Addressing the recent events that have unfolded in Tunisia, a panel of Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce members discussed the issues of economy and democracy in Tunisia.
On March 9, 2011, the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce (TACC), the National U.S. – Arab Chamber of Commerce, the American Tunisian Association, and the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "Tunisia's Democratic Transition: Challenges & Perspectives," with Nazeh Ben Ammar, President of the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce (TACC); Issam Belhaj, TACC Delegate and Founder and CEO of IB Consulting; and Maher Kallel, TACC Delegate and Co-Founder and Executive Vice President for International Investment, Poulina Group Holdings. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Ben Ammar opened the discussion by noting that Tunisia was relatively unobserved on the world stage before the events of this January. He referred to the fact that since Tunisia's independence in 1956, it has only had two presidents and increasing grievances. He stated that the Jasmine Revolution, while unexpected, was appropriate because Tunisians deserve democracy. He also commented on the very latest developments, which included the banning of the former president's Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD) Party earlier that day, in addition to what he called "the first real elections," scheduled to take place in July 2011. Ben Ammar stressed that the new constitution in Tunisia must come from the people because of the increased engagement of the youth in politics through social media outlets. He also remarked on the high unemployment rate among young, educated people, whose outrage was sparked by the self-immolation of one of their countrymen, Mohamed Bouazizi. Ben Ammar went on to note Tunisia's potential as an economic asset for the region and the world with increased foreign investment in Tunisian businesses.
Belhaj remarked that in just one month, Tunisia went through three different governments, referring to the changes in the presidency and the prime ministers. He noted that a new government should be based on a new parliament and on a public referendum for a new constitution. Kallel noted that President Obama and other world leaders have hailed the Tunisian movement because of its success. He stated that since the Tunisian government was more concerned with maintaining the political status quo and thus did not interfere in business development, this sector was permitted to expand. He also noted the dramatic change from the one party rule of former president Ben Ali's RCD to the countless number of parties that now exist, with so many people now participating in the political scene. Kallel pointed out two economic challenges—unemployment and lack of investment. These challenges have to be met by investments from abroad. Kallel also noted that Tunisia has great market potential for Europe and the Middle East/North Africa region. He concluded by saying that the success of this revolution is critical.
During a question and answer session, the speakers noted that Tunisians gained the confidence to rise up after the "collapse of fear" and because of the ability to communicate on social media without fear of reprisal. They also mentioned that the main request of Tunisians pertains to changes in the constitution regarding putting constraints on the power of the president. Lastly, speakers discussed the high status of women in Tunisia, especially that women and men earn the same salaries for the same jobs, among other rights.
By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program