TRUDY RUBIN: Tunisia, where democracy has a better chance

By Trudy Rubin

While the media are saturated with stories from Libya, we rarely hear what’s happening in next-door Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.
That’s too bad, because Tunisia is a far more important barometer of democracy’s prospects in the region than Libya.
Indeed, if Tunisia’s experiment fails, there is far less hope for Libya, Egypt or Syria, let alone a stitched-together tribal state like Yemen. That’s why it’s important for Americans to watch developments in Tunis and help in any way we can.
“We have institutions which work, we have well-educated people and educated women,” says Chema Gargouri, the dynamic president of the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, a nongovernmental organization that helps women start small businesses.
Gargouri, a vivacious Tunisian with flowing blond hair, who speaks fluent French, English and Arabic, personifies the large segment of working women in her country. Her mother was a school administrator, and her daughter Zainab, who is traveling with her on a visit to the United States, wants to be an engineer.
She points out that, unlike Libya, Tunisia is not a tribal society, and its institutions were not crushed by a former ruler.
Tunisia is a former French colony, and its population is still mostly bilingual.
But, as Gargouri is ready to concede, these Tunisian positives do not guarantee an easy transition to democracy.
Discontent is rising.
Elections for an assembly that will write a new constitution are set for October. But, unused to free politics, Tunisians have registered more than 90 political parties. This will split the vote of those who want a nonreligious state.
Gargouri says the Islamists cannot easily impose new provisions that go against the wishes of those who rose up against oppression.
Let’s hope she’s correct.
More U.S. attention can help.
Tunisians and the U.S. business community have little experience with each other. “Europeans are familiar with Tunisia, but it has few links to U.S. business opportunities,” says Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia businessman with long ties to Tunisia.
Sorkin would like to see the Obama administration encourage U.S. companies to explore business prospects in Tunisia and help Tunisia develop its small-business sector, along with cultural tourism. More academic exchanges would also boost ties between the two countries.
I’d add that, as soon as Libya stabilizes, President Barack Obama should urge the new Libyan government to invite back its former Tunisian workers and many thousands more.
After all, it’s in America’s interest (and Libya’s, too) that the Tunisian experiment work.
That’s why we should listen to Chema Gargouri when she urges: “Don’t forget Tunisia. We started this. If it doesn’t work with 10 million Tunisians, with strong Tunisian women, it won’t work in Egypt or elsewhere.”
She’s right.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubin@phillynews.com.