“The Tunisian people must be taught to have a voice,” proclaims Dr Nora El Goulli, a Pharmaceutical Director turned politician who has been outlining the ideological basis of her new democratic political party to me for the last few minutes. She is shouting to make her voice heard above the hubbub of the hot and crowded room.
“The population currently doesn’t know what it is to have a political opinion.”
We are having this discussion in the bustling atmosphere of the Frontline Club, a haven for independent journalists tucked away behind Paddington Station, and hostlast week to a heated panel discussion about the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia. Dr El Goulli is outspoken in her support for regime change in both countries, and stresses the tentative and exciting possibility for democratic reform that is now open to the Tunisian people, and which she and her party, the Partie Républicain de Tunisie, hope to capitalise on.
“I think what’s interesting at the moment with this new party is that people are asking us questions like: ‘so which leader is going to take over’ – and that’s the whole point – this is different, this is new. We’ve had one massive party that’s been dominating the scene that needs to be broken down, so if we want a real democracy then we’re going to have to start new parties from scratch. So it’s brand new, it’s just starting, and that’s exciting. And perhaps this is the same feeling we’re getting from Egypt – don’t ask us who’s going to take over because we don’t know.”
Since the outbreak of protests and violence, Egypt has monopolised headlines across the world and there has been very little focus on Tunisia – which in many ways was the catalyst for what is now taking place across the Arab world – and how the protests there have affected the people and the country as a whole. Something very significant has changed in the political culture of the Middle East over the past few weeks, with the populations of many countries across the region finding solidarity in the desire for self-determination and democratic reform. Tunisia, says Dr El Goulli, is at the heart of this desire for change. Grassroots political movements and parties, of which the Partie Républicain de Tunisie is but one example, have been growing up almost organically in Tunisia since ousted former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on January 14th. Fuelled by Facebook and other social networking sites, these groups have quickly gathered a popular support base.
“In the week since all this has happened, we’ve counted at least a dozen or more (and it’s increasing every day) groups who are planning to file to become parties,” she tells me, “our party has already acquired 3,400 followers on Facebook in just 2 weeks of existence.”
But Dr El Goulli, optimistic though she is, is also soberly pragmatic about the future of democracy in her country.
“If I were to make a prognosis now,” she says, “then if we’re really going to have elections in 6 months time, it’s not likely to be one of the new guys who take power; because we just don’t have the time to establish a manifesto, to establish support, to really build up into a proper party. We’re trying to create a legitimate opposition to the current regime, and that’s going to take time.”
The political landscape in Tunisia looks set to change dramatically in the next months and years. This small, North African country, which in many ways set the example for the unrest now brewing in Egypt and elsewhere across the Arab world, can now also be seen as a microcosm for political and social reform in the region. But Tunisia is not Egypt, and neither is Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Saudia Arabia or any of the other Arab countries whose populations are still battling with autocratic and authoritarian regimes. Thus to extrapolate a greater lesson from this tiny – yet supposedly exemplary – country may be misguided and myopic. The situation on the ground is still extremely volatile, and who knows what the next days, weeks and months may bring. The one thing that can be concluded, however, is that events in Tunisia have proved, at least for now, that the will of the people (coupled with the power of the internet) really can change things.