International symposium on Democratic Transition
Tunisia: An Arab exception?
This week the Institute, in partnership with the Council of Arab-Australian Relations (DFAT), hosted an international symposium, ‘An Arab Exception? The Role of Civil Society in Tunisia’s Democratic Transition’, and a complementary workshop on civil society, women and democracy.
“Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, is the only country where any kind of democratic blossoming has eventuated. And the recent experience of Arab countries – from the military’s return to power in Egypt to Syria’s and Libya’s descent into the chaos of bloody civil war and the rise of ISIS – makes the exploration of Tunisia’s experience all the more important”, said Professor Fethi Mansouri, the UNESCO Chair on Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation’s Director and host of the Symposium.
Whether or not Tunisia is an Arab Exception was a question that ensured a wide-range of attendees from internationally-leading academics to social activists at Deakin University’s Melbourne City Centre for the full-day symposium on Monday. Attendees included four prominent Tunisian researchers who presented at the symposium; Professor Raoudha Ben Othman from the University of Tunis, Professor Najet Mchala from the University of Carthage, Assistant Professor Lamia Benyoussef from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Ines Amri the founder of Tunisian civil society organisation Volonté et Citoyenneté and a documentary maker.
In setting the scene for the presentations and discussions Professor Mansouri contextualised the rapid and substantial changes which have taken place within Tunisia and urged researchers to be mindful as the public space remains highly contested and that much work needs to be done to understand the evolving discursive dimensions.
“The Symposium facilitated a detailed examination of Tunisia, the challenges of pursuing democratic reform in a volatile region, and engaging debate between participants,” Professor Mansouri said.
This included a robust debate about the role of women and the ability to make comparisons between Tunisia and its neighbours; as well as difficulties in negotiating transnational justice, an issue which participants highlighted as lacking consensus in Tunisia, the feelings of alienation and exclusion amongst youth activists from their inability to inform key decisions, and Tunisia as an inspiration to other African countries.
“I’m sorry to sound a bit negative,” said Professor Raoudha Ben Othman, “but when we look at the situation in Tunisia we cannot really worry whether we are an inspiration or not. We want to fix the situation so badly and when I hear all these young people, they don’t mind that the democratic transition will take time. What they really mind is that democratic transition goes in the right direction and especially that we go along all the way without stopping at a form of democracy that is not apt to their aspirations.”
The Symposium was complemented by an engaging workshop held the following day, ‘Civil Society, Women and Democracy’, wherein the four visiting Tunisian researchers explored with participants the role of women and civil society in democratic transitions in Arab societies. Attend by staff and students at Deakin University, the workshop fostered vigorous discussion and wonderful insight as each of the visiting researchers shared their personal experiences of the Tunisian revolution. Papers presented at the symposium will be developed further for publication in high-impact publishing outlet.
Photograph above from left: Ines Amri, Najet Mchala, Lamia Benyousef, Leila Ben Mcharek, Raoudha Ben Othman, Fethi Mansouri.