Transition period experiences in Tunisia, the country where unrest in the Middle East and Africa all started, have a significant importance for the entire region. There is currently an obvious troubled period ahead of an election called for July 24 due to political divergences and economic difficulties, while Tunisians take the Turkish people’s democratic struggle as an inspiration.
On July 24, the Tunisian people will elect representatives to parliament who are supposed to draft a new constitution for the country. Yet, the interim government in Tunisia has been encountering problems in getting ready for the upcoming election because society is polarized between those who favor a presidential system and those who favor a parliamentary system. There are concerns that rising tension stemming from this polarization may turn into a conflict between supporters of the new regime and the old regime. Since veteran President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power, there has been an inflation of political parties. While there were nine parties -- legal and illegal – during the Ben Ali era, now there are 21 political parties, eight of which were founded on Wednesday. For the first time, nationalist, environmentalist and Islamic-leaning parties have entered the official arena in Tunisia where political life has traditionally been dominated by leftist parties. However, most of the candidates are not well known by society, and it is widely assumed that many small parties will have seats in the constitutive parliament.
With the social revolution, the former colonial power in Tunisia has lost its clout to a large extent. Reaction against France -- which lent support to Ben Ali until just a few hours before he fled the country -- is wide, and Tunisia, which gained independence from France in 1956, is now discussing the “Turkey model.” Around 10 percent of Tunisian people who reside in touristic seaside cities favor the French concept of “laïcité,” while most of the rest of the people are conservative. Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia on Jan. 30 after nearly 20 years in exile, declaring he has taken Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model; Ahmed Najib Chebbi, founder of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, argues that Tunisia should embrace democracy in Turkey as a model. There is a historical sympathy for Turkey in Tunisia, Chebbi says, stressing the last decade’s developments in Turkey have also been closely followed in his country. “Today, there is a phenomenon in Turkey that increases our sympathy for this country: The participatory democracy model that is being successfully implemented by moderate Islamic politicians in Turkey. We are closely following the policies of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan who has united Muslim culture with Western-oriented democratic culture,” says Chebbi, while declaring that they have taken the democratic struggle in Turkey as a model. “Turkey has economically made a huge jump and gained a huge prestige within its own region. In the past, Arab countries have been skeptical towards Turkey since its image was being a country that is affiliated with the policies of the United States and Israel. Today, Turkey has found its place, and Arabs are very glad to see Turkey coming back,” Chebbi elaborates, stressing that Turkey’s firm stance and support on the Palestinian case has totally changed Arabs’ perception of this country.
Chebbi, meanwhile, admits Arab people had certain prejudices against the Ottoman Empire and the Turks in the 20th century. “Today, we see we were mistaken about Turkey. Now, we can say that period in which we were apart is over,” Chebbi says.
Yadh Ben Achour, a prominent lawyer who is the head of Tunisia’s Higher Political Reform Commission, underlines the AK Party impact on Tunisia’s evolving political life. “In Turkey, Erdoğan has shown that a person who originates from an Islamic wing can reconcile Muslims with a democratic and secular regime. Erdoğan’s rising popularity among people in recent years is the reason behind politicians’ intense interest in Turkey,” Ben Achour says.
As a matter of the fact, remarks by Foued, a guide in Tunis’ Medina market, summarizes this impact in assertive remarks. “Whichever politician is pointed out by Erdoğan in Tunisia, that will be the one who will win the elections,” says Foued.