Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria’s writings on “illiberal democracy,” I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here’s what he wrote me:

While Tunisia has never been a true democracy, the largely educated middle class in the nation is well-learned when it comes to the principles of a free society. The regime’s authoritarianism does not speak for the courageous Tunisian lawyers, activists and students; along with the general professional class. Tunisians know what a free press looks like. They’ve seen it around the world when they travel and social networks have served as a dissident channel. And let me add without hyperbole that on Saturday Tunisians awoke to a free press. The usually propagandistic state television changed its logo (which was a regime ensign) and became a voice for free debate with call-ins from average Tunisians. The private media was hosting panel discussions and it was stunning: people have shaken off the fear, and educated journalists and other civil society individuals were openly debating and discussing a whole host of issues. The newspapers that were published that morning ceased with self-censorship, and their coverage and editorials became free forums. A casual reader and observer of the press/media would conclude that it is dominated by a liberal social class with strong democratic values and articulation. In short, the past absence of an institutionalized free press does not mean that Tunisians do not understand the merit of free debate and differing voices. They always have and needed only the opportunity to breathe, which they have now seized.

This lesson, I believe, applies to democracy as well. The fact is that liberal social norms have been ingrained in Tunisian culture: a secular state, equal rights for women, higher education, religious tolerance, etc. I do not state this as a patriot, who has certainly been emotionally moved in recent days, but as an observer who has numerous family and friends in the nation and been engaged in countless political discussions.

The images of the protesters themselves tell a story. Unlike in other Arab nations, the opposition was not uncouth Islamists but a liberal middle class and students. The demonstrations at colleges had Arab youth spell out the word freedom (which was widely evoked during the month), and this was not just a slogan but a genuinely understood ideal. The nation is ready to be a true democracy and truly entrench democratic values. The cultural ethos is already democratic and this is what led to the protests, defining their voice and even the demand that the transition government adhere to the very letter of the constitution. After the president fled, the prime minister took over but Tunisian lawyers immediately declared it unconstitutional (as it was), along with buzzing messages on Facebook by the newly energized populace, and within hours the premier handed power to the speaker of the parliament according to the constitution. The high court has declared that elections shall be held in 60 days per the constitution as well.

Tunisians wanted to start off right with respect for the rule of law. And that’s just it: this nation has been democratic at heart; the recipe for democracy if you will, and the rule of law is understood, respected by Tunisians and had been upheld even under the past regime with the obvious exception of the corrupt and now dethroned ruling elite. Tunisians precisely threw them out because of their repressive rule and flagrant abuse of the law. And the fact is that the people are so committed to a free, democratic Tunisia and the rule of law that they did not acquiesce to an unconstitutional transfer of power, even though they had achieved their main objective of expelling the president and the premier was going to reign solely as a temporary president until elections are held.

Again: people wanted to start a new dawn without compromise on the rule of law. It is no trivial matter that even in the excitement and shock of victory people still thought about the constitutional provision and demanded it be respected. One may have believed that the people would have been elated and surfeit to achieve a monumental victory, unprecedented in the Arab world for a popular revolt to bring down an Arab tyrant, and not bothered with a provision, which would appear to be minor in context of the historic day and new beginning, and which is ultimately inconsequential since the caretaker would leave after elections. But they were not, and that speaks volumes. I have been glued to Facebook updates, the best pulse of the nation right now, and after the premier assumed power Tunisians immediately noted that this is unconstitutional and began to demand his removal. Tunisians wanted the constitution to be respected from Day One and it was the people who made it happen, again. On Facebook, the sentiment is unanimous: a clean break with the ruling party, respect for the rule of law, free and fair elections, and upholding the constitution. After such a dear victory, the widely heard pronouncement is that the people will not be complacent and are ready and willing to eagerly guard their rights and see to it that a democracy worthy of its name will be planted in Tunisia.

After Friday, the Tunisia people have earned with great sacrifice their freedom, and the people are determined that their God-given rights shall not slip an inch and are closely watching the transition as the proverbial vanguards of liberty, and the people will see to it that their hope will be made concrete. The nation is ready and while no democracy is perfect and all democracies are often in a state of oscillation, Tunisia is the best bet and hope for the Arab world’s first real liberal democracy. And I believe it will be a model for the rest of the region.