Tunisia’s spring

May 19, 2011

It turns out that starting a revolution in the age of social media is a full time occupation. After bringing down their government, launching dozens of new television and radio stations and about 70 new political parties and posting endless leaked documents on Facebook all the while working on rewriting their constitution, many Tunisians are now busy speaking at conferences, answering questions from journalists and politely agreeing to meet the endless flood of people coming to their country to learn more about the revolution.

Recent arrivals include Felipe Gonzalez, who led Spain in the tumultuous years after Franco died, and Lech Walesa, the trade union activist who went on a pro-democracy mission with a delegation from Poland’s foreign ministry to Tunisia in late April. They are excited to see someone else go through the transition they lived through in their own countries, and pass on some lessons they learned.

This week we were generously hosted by this nation that has been through an unimaginable upheaval and is still not at all sure where it will lead. The woman in the government who planned our visit was formerly a banker in New York. She is now working pro bono for the government. We met other Tunisians who dropped everything overseas and moved back home to do their part in building a new country.

It’s overwhelming. Conspiracy theories, anxiety, optimism, a million different explanations of what actually happened, a million different forecasts of how things will turn out. People can’t stop talking, explaining, describing, predicting.

Here is what we saw and heard in Tunis: a country engaged in an active debate about the meaning of democracy, good governance and how to achieve it. A flourishing press that journalists say is badly in need of training in how to handle a freer environment than they ever knew before. A thriving civil society. A country newly discovering problems that had been long hidden — pockets of poverty (still small by international standards — less than 4% at the absolute poverty standard) and a resolution to remove this blight, with the help of the World Bank and the African Development Bank, even as a new democracy is created.

With all of this excitement comes a bit of fear and lots of uncertainty. Things are a bit more chaotic than they were in the days of dictatorship. There  are armored vehicles in front of the Former Ministry of Interior, lots of police, barbed wire, striking cab drivers and political graffiti that says “thank you Facebook.” Bourguiba Avenue is now crowded because of the endless street vendors and although the shopkeepers resent the competition, after what happened last December no one is going to tell a vendor to move on. Just a few feet away is a mobile blood bank where the Tunisians give blood to help the Libyan refugees they are  feeding and housing on top of everything else on their to-do list.

How can one country do so much in just a few months? Can it possibly last? Will it all go bad? The people we spoke with are well educated, so they know the history of revolutions, which do not often go smoothly. They know their strengths — a well-educated population, a strong middle class, institutions and an entrepreneurial class that survived an authoritarian regime, bruised and subdued, but even so, stronger than elsewhere in the Middle East. And they also know their problems. Even before the Great Recession, unemployment had been high. They managed it reasonably well, but now tourism has collapsed and neighboring Libya is at war.

While we in the US got distracted by Donald Trump’s revolting hair, Osama Bin Laden being found a mere three blocks from Pakistan’s version of  West Point, Japan’s tragic earthquake and Gaddafi’s refusal to budge, the Tunisians realized their democratic revolution is in danger for want of funds. They estimate they need $25 billion in aid over the next five years. It’s not much; roughly the same amount of money as the upfront costs of  about two months of US fighting in Iraq.

The Tunisian government has plans for how such aid would be spent. Tunisia needs jobs, tourists, a makeover for their government bureaucracy, help for small businesses and the chance to export their fruits and vegetables to Europe. We need Tunisia to survive because the lesson of this year is that one tiny revolution reverberates throughout the region. And speaking of the revolution, since google and Facebook helped bring it about, why don’t they come up with plans to give innovation prizes to some of the tech savvy young people to help create jobs and fund some startups?

Photo: Libyan refugee children attend classes in tents set up by Tunisians, in Tataouine May 18, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili

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