreter):
Nationally, the biggest danger we face is the danger of terrorism, mainly because Tunisia is located in a terrorized region. Our borders to Libya are open, which makes it possible to traffic weapons and to train young Tunisian men.
There are more Islamic militants from Tunisia fighting in Syria and Iraq than any other nation.
Just last week, the Tunisian interior minister declared that there are now 2,400 fighters from his country for the al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State. And some are returning home. The balance between the newfound freedom of expression and providing a secure country for citizens and investors is front and center in this weekend's presidential elections, pitting interim president and self-described voice of the revolution Moncef Marzouki against a man who held a top job in the government of former President Ben Ali, Beji Caid Essebsi.
He's presenting himself, and his party, which won the parliamentary contest, as a return to stability. But some are worried this could mean returning power to the once feared security forces which had a reputation for abuses and mass detentions.
Corinna Mullin is a professor at the University of Tunis.
CORINNA MULLIN, University of Tunis: One of the underlying problems under Ben Ali, of course, was the exclusionary politics and the politics of fear. And there is a fear that there is a possibility to return to that. It could spiral out of control very quickly. It's a very slippery slope.
Essebsi has pushed back against those concerns, and in a "NewsHour" interview last year, he said that he and others shouldn't be blamed for the transgressions in the former dictator's government.
BEJI CAID ESSEBSI, President, Nidaa Tounes Party (through interpreter):
The old regime isn't all dirty, you know? There were two million Tunisians with Ben Ali. We can't exclude them all.
Back on the streets, the former-judge-turned politician Kalthoum Kennou isn't enamored with either candidate, but says keeping the peace in Tunisia is key.
KALTHOUM KENNOU (through interpreter):
There is a risk of the old regime and the new dictatorship as well. I am against both. If the president manages to make peace and security in Tunisia automatically, there will be an evolution on the economic plan because people are afraid of investing. I hope that people will be able to make things better in the future.
Metal worker Lofti Garbi is counting on that better future, hoping his country emerges as an Arab spring success story among a region deep in turmoil.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.
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