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Tunisia’s Evolutionary Revolution

TUNIS – Ten months after the collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, Tunisia has produced a remarkable balancing act between the revolutionary urge for change and a pragmatic need for continuity. With elections for a constitutional assembly due to take place on October 23, the country that ignited the “Arab Awakening” is emerging as a regional paradigm for a stable democratic transition.

A number of preconditions have smoothed Tunisia’s path. Whereas Egypt struggles with the need to assert civilian control over the military, the Tunisian army has stayed out of politics. And, in contrast to Libya, the Tunisian population never took up arms during the protests. The economy does not run on hydrocarbons. And, notwithstanding serious inequalities between Tunisia’s littoral and inland areas, this small country of 10 million people is, according to the World Bank, an upper-middle-income economy.

Above all, civil institutions have proven to be resilient. A “Higher Council,” made up of notables of different backgrounds and political orientations, has been established to steer the transition. For all of the previous regime’s misdeeds, Tunisians are proud of their country’s liberal institutions, such as women’s rights and a progressive family code, adopted in 1956. Betraying some nostalgia, senior members of the administration speak privately of a “remarkable continuity” in the Tunisian transition.

But overall stability has not prevented cracks from emerging in more contentious areas. The security sector remains largely unreformed. The rough, transitional justice that often follows a change of regime has not taken place, at least not yet. In what is arguably the most striking change since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia has witnessed the swift rise of an Islamist movement that was banned from the country for decades.