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Published On: Tue, Jan 20th, 2015

Tunisia takes it a notch higher

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This North African nation is noted for setting the pace for fellow Arabic speaking, Muslim African countries. In January 2011, four years ago precisely, the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution swept aside the ancient regime of long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, thereby setting off the 2011 Arab Spring that led to regime changes in a number of countries, notably Egypt. The latter, unfortunately, has not enjoyed the smooth transition to full fledged democracy that Tunisia has.

The country completed a fairly seamless transition on December 21, 2014, when Beji Caid Essebsi won the presidential election in a runoff against interim President Moncef Marzouki. He was sworn in on Jan. 2, becoming the first freely elected leader of the North African country since it gained independence from France in 1956. This is Tunisia’s second first. Mr. Essebsi, a former prime minister and leader of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, is beginning his new term riding the crest of international goodwill. US President Barack Obama has invited him to visit Washington, the White House has said. Obama called him on Monday to congratulate him on his victory and hailed the “spirit of peaceful compromise” that Tunisians displayed during their period of transition.

Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party is an alliance of liberals, secularists and former government leaders, formed in response to the post-revolution tendency of the Ennahda party of Mr. Marzouki. He fought and won the presidential election on a platform to transform Tunisia into a progressive and secular society. In his first speech after winning the election, Essebsi attempted to assuage concerns by vowing to protect the freedoms gained since the 2011 revolution and to move a united Tunisia forward.

The 88-year-old new president is considered one of Tunisia’s founders, having served as Minister of Interior under then-President Habib Bourguiba after the country won independence from France in 1956. Essebsi’s links with Bourguiba and successor, Mr. Ben Ali, however, according to observers, “tarnish his legacy as a skilled politician and political reformer, which he highlighted throughout the campaign”.

“He carries some responsibility for the repression and torture under the Bourguiba dictatorship,” said Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a former judge who claims to know Essebsi personally. Essebsi also served as prime minister under Ben Ali, who was forced out of office in 2011. “We have to see whether he is going to adapt the party to the new Tunisia, or whether the new Tunisia will have to adapt to the party,” Yahyaoui said.

How the new president handles the case of an online blogger, Yassine Ayari, arrested on Dec. 25 and sentenced by a military court to three years in jail for defaming the army, will show whether he can also walk his talk. The same court is scheduled to hear his appeal this Jan. 20. Ayari had repeatedly published blogs critical of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, which also won Tunisia’s first-post revolution parliamentary elections in October.

The Ayari case, expectedly, has alarmed rights campaigners. His lawyer Sami Ben Amor described the charges as “political … It is in the interest of Tunisia’s new rulers to send a positive message to the people”. We do hope they will. Meanwhile, we hail Tunisians for their forbearance, courage and determination. That has paid off handsomely.

 

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