New Constitution Is A Sign Of Tunisia's Optimism

Jan 12, 2014
Originally published on January 12, 2014 10:41 am
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On Tuesday, Tunisia will celebrate the third anniversary of its revolution. Tunisia is the country that inspired uprisings across the Arab world. Since then, that country has gone through tough times but it seems to have found its way again. Opposing sides have drafted the new constitution together. It will be ready in a couple days, and new elections are set for this year. That sets Tunisia apart from neighboring Egypt and Libya, where the Arab Spring uprisings have brought violence and political upheaval.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Striding through a Tunis street market, I see a look of optimism on people's faces. That's in stark contrast to a year ago, on my last visit, when fear and uncertainty ruled. Tunisians, like businessman Soheil Ben Abdallah, say the country is back on track again.

SOHEIL BEN ABDALLAH: I feel optimistic, frankly, because two years ago, I mean the situation was a disaster. Tunisia today has a vision.

BEARDSLEY: That vision, says Abdallah, comes from the creation of a roadmap, their new constitution. He's also relieved that the government has agreed to step down in the coming days, making way for a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee new elections this year.

2013 was a horrible year for Tunisia. The Islamist-led government was seen as ineffective and inexperienced and the economy continued to deteriorate. On top of that, there were terrorist attacks and two political assassinations. But many say last year's crises may have actually saved the country.


BEARDSLEY: After a second secular politician was gunned down in July, allegedly by Islamist extremists, Tunisia reached a tipping point. For a solid month, young people, women, all segments of secular civil society poured into the streets, demanding that the Islamist-led government resign. That mobilization, plus the military coup against Egypt's similar ruling-Islamist party, shook Tunisia up, says Mounir Khelifa, a professor at Tunis University.

MOUNIR KHELIFA: What happened in Egypt certainly is not a cause for mirth or rejoicing. But it put the Islamists in Tunisia under strong pressure to compose with other political forces and actors of the country in order not to have the same scenario.

BEARDSLEY: Fear changed Tunisians. For the first time in three years, Tunisians no longer seem starkly divided between a secular and religious vision of their country's future, says Laryssa Chomiak, director of Tunisian-American research institution CEMAT.

LARYSSA CHOMIAK: Those two radically opposing views no longer represent the Tunisian political landscape right now, which is somewhere in the middle because they are proud of a process that seems to be working.

BEARDSLEY: Compromise, not conflict, is the Tunisian way, many people tell me. And Tunisians of all stripes clearly feel hopeful today. Even though it's small, what happens here in Tunisia is important for the Arab world, says Monica Marks, a doctoral student from Oxford University.

MONICA MARKS: Ultimately having the example of an Arab democratic country is going to be crucial for the region. No longer could people from the outside, or people from the inside say, that Arabs need a strong hand. You know, you hear this kind of discourse. No longer can people say that, because you have an example. And Tunisia can be that example.


BEARDSLEY: Members of Tunisia's constituent assembly broke into applause and sang the national anthem this week, after passing a hard-fought article guaranteeing men and women equal rights under the new constitution. Tunisian father Hassen Zargouni brought his two young daughters to the assembly to watch history being made.

HASSAN ZARGOUNI: When they see how a young democracy like Tunisia is building like a wall, brick by brick. I'm proud to bring them here. It is a memorable moment that they will never forget.


BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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