Tunisia Celebrates and Struggles to Change

Tunisians celebrated ratification of a groundbreaking constitution on January 26, but life there has been a mix of progress and struggle since the beginning of their Jasmine Revolution, which launched the Arab Spring in 2011. People acknowledge there has been some progress, yet life for ordinary Tunisians has not changed enough in the past three years.

The Jasmine Revolution sprung into being in the town of Sidi Bouzid, on December 17, 2010, when a push-cart fruit stand of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouaziz was confiscated by a policewoman. In protest against the never-ending poverty, constant harassment and humiliation he had suffered, Bouazizi set himself on fire.

Riots followed. Angry teenagers from working class families began to express their own anger over the corruption and lack of opportunity that characterized the long reign of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Nidhal Bouallagui, who is 23 years old now, participated in the rage. He and his friends from the small desert town close to Sidi Bouzid, called Ben Aoun, took to the streets and proceeded to burn things, mostly tires. Their message was that all work, all study, everything in Tunisia should come to a standstill until a positive way forward could be found.

The revolution sparked by Mohamed Bouaziz’ bitter sacrifice is showing clear signs that a way forward has been found. Tunisia’s new constitution is founded on the democratic ideals of freedom, security, equality, opportunity and rule of law. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the capital of Tunis this week, and declared that this was a constitution that could “serve as a model” for “the region and around the world.”

Tunisia’s newly ratified constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while also establishing Islam as the official state religion. It divides executive power between the president and prime minister. The prime minister is accountable to parliament. The president is directly elected by popular vote, and has the responsibility of directing foreign policy and defense. Also of prime importance is the fact that it enshrines gender equality and provides for freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Back in Ben Aoun, Nidhal Bouallagui has been enshrining change in his own unique way by break dancing. Bouallagui noticed that young people in his town with nothing to do, were easier prey for drug dealers, extremists, and militant Islamists. So he began teaching break dancing in the town youth center, and organizing dance competitions, because he noticed that teenagers with something to do, were better able to resist extremism.

Though their lives outside of the youth center have not changed much, they dance with the mission of creating something new.

Tunisia is still struggling. Grocery prices are higher than they were three years ago, and the country has seen its share of Islamist violence. But the nation is changing, thanks in no small part to the efforts of an international assembly of legal advisors who called their group by the nickname “Team W.” The name is derived from The Wilberforce Society, a British think tank, from which many of the assembled advisers were veterans.

The 35 members of Team W put their lives on hold for a year, sacrificing their careers, income and personal relationships, out of deep need to help Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) craft the most progressive constitution ever known in the Arab world. Tunisians continue to struggle against economic forces, as well as darker ones that would turn back the clock on progress, nevertheless, they have much to celebrate as they create a new Tunisia.

By Melissa Roddy

New York Times