Much to the disappointment of protesters in Tunisia, both individual EU member states and the EU itself were slow to react to events in the North African state. However, as Tunisia's most important political and economic partner, the EU now has the opportunity to make amends by supporting regime change in a constructive manner. Isabel Schäfer reports from Tunis
Within a matter of days, Tunisia has become an entirely different country. As peace gradually returns after the violent clashes and the loss of many lives, it is still not clear in which direction the political change will develop. Military helicopters are still on patrol; the situation remains fragile.
A sense of normality has returned to Tunisians' lives since 17 January 2011. Many are slowly returning to their workplaces, and public transport is gradually starting to run again. The majority now want their former tormentors to be called to account at last.
Many people have begun fearing for their jobs, as foreign companies and organizations have flown staff out of the country. What does the regime change mean for Tunisia's international relations?
Trade partner EU
Relations to the European Union remain key. Europe is Tunisia's most important trading partner, with many jobs depending on European investments and tourists. Negotiations on a further intensification of relations on the basis of "advanced status", that of a privileged partner country, had already gone some way by the time the "Jasmine Revolution" began.
Tunisia has been linked to the EU via an Association Agreement since 1998, the first agreement with a southern Mediterranean state signed as part of the Barcelona Process. The main objective was to set up a free trade zone with the EU. On the basis of this agreement, an initial action plan for political and economic cooperation was drawn up as part of European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2005. Technical and financial collaboration between the two entities entered its thirtieth year in 2010.
Negotiations have been underway since last year for a new action plan for 2011–2016 and the "advanced status", which is intended to enable access to the Single European Market and participation in European programmes, plus further intensification of political and economic relations.
Ex-President Ben Ali's government had a major interest in successful negotiations, just as Tunisia has had a strong European orientation in its foreign policy as a whole.
Broad sections of the population reject ministers from the old government staying on, especially in key posts such as the interior and foreign ministries, defence and finances.
At the same time, even after only a few days, there is great concern that Tunisia's economic partners and foreign investors might lose faith, withdrawing foreign investments and thus putting a brake on economic growth, which stood at 3.8 percent last year. If growth does slow, even more jobs will be lost. Prime Minister Ghannouchi is making deliberate use of this argument to deter further demonstrations and strikes and to encourage people to return to their normal working lives.
Clear political support needed
Tunisia now needs Europe's support. Appeals have already been made to the Tunisian diaspora in Europe and elsewhere, and statements of solidarity from Europe are received with great joy and pride. At the same time, however, the demonstrators on Avenue Bourguiba were also disappointed by the comparatively late official declarations from European governments and the EU, which they have not found explicit enough.
The French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie in particular has been criticized for offering the Ben Ali regime police assistance only one day before its downfall. President Obama, in contrast, made a relatively fast and clear statement: the Tunisian people must be able to freely elect their government. The Tunisian public responded with great relief to the announcement that all foreign accounts held by Ben Ali and his family would be frozen. Yet statements of solidarity alone are not enough.
The EU has offered to help with preparations for free and democratic elections and is likely to send election observers. It is also preparing a broad package of suggestions for the new Tunisian government, including the not terribly original option of intensifying bilateral trading and political relations. According to the ENP Commissioner Stefan Füle, however, the EU intends to wait until the situation has stabilized.
Yet what Tunisian society needs now is instant help on two levels: firstly, clear signals of political support for the democratic forces and not for the former RCD elite; and secondly, financial and concrete aid for those who already lived below the existence minimum before the regime change or are now facing oblivion as a result of it.
The EU could also call on the interim government to keep its promises to release all political prisoners and to allow comprehensive freedom of opinion, information and the press, free and democratic elections under international observation, and a full investigation into the crimes of the Ben Ali regime.
Exemplary change of political system
The "Jasmine Revolution" has the support of large parts of the population. The younger generation in particular is largely enthusiastic about the sudden removal of Ben Ali and proud of their comparatively peaceful revolution and its exemplary role for other countries in the region.
The movement's central demands were more jobs, better living conditions and more freedom and democracy. Yet if the economy is on its knees, these goals will be hard to reach. And the old guard of the RCD is now using this argument to slow the dynamics of the protest movement.
Tunisia has the potential to develop into a democratic system. The country boasts not only a middle class, economic growth and high educational levels, but above all a committed young generation and active intellectuals, who can now express themselves in public at last. In this way, the changes in Tunisia can serve as an example to other countries in the region inasmuch as the population has successfully stood up to an authoritarian regime without help from outside.
The EU was not conspicuously critical of the "Ben Ali system" in recent years. Now it has a chance to support political change in a constructive manner.
© Qantara.de 2011
Dr Isabel Schäfer is Senior Researcher in International Relations und Mediterranean Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de