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Opinion | Turn the spotlight on Tunisia

By Emily Crane
On January 27, 2014

I know everyone has been fixated on Egypt these last few days-and with good reason. Everyone should have a good idea of what is going on in Egypt because of its tremendous influence on the entire Middle East and North Africa region, and by extension, the world. What happens in Egypt affects us and we should know about it (for those looking to get a handle on everything going on there at the moment, I highly recommend a film that just came out on Netflix, called "The Square," that follows several activists' journeys over the past three years).

But I am not here to write about Egypt. I am here to write about a country just a few hundred miles to the west, a country that has been quietly accomplishing something pretty remarkable over the last three years, a country that deserves a moment or two in the spotlight: Tunisia. If you claim any sort of interest in Middle East politics or the establishing of democratic governments, you ought to care about Tunisia.

Tunisia had its brief moment in the spotlight in December 2010, when a man lit himself on fire as an act of protest and despair at the country's state of affairs under former President Ben Ali. His self-immolation triggered weeks of relentless protests across Tunisia that spread like wildfire to the neighboring countries, giving us "the Arab Spring." And then, everyone sort of lost track of Tunisia as the violence and drama in Egypt, Libya and Syriamonopolized the media's attention.

Very few people have bothered to check back in with Tunisia, as the situation in the above three countries has continued to escalate and evolve on center stage. But, hidden in the shadow of its neighbors, Tunisia has been slowly and quietly laying the foundations of its future. And now it's time for the world to pay attention again. Because what Tunisia is doing is nothing short of remarkable.

First, Tunisia's "opposition" (composed primarily of young, secular leftists) has managed to form a unified front. They have selected people to represent them and negotiate for them. I compare this to Egypt or Syria where the "opposition" has splintered into factions and sub-factions that rarely coordinate with each other and have even turned on each other, and I am amazed.

Second, they have successfully pulled off a "national dialogue" between the Opposition Front and the three ruling parties (the main one being Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party). Now, if you ask a Tunisian about this "national dialogue," they'll groan and probably roll their eyes because it involved a lot of time spent bickering and not much forward motion. But despite what they may say, the "national dialogue" was successful in eventually nominating the country's next prime minister in December. The fact that a group of people with directly opposing views was able to sit down and actually agree on something asmonumental as the head of the government is nothing short of incredible.

Third, the National Constituent Assembly (the equivalent of parliament for the time-being) has succeeded in drafting and passing a new constitution. They debated and edited and voted on each of the 146 articles separately before voting on the entire constitution as a whole Sunday night. Each article needed a simple majority vote to pass and many articles took days or weeks to pass as the various parties negotiated and nit-picked over the wording of each. The process took months longer than promised but the result is something every Tunisian can be proud of. This constitution protects the freedom of religion and expression, it grants women total and equal rights with men, it protects the independence of the judiciary. All in all, it's a solid governing document. What remains to be seen of course, is how well it will be carried out by the government-but let's not go there for now.

And finally, perhaps the most remarkable thing going on in Tunisia at the moment is the volume of information being made available to the public. While freedom of information and public records are taken for granted in the U.S., they were unheard of in Tunisia during the old regime. The government was accountable to no one; their business was their own. But every day for the last year, as the National Constituent Assembly has been meeting to lay the foundations of this next chapter in Tunisia's history, reporters have been allowed inside to witness and report on every speech, spat and vote. Every proposed amendment, every passed article has been chronicled on a fantastic website called "El Marsad" in two languages for everyone to see. This kind of transparency on the part of the government is the most exciting and remarkable evolvement I've seen in Tunisia.

As someone who has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Egypt as well as Tunisia, I understand the value of easily accessible information. Informed choices are the foundation of democracy. The U.S. models this, and now Tunisia is following in her footsteps. With a new constitution, a new prime minister, popular elections on the horizon and never-before-seen public access to information, Tunisia is well on its way toward becoming the first true democracy in North Africa.

Everyone should be watching.


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