Recent events in Tunisia will have a profound impact on democracy and political freedom in the Arab world, while the EU – which had turned a blind eye to authoritarian rule and corruption in the country – must support the 'Jasmine Revolution', writes Eberhard Rhein in a January blog post.
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''During the last 30 years Tunisia has received more economic assistance from the EU than any other North African country with the exception of Palestine. Its very rapid economic development since the beginning of the century, with an annual GDP growth of 5%, would not have been possible without the Association Agreement guaranteeing Tunisian industry and agriculture free access to the European market.
Today Tunisian citizens enjoy the highest living standards of any south Mediterranean country except Israel.
But the EU must also admit that it has seriously failed by putting 'two blind eyes' on Tunisia being progressively turned into a police state by the Ben Ali family. European diplomats were fully aware of what was happening behind the scenes. The absence of media freedom was only too evident. So was the incredible level of corruption to anybody residing in the country for more than a few days.
Consequently the European political class should have been more ashamed than surprised by the spontaneous uprising that has been unfolding since mid-December with its climax on 15 January. The surprise has been rather that it has taken Tunisian society so long to finally take to the streets and force Ben Ali and his hated family into a disgraceful exile.
This has been the first popular revolution in the Arab world, rendered possible thanks to cell phones, Al-Jazeera and online networks. The revolution has refuted Ben Ali's claim of defending the country and Europe against radical Islam, a claim Europe has too readily accepted as a pretext for not speaking out against the regime, ignoring the human rights clause stipulated in Article 2 of the Association Agreement.
What matters now above all in Tunisia is to continue cleansing all the vestiges of the old regime, including the formal dissolution of the ruling party (RCD) and the confiscation of its property, and to take the necessary steps for a democratic election of a new president before the end of March.
The provisional government has taken several crucial decisions, like the amnesty for political prisoners, the repeal of the anti-terror law and the de facto restoration of media freedom.
The change in Tunisia seems irreversible, provided that normal life returns and people find jobs. Like everywhere in the Maghreb, high youth unemployment constitutes the biggest challenge. There are no miracle solutions; but the future government confirmed by a democratically elected parliament will have to focus on employment creation as its top economic priority.
The EU bears a big responsibility in helping Tunisia sustain its democratic revolution. The Tunisian population has shown a degree of political maturity of which it should be proud. The EU should pay its deep respect to the people for the peaceful change they have brought about, applaud the provisional government for its first reform steps and offer whatever political and economic assistance the country will need to consolidate democracy, the rule of law and the respect of basic freedoms.
The developments in Tunisia will have a profound impact on the progress towards democracy and political freedom elsewhere in the Arab world. Only if Tunisia succeeds in stabilising democracy and the rule of law will there be a good chance for other Arab countries also getting rid of their repressive and corrupt regimes.
That is why it is so crucial for the EU to make sure that the 'Jasmine Revolution' succeeds and leaves a permanent footprint.''