Six months ago, after weeks of protests, the Tunisian people gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to demand that their longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, leave the country. He fled for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
But the country’s future remains uncertain. Giant sit-ins by opposition groups plagued the interim government that replaced Mr. Ben Ali. As in the French Revolution, they came armed with “Lists of Grievances.” The standoff ended when an interim prime minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, an old hand in Tunisian politics, took office at the end of February. He managed the trick of both placating the impatient and not alarming those who want nothing to change.
The key to establishing a new democracy will be how the interim government deals with members of the old regime. Unfortunately, it has been reluctant to bring them to justice immediately, opting instead to leave this pivotal responsibility to the government that will take power after elections in October.
There has been some progress. The assets of Mr. Ben Ali’s inner circle have been confiscated, his party has been dissolved, the secret police have been dismantled and a number of high officials are being investigated for abuse of authority and misuse of funds.
Yet the flawed and lumbering legal system has not satisfied a population yearning for genuine justice. So far not a single dollar transferred out of the country by the Ben Ali family has found its way back to the state’s coffers, not a single police officer implicated in the murders of almost 300 protesters has been convicted and not a single member of the ruling clan that fled the country has been extradited to Tunisia — including Mr. Ben Ali. The interim government has relied on a traditional legal process headed by the same magistrates who worked for the old regime rather than pursuing a system of transitional justice — with truth commissions and informal trials —which would be faster and more flexible.
The trial of Mr. Ben Ali and his wife took place on June 20, with the couple facing close to 100 charges, including conspiracy against the state and possession of drugs and weapons. They were sentenced, in absentia, to 35 years in prison and fined $66 million. But in the absence of both the accused and their foreign lawyers — Tunisian law prohibits Tunisians from being represented by foreign lawyers — many decried the trial as a mockery of justice.
But this is much ado about nothing. The justice system, albeit freed of the worst of its constraints, is still barely functioning. Judges in Tunisia are among the most poorly paid in the world, just behind their counterparts in Bangladesh.
The social problems that prompted the current unrest also continue to poison the transition process. Endemic unemployment and low levels of education could undermine Tunisia’s democratic transition. The school system, which has long hurt Tunisia’s competitiveness by favoring quantity over quality, desperately needs in-depth reforms. Meanwhile, more than 1.2 million Tunisians, over 11 percent of the country’s population, live in poverty. (The interim government’s estimates have placed the figure as high as 24 percent.)
Mr. Essebsi requested $25 billion in aid over five years at the recent meeting of the Group of 8 powers in Deauville, France. The G-8, along with other governments and institutions, endorsed a combined $40 billion aid package for Egypt and Tunisia — an amount that pales in comparison with the modern-day Marshall Plan that the region desperately needs.
On Oct. 23 Tunisians will decide whether they want a presidential or a parliamentary system, and elect a new government. More than 90 parties could appear on the ballot, meaning that a highly divided assembly is likely. Early polls show that Al Nahda — the previously banned Islamist party — enjoys the support of more than 20 percent of voters.
To its credit, Al Nahda accepts the rights that have long been enjoyed by Tunisian citizens — the most far-reaching in the Arab world — and the newly established principle that women and men should serve in the future democratic legislature in equal numbers. To placate the West, it wants to fashion itself in the image of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P.
Yet unlike the A.K.P., Al Nahda has never abandoned its hopes for an Islamic state and is strongly opposed to the separation of religion and the state. Moreover, it favors a draft constitutional provision, along with Arab nationalists and the extreme left, that would ban the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel. This is a foolish position that harks back to the obsolete rhetoric of the 1960s.
Tunisia is seeking to fully integrate its Islamists — but perhaps at its peril. If Al Nahda emerges from the election with a dominant plurality, it may decide to be modest and support a government of national unity, so as to reassure Washington and the country’s foreign lenders. And if it ends up in a minority position, it will probably bide its time, knowing that one day it could win and run the country.
Whether Tunisia’s Islamists follow the moderate example of the A.K.P. or regress into radical Islamism will depend on the willingness of new leaders to chart a responsible course and on secular and moderate parties’ capacity to challenge pan-Arab and Islamist groups. Only then will we know whether Tunisia’s revolution represents a triumph of liberalism or an open door for extremists.
Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis and president of the Tunisian Observatory for a Democratic Transition. This article was translated by Vivien Watts and Matthew Watkins from the French.