Tunisia: Cheers and doubts

Robin Wright writes: The celebratory honking and shouting on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the elegant boulevard that runs through Tunisia’s capital, began within seconds of the announcement that Sunday’s election had produced the country’s first democratically elected President—the culmination of an uneasy transition that began, in 2011, with the Jasmine Revolution. In a tight runoff, Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently turned eighty-eight, was declared the winner. He is Tunisia’s most experienced politician; he has served as defense minister, foreign minister, and interior minister. But these positions were held under Tunisia’s two most autocratic leaders, and Essebsi personifies the old guard—known by critics as the Remnants.

Tunisia has emerged as a model for Arab nations. Its three elections since October, held in unheated schools around the country, have been serious and well run—especially compared to the flagrant vote-buying and vote-rigging elsewhere in the Middle East. Tunisians “raised the bar of what is possible,” Ken Dryden, the former Canadian M.P. (and hockey star), who served as an international monitor for the election, said. “They have done their part.” Yet the country, with a population of eleven million, has also provided roughly three thousand fighters—more than any other nation—to the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front as they sweep through Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia’s government says it has prevented almost nine thousand more from joining.) “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” Karim Helali, of Afek, or Horizons, a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young people, told me.

Essebsi defeated a human-rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed to serve as interim President in 2011, while the country wrote a new constitution. The process took three years. During that time, Tunisia grappled with the assassination of two leading politicians, the rise of an extremist underground, attacks on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis, and thousands of labor strikes. [Continue reading…]

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