Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Managing" the Arab Spring's economic woes

At the heart of the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ post-revolution Tunisia is still beset by the problem of a young, unemployed, and educated population. This is particularly pronounced in the less developed interior of the country in towns like Sidi Bouzid, where a young vegetable seller by the name of Muhammad Bou Azzizi first ignited the Arab spring by an act of self immolation.

“The biggest challenge now is to manage expectations, the expectation of the young population, those among them who are unemployed,” said interim Tunisian Finance Minister Jalloul Ayed, before heading to Washington for the annual IMF/World Bank meetings.

Many Tunisians see unemployment as the biggest challenge to the revolution. Countrywide, unemployment rose from 14 percent in 2010, to 19 percent by the end of July, when new graduates and Tunisians fleeing the violence in neighboring Libya flooded the job market. In the interior of the country, unemployment runs upwards of 18 percent, with the number rising to between 31 and 48 percent among graduates, according to government figures.

“Prosperity consolidates democracy,” says Ayed. “Tangible prosperity: better living conditions, jobs for the unemployed, better prospects for the country, so that particularly the young population starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that they feel comfortable and confident about their future.”

However, those who remain unemployed have not been waiting patiently for October 23, when elections will be held for a constituent assembly that will write Tunisia’s new constitution. Last week, five unemployed teachers attempted a coordinated suicide in the southern town of Kasserine, hanging themselves from nooses tied to a goal post before onlookers quickly took them down and transported them to a hospital. The National Council for Liberty in Tunisia, a non-governmental organization that works closely with activists in Kasserine, say that the five made their suicide attempt after going on a hunger strike for 5 days, calling on the interim education minister and the prime minister to change the law that prevents people over the age of 40 from entering the public sector. Their calls were ignored.

Meanwhile, this month saw the repeated imposition and lifting of curfews in the southern towns of Sbeitla, and Sidi Bouzid as well as Kasserine after demonstrations and sometimes violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Here again, unemployment was the main catalyst of unrest.

Before leaving for Washington, Ayed announced the five year “Jasmine Economic and Social Plan,” which outlines a medium and long term solution to Tunisia’s economic woes by creating one million jobs while seeking to address the “short term economic and social emergency issues” to satisfy the growing impatience among Tunisia’s population. Financing for the plan is dependent to a great extent on the $38 billion international donor aid promised by the G8 under the May 27 Deauville partnership to help Arab countries in their transition to free and democratic societies. None of that money has yet been received.

The international aid, which was initially promised to Egypt and Tunisia, must now be expanded to cover Jordan, Morocco and possibly Libya following a decision at a G8 summit in Marseille earlier this month. Ayed says that he is confident that they “really mean to provide that support,” even though the G8 countries “haven’t touched the bilateral” figures, which he says are determined by their political relationship with Tunisia. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if specifics of the plan are discussed at the Washington meetings.

However, many young Tunisians remain wary of the country’s future economic prospects. At a rally early this month in front of interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s office in downtown Tunis, several young university students left their classrooms to join policemen protesting the decision to ban police unions from holding strikes. A university student named Iskander said he was worried that the elections would not change anything. Iskander pointed to his pocket where the top of a green Tunisian passport was visible.

“I already have my visa for Italy ready,” he said.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tunisian Women in politics

This photo shows women from Tunisian party AFAQ registering their candidacy at the high election committee's office in the town of Monastir

Tunisia is preparing for its first elections since a revolution ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With only a few weeks to go before polls open, dozens of newly formed parties are taking their first steps towards democracy. As campaign season gears up, Tunisian women are making their presence felt. Recently I followed four Tunisian women who submitted their candidacies in the seaside city of Monastir. This is their story:

Neyla Charchour is no stranger to Tunisian politics. In 2002, she set up the Liberal Mediterranean Party, promoting her views using a blog and the party’s website. When her party attracted the attention of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she was interrogated by the police, her internet was cut off, and her husband was jailed for ten months on trumped up charges, she says.

Today, in a post-revolutionary Tunisia, Charchour is back in politics. She says that while Civil Society organizations play an important role, she felt it was necessary to reenter politics in order to make her voice heard

“Bringing your ideas into laws, make them come true, not only keep them as an idea. When you want parity between men and women, it needs laws, and if you wants laws to be adopted, you need to go through a party,” Charchour says.

On a Wednesday morning in early September, the last day for those running in the election to submit their candidacies, Charchour sets out from the capital Tunis with fellow members of her economically liberal Afaq, or Horizon party, to their hometown of Monastir. One of those fellow party members is Meriem Bourguiba.

Bourguiba is the granddaughter of Habib Bourguiba, who became Tunisia’s first President after being one of the leaders to win Tunisia’s independence from the French. He cultivated ties with the West, upheld secular principles, and put in place Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, a law which came into effect in 1957 and which aimed to institute equality between men and women. In the words chosen by himself for his mausoleum, Bourguiba liberated the women of Tunisia.

Bourguiba says that her grandfather’s vision for Tunisia, one defined by pragmatic approaches to solving Tunisia’s problems, is just what the country needs as the country finds its footing following the revolution.

“Pragmatism: This is the ideology that works for Tunisia, pragmatism. What you need is the hot issues have to be dealt with, beyond any ideology,” she says. “And we see it today, the people cannot wait. They want a job and they want to eat, and without those two, even democracy cannot prevail,” says Bourguiba.

However, with over 105 political parties registered following the ouster of Ben Ali, there are a multitude of diverse ideologies competing for a voice, with everything from communists to capitalists and everything in between.

One party making its presence felt on the Tunisian political scene is the Islamist party Ennahda. An August poll conducted by the state news agency TAP shows Ennahda way ahead, with 23% support, followed by the Progressive Democratic party, with 9% support. The winners of the October 23rd elections will participate in a constituent assembly with a mandate to write a new constitution for Tunisia, a system designed by the interim government in a decision referred to as Kasbah 2.

These numbers trouble Henda Fennira Ben Fadhel, another Afaq woman registering her candidacy for the first time. She fears that if they win, Islamists will work towards reversing the Code of Personal Status.

“I have three girls, and after Kasbah 2, I had the feeling that the organization of the Islamists and the decision to go for a constitution in which these guys will have a hand in and a say in, made me feel like my girls are in danger,” Ben Fadhel says.

Many in Tunisia worry that the elections are not going to be the free and open elections that they hope for. Some accuse ex-regime figures of trying to foment instability; others say foreign money is being funneled in to influence the elections. However, the women say they must stay optimistic.

“If it doesn’t happen on the 24th of October, what we can say is ‘we tried.’ We’ll have tried. We didn’t stay on the fence. And in ten, fifteen years time, our children, her daughters will ask us the question and we’ll say ‘we tried,’ says Bourguiba.

In a sunlit conference room in Monastir with high walls, two secretaries accept documents from Charchour as the candidates make last minute calls to find out the exact names of relatives to fill out elections forms. After handing in the forms and getting their candidacy documents stamped, there is a round of handshakes among the women, with congratulations going first from the older ladies in the group to the youngest, Amira Laajimi, 25, for her first foray into politics. The event is quickly followed by a family photo full of grins. As the process winds down, Charchour looks across the table to Ben Fadhel and says in English “We did it.”