Two significant things happened in Tunisia Monday that capture the overall political condition of the country — and perhaps the wider Arab region — on the second anniversary of the overthrow of the former regime headed by President Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali. During commemorations of the January 14, 2011 overthrow of the regime, national leaders signed an important “social pact” during a National Constituent Assembly session in Tunis. But in provincial Sidi Bouzid, where the revolt against the former regime started after Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire and ultimately died in December 2010, disappointed crowds threw rocks and tomatoes at the president and parliamentary speaker who had come to address them.
These two symbolic developments aptly capture this moment, when several Arab countries are struggling to institutionalize the gains of their revolutions by achieving two things simultaneously: create new political orders that are legitimate, pluralistic, and accountable; and, address the hard problems in social and economic disparities that plague tens of millions of Arab men and women across the region. Those twin challenges today accurately reflect the two grievances that ultimately ended Mohammad Bouazizi’s life: the citizen’s inability to enjoy the basic material needs of life (income, food, housing, health care, education) and the parallel lack of political rights.
By coincidence I have been in North Africa, albeit at the western side of it, attending a conference in Rabat, Morocco, during this commemorative weekend. It has been instructive to witness the different approaches to political change in Morocco and Tunisia, whose people share many underlying socio-economic and political challenges, but have taken different routes to political evolution. The Moroccan approach of top-down changes initiated by the king has opened up the political system to some extent and allowed centrist Islamists to share in the ruling government coalition — though many Moroccans feel the changes are superficial and the political order is managed by the same powers close to the monarchy that have ruled for decades. Others are convinced that gradual, phased democratization under the king’s aegis is the most feasible route to lasting change, development and stability. Time will tell which approach will prevail.
The very different, populist-driven revolution in Tunisia in the past two years has opened political space for everyone in the country to compete for a share in power and governance, and to reach consensus on the new constitution and other historic changes. This same open political and social arena also allows others to assert their views, including groups of vigilantes in Tunisia (allegedly linked to the dominant Islamists) who have gone around beating up other citizens whose views they reject.
This is why I see much significance in the social pact that was signed this week during the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly by the prime minister, the secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and the president of the Tunisian Union of Commerce, Industry and Craft. This is one of the few examples to date of attempts to launch political initiatives that bridge the twin demands for socio-economic rights and political-citizenship rights. This is an imperfect mechanism because some labor unions and political groups were not consulted on the agreement, including civil society representatives and farmer and consumer associations.
“Social justice” best captures the many dynamics that prompted the ongoing Arab revolutions, with “social” capturing citizens’ socio-economic rights, and “justice” capturing their need for political participation and respect. We will soon learn if the Tunisian social pact offers a political dynamic that allows the most important elements in society to work together for the changes they seek, especially in the critical socio-economic fields.
The pact comprises five sections that deal with economic growth and regional development, employment and vocational training programs, working conditions, social insurance, and the institutionalization of the social tripartite dialog. The dialog envisages creating a “national discussion board” with representatives of the three signatories, as a mechanism for political dialog on issues that will persist for years, especially economic progress.
This is one of the new concrete developments in the past two years that sees the broad demands for social justice being institutionalized in a political mechanism that includes important players in the country. The urgency of such moves was dramatized Monday by the protestors in Sidi Bouzid who threw rocks and tomatoes at Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki and Parliament Speaker Mustafa Ben Jaafar, mainly to express widespread citizen frustration in marginalized rural areas at the revolution’s failure to bring material benefits. Some in the crowd shouted “the people want the fall of the government,” or greeted the president with shouts of “Get out! Get out!” (irhal, irhal, in Arabic), the rallying cry of the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.
Some things have changed dramatically in the past two years, but others have not — most importantly, the underlying revolutionary drivers of socio-economic disparity and politically frustrated citizens.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global