Thinking Aloud: Bill Lawrence on Tunisia

Nov. 22, 2014 by Darius 

Tunisians go to the polls tomorrow to choose their next president.  Earlier this week, I attended a panel discussion at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference.  One of the panelists was Bill Lawrence, currently a visiting professor at George Washington University and an expert on North Africa.  Lawrence had a number of very insightful comments about Tunisia.

According to Lawrence, there were really two revolutions in Tunisia.  The first was driven primarily by angry, rural men concentrated near the Algerian border.  The second was a much more urban, middle-class, gender-balanced and photogenic movement.  According to Lawrence, the first revolution largely failed, while the second largely succeeded.

These two revolutions have led to two distinct narratives emerging in Tunisia.  The first narrative, which stems primarily from the successful second revolution, is that Tunisia has succeeded against all odds.  Lawrence feels this success was not pre-ordained or due to prior conditions like Tunisia’s strong civic institutions but because the leaders of the primary political factions agreed to compromise on the major issues of contention.  The second narrative, which stems primarily from the failed first revolution, is that despite its initial successes, Tunisia is entering a very difficult period indeed.  To begin with, the economy is poor for all levels of society, largely due to continuing recession in Europe, on which Tunisia’s economy heavily depends.  Second, there is deep political disillusionment: 65% of Tunisians didn’t vote in the latest parliamentary elections.  Third, there is a security crisis stemming from events across Tunisia’s borders.  Many Tunisian fighters are returning from Syria and Iraq.  According to Lawrence, most of these fighters are thoroughly disillusioned with jihad, but some seek to continue the fight in Tunisia.  Finally, there remains the massive challenge of transitional justice.

Lawrence discussed how events outside of Tunisia are impacting Tunisia.  He quoted an old proverb: “When Libya and Algeria sneeze, Tunisia catches a cold.”  He said that all the countries influencing the conflict next door in Libya are also influencing Tunisia, or at least perceived as such.  Additionally, Lawrence felt the West’s non-action on General Sisi in Egypt created confusion for Tunisians and others in North Africa and the Middle East.  Previously, in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, people in Tunisia thought the West cared about democracy in the Middle East.  The West’s acceptance of Sisi, though, showed that the West didn’t care about democracy.  The result in Tunisia has been political indifference, alienation, and even jihadism.

Lawrence was optimistic about tomorrow’s elections, though.  He felt that many of the candidates on the ballot have the leadership skills necessary to be an effective president of Tunisia.

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