Lessons from Tunisia: Familiar Faces After a ‘Revolution’


Tunisia protestersIt has become as predictable as the sun rising each morning. Some country will grow tired of corrupt and heavy handed leadership, mass street protests will arise, and a plane carrying the head of state will depart for Paris, London, or Rihadh. BBC will broadcast the celebratory gunfire and the ‘soft revolution’ will be awarded the name of some colour or spice. Then the same cast of characters in the media will begin asking why this same ‘soft revolution’ doesn’t happen here. But does such a ‘soft revolution’ make sense for Pakistan? Or is it just another excuse to avoid the hard work required by democracy?

Now that the celebrations are starting to wind down and the people of Tunisia are taking a look at their new government, what they’re seeing looks a lot like what they had before.

The prime minister said opposition leaders would have cabinet posts, but the ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs would keep their jobs in the new government.

He named Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which opposed Ben Ali, as minister of regional development. Ettajdid party leader Ahmed Ibrahim will be higher education minister and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labour, health minister.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, really. A couple of years ago when it became fashionable among the intelligentsia to long for ‘the Bangladesh model’, the unspoken truth is that even after the caretaker government there, the new government was led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed – the head of the Awami League, former Prime Minister and daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, is still led by Khaleda Zia who was outgoing Prime Minister when the Army intervened. So, the Bangladesh Model resulted in the same people in power even in…Bangladesh.

This makes sense, really – a government has to be run by people who know what they’re doing. Bureaucrats are highly trained, specialized careerists. You wouldn’t ask just anyone off the street repair your mobile or your computer, so why would you think that anyone off the street could run a country of 180 million people?

Throwing out everyone and starting from scratch was tried once, and it was a lesson well learned. When the Americans invaded Iraq, they proceeded to undertake a process they called ‘de-Ba’athification’. Anyone who had been a Ba’ath party member under Saddam Hussein’s government was sacked and not allowed to hold a government position.

As a result, the government became dysfunctional because it lacked the skilled bureaucrats necessary to provide adequate services to the people. Additionally, the broad sweep sacked individuals who were competent and good at their jobs. Most government workers are not corrupt, so getting rid of them was eliminating the good with the bad.

Tunisia is not making the same mistake, but that’s not satisfying the unrealistic expectations that always come with these ‘soft revolutions’.

“We do not trust this government because there are the same faces, like Ghannouchi … and particularly Friaa,” said passerby Mohamed Mishrgi. “It’s as if Ben Ali’s system is still there. It’s for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing in Tunis. We want a new state with new people.” Another passerby, Hosni Saidani, added: “It is difficult to trust these people because they participated in Ben Ali’s system but they did not have the courage to say to him, ‘Stop.’ So how can they make a change towards democracy?”

The problem here is similar – instead of looking to ourselves for the solutions, we keep looking to someone else. We keep saying, “let’s get a new government” without realizing that WE are the government. It’s a natural mistake to make after living for so long under the rule of dictators to treat democratic governments the same way – something you can swap out for a new one.

But the only way we’re really going to see the progress in economic development, security, and governance is going to be if we do the hard work required to strengthen the democratic process and the rule of law. We’re making progress on this, but some people are impatient to see faster results. That’s understandable, but we can’t let it threaten to undo the progress that we’ve made so far.

As the people of Tunisia are quickly learning, their is no magic solution in government. It takes time, patience, and the willingness to come together to make things work. We have already done the hardest part by casting off our dictators and taking control of our destiny. Maybe the changes do not happen as fast as we wish, but it’s better than the alternative. Just ask the people of Iraq.


Author: Mahmood Adeel