Tag Archives: Tunisia

One Year Later: Cause for Hope in Tunisia

Tunisians celebrate Ben Ali's departure.

Tunisians celebrate Ben Ali's departure. (Photo: AP)

One year ago on January 14, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled his country for nearly two and a half decades, boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia, fleeing a people who had overcome their fear of him. Despite little personal experience in their history to justify their faith, broad segments of Tunisian society responded to the pervasive uncertainty that followed by remaining committed to democracy. While enormous challenges remain, that commitment is ample reason for optimism.

Upon his flight, Ben Ali left more questions than answers. On the day he departed, the presidency changed hands twice. When police withdrew from the streets of Tunis, rioting and looting ensued. The newly minted “national unity” government fractured in days. Weeks passed and Rachid Gannouchi, founder of an-Nahda, Tunisia’s largest political party, remained in exile. Members of Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party lingered in the halls of power for a month before protests pushed them out. It took two months before the RCD was killed by the stroke of a pen.

As it became increasingly apparent that an-Nahda would fare well in elections, some feared that the party would roll back civil liberties. Some warned that while Tunisian military officers initially shied away from political power, a difficult transition, or perhaps one that empowered Islamists, might change their minds. Some criticized the transition for proceeding too slowly. Some criticized it for moving too fast. Protests, demonstrations, and strikes continued, challenging an economy that had underperformed even when the going was good. Throughout, the question remained: if not Ben Ali, then what?

Facing myriad challenges, Tunisians have been remarkably consistent in their answer. Broad segments of society have remained steadfast in their commitment to establishing a democracy. Despite being hailed as national heroes, Tunisian generals have largely left politics and policymaking to civilians. Thousands of Tunisians ran for office. Millions went to the polls.

When an-Nahda earned 40 percent of the vote, the other 60 percent did not incite revolt. Rather than taking its electoral mandate and running roughshod over its defeated opponents, an-Nahda, apparently conscious that its mandate will expire in one year, appears to prefer compromise and consensus-building. While points of contention abound, Tunisians seem committed to the idea that democracy offers them the best system in which to resolve them.

While this is cause for optimism, celebration would be premature. This year will bring a set of challenges that could shake the resolve of Tunisians. The recently elected Constituent Assembly has one year to draft a constitution and ensure that it enjoys robust support. The high stakes surrounding this process could certainly pose a challenge. Furthermore, reconciling the corruption that plagued many of Tunisia’s government institutions with a newfound focus on transparency, accountability, and the rule of law could be painful.

Perhaps just as importantly, Tunisia’s new leaders must resuscitate the country’s stagnant economy. A recent string of self-immolations has highlighted the urgent nature of the problem. Three weeks ago, Tunisia’s new president warned that if the country cannot revive its economy, it may be headed for “collective suicide.”

According to a recent paper written by economist Lahcen Achy and published by the Carnegie Endowment, Tunisia has long suffered “because of political interference in business, many administrative and regulatory barriers, and ineffective social and regional redistribution mechanisms.” Achy called on Tunisia’s new government to “devise a consistent package of policies, relying on a credible discourse, concrete goals, a timetable to achieve them, and accountability to the population.”

Building consensus among an evolving group of nascent democratic forces to draft a constitution that garners widespread support, while simultaneously reforming and jumpstarting a struggling economy in a post-revolutionary environment, would be challenging in a good year. In 2012, with its neighbors to the north struggling economically and its neighbor to the southeast trying to recover from a civil war, it will be more so. Still, with the faith Tunisians have shown in democracy to this point, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Tarek Mohammed Bouazizi: Entrepreneur and Inspiration

As the fourth annual Global Entrepreneurship Week is underway we would be remiss not to recognize Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian entrepreneur whose frustration and self-immolation inspired protests throughout the Middle East.

Bouazizi was a produce vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia, who at the age of 26, was the sole breadwinner for his family.  As the owner of a small business operating in the informal sector, he was subject to repeated police harassment, excessive fines, demands for bribes, and the confiscation of his goods and equipment.  With no recourse to defend himself, the harassment caused  humiliation and despair.  On the day Bouazizi lit himself on fire, a policewoman effectively put him out of business by confiscating his produce and weight scale.

Renowned Peruvian economist and reformer Hernando de Soto recently authored an article in the Financial Times, where he illustrates the institutional barriers that kept Bouazizi out of the formal sector, leading to the abuse by the Tunisian authorities. According to de Soto it would have taken Bouazizi 142 days and $3,233 to register his business.  The $3,233 is roughly 12 times his monthly net income.  Bouazizi was also unable to buy a truck to expand his business, since he could not record the deed to his family home in order to use the property as collateral.

As Egyptians and Tunisians begin to grapple with the complicated issues of constitution writing, electoral laws, and the role of Islam in the political sphere, they should not lose sight of the circumstances that led them here.  Issues such as property rights, access to capital, and fair treatment under the law all have enormous effects on people’s daily lives as Bouazizi and the revolutions in the Middle East this year have emphatically demonstrated.  Entrepreneurship, the ability to start and build one’s own business, has the potential to be a driving force behind economic growth in the Middle East.  The entrepreneurial energy and desire exists, but governments in the Middle East should seek to facilitate rather than hinder this enterprising spirit.

This story also appeared on the Community of Young Entrepreneurs blog.

Less is more: Constitution building in Tunisia

(photo: JJ Emru)

Over the weekend, almost four million Tunisians came out to elect members to the Constituent Assembly that will create Tunisia’s new constitution. There is already plenty riding on these elections. As the first free elections in Tunisia’s history, they should go a long way in reassuring Tunisians that their transformation is really moving forward, even if it has been messy and troubling at times.

Just the fact that elections happened at all is inspiration for many countries in the region. They provide a practical model for Libya and Egypt. They up the ante for leaders in Jordan and Morocco, who have launched tentative reforms, but many so far only on paper. And in places where real change seems far on the horizon, these elections may give hope to activists that their struggles will achieve the freedom they seek.

Even more now rides on the future constitution itself. All Tunisians, including the country’s diverse private sector, must be involved in the process. It is a one-shot, historic opportunity to pave the way for freedom, growth and prosperity.

Simple is best with documents that determine the course of nations. The art of developing a good constitution lies in the details, and in keeping most of them out of it. Good constitutions are broad enough to have lasting relevance, and flexible enough for the future. They should enshrine the basic principles, relationships and structures that will underpin all laws and institutions to follow.

The specifics should be left for later, for policymaking processes designed to adapt relatively quickly to the will of the people and their changing needs. Otherwise, a country will have to address its political questions through a continual process of national referendums. This is inefficient and costly to say the least, and likely to cause civic fatigue among even the most ardent citizens.

To be lasting and useful, the Tunisian constitution should define openings and avenues for all citizens. What is should not do is guarantee outcomes – constitutions that have, for example, promised every citizen a job, have rarely held up very well. Tunisians who own businesses will want to look for many of the same constitutional principles as everybody else. With an eye towards the future, the private sector should ensure the new constitution provides a framework that allows all citizens to have a voice in lawmaking, exercise their rights, build their businesses, hold decision-makers accountable and have access to impartial adjudication of disputes.

That means they should be looking at, among other aspects: the policymaking process, who can initiate the process and who has input when; the independence of the judiciary to decide cases and sanction wrongdoers; the balance of powers between the executive and the legislative branches; citizens’ freedoms and rights; and particularly the right to own and dispose of property.

Laws can be changed over time, and there will be many opportunities to advocate for their improvement if they do not come out right the first time. The constitution, on the other hand, is for forever – ideally anyway. Business associations should join forces with other civil society groups to gather and channel the input of citizens, monitor the Constituent Assembly’s activities, and provide support and information that will lead to a constitution that works.

Draw inspiration!

CIPE’s editorial cartoon competition is still ongoing! Inspired by recent global events? Interesting things going on in your country? As the Middle East is on everyone’s mind, here is an interesting cartoon published on the Cartoon Movement website by Egypt’s Sherif Arafa:

The interesting thing about the cartoon is that the caption poses a question on whether Tunisia will inspire others. The author is Egyptian. The cartoon was


International Standards—A Double-Sided Coin

Several weeks ago, the Tunisian government announced the passage of a new law which aims to harmonize Tunisia’s anti-terrorism and money laundering legislation within an international legal framework. As Tunisia seeks to further open its economy to outside private sector investors, this law stands to tighten regulations against those seeking to circumvent the system through money laundering—be they terrorists or criminals. According to Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, “The law is essential to keeping abreast of the international standards that Tunisia has willingly adopted to enhance financial transparency and get in step with international standards.”

For decades Tunisia has been striving to create an open economy and it has largely succeeded; it now boasts the most competitive economy in Africa and has established very strong trade relations with Europe. In this respect, Tunisia’s efforts at marketing itself as a bastion of economic liberalization in a globally integrated market have paid off.

Yet, despite the openness Tunisia exudes, it still has a long way to go in other areas. The dearth of freedom of expression and association in Tunisia are profound, and tight controls over opposition parties are commonplace. The impunity that well-connected elites share in economic matters also has ramifications for the rule of law, governance and market competition.

It is in consideration of this entire picture—the good with the bad—that the adoption of “international standards” by any country must be measured.


Debating the Future of Reform in MENA

With inflation and political backtracking competing with trends of economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa, the link between economic and political reform has increasingly come under scrutiny in the region.  It was a prevailing theme in the recent roundtable that CIPE held for key partners from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen in Hammamet, Tunisia.

Leading private sector organizations from around the region shared successful reform approaches, focusing on entrepreneurship, advocacy, public-private dialogue, and corporate governance.  Many of these programs underscore the need for institutions that promote better economic policies and expand growth dividends across a broader segment of society. 

It was interesting to see partners not only share their experiences but also discuss broader questions of democracy and economic challenges confronting the region.  It was especially striking to be able to openly discuss democratic values and reform in the highly regulated environment of Tunisia, highlighting again how economic growth concerns provide a unique opportunity to engage civil society and the public sector on larger questions of political and institutional change.


A new generation of Tunisian journalists

In Tunisia recently for a workshop with business journalists on corporate governance issues, I witnessed a generational divide that gives me hope.  The key moment in the training came in a debate between an older journalist writing for a state-owned newspaper and younger journalists writing for web-based economic journals about the role of the media in investigative reporting on corporate behavior.   The state-owned newspaper journalist challenged why reporters should dig their noses in private businesses if there is nothing wrong.  The others protested, saying they must be active in their reporting in order to uncover failures before they become scandals.  The split in their views was clear, and I was encouraged by the younger clan who want to shape a new culture that values good governance and the rights of all stakeholders.   Now, if only the government would stop blocking YouTube and checking e-mail messages…..

Later in the day, I asked several participants about the most pressing economic issue facing Tunisia today.   One answered the rising costs of oil, then explained that the government stabilizes the price of oil so international increases don’t affect them directly.  But, he added, there is still a cost since the government has less money for other development projects that would benefit the country.  I thought the Tunisians must be very lucky not to feel the food squeeze as much as its neighbors in Egypt or Ethiopia, where bread riots have been on the rise.   Tunisia seems to be weathering this storm, but can subsidies for oil continue on an ongoing basis?   I asked if rising unemployment and the lack of good jobs was an issue, and they just replied with a shrug.   It’s hard to believe that these economic realities aren’t felt, but perhaps it reflects their desire not to air dirty laundry.

Later that night, sitting with our two trainers for this workshop—a Pakistani journalist and a Tunisian professor—one posed the question: “What are you most proud of in your country”?  The Tunisian answered women’s rights and a high level education.  The Pakistani answered the impact of protests and complaints by the public to affect change in a tangible way.   I said the drive for achievement and a spirit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship.  I thought the answer from the Tunisian was interesting indeed; the tradeoff between political freedoms and social development seems to satisfy many people here.  There are others, however, who long for the air of freedom and say as much in not-so-subtle comments whispered under their breath.