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Europe Cannot Afford to Let Tunisia Fail

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Having recently come back from a few days in Tunisia, meeting with the President, members of the major political parties and the youth who were so courageously at the forefront of the movement to topple the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali - it is clear that the eyes of the world are firmly fixed on Tunisia's journey to democracy.

Not only are fellow Arab Spring countries relying on Tunisia to be the post-revolution success story but those across the world - from the Gulf right through to the European Continent - need a positive outcome.

The early signs are good, but fundamental challenges remain and many, especially the Tunisian youth are growing increasingly impatient.

On the political front, Tunisia is progressing incredibly well. The President, Moncef Marzouki, is an impressive individual and gifted academic. As well as being a renowned human rights campaigner he has extensively studied post-Apartheid South Africa and Mahatma Ghandi's non-violent resistance movement. He clearly hasn't forgotten his roots, raising a smile when he introduced himself to our delegation by saying: "My name is Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist who happens to be the President of Tunisia."

His experience of the South African experience clearly shapes a lot of his philosophy and approach in shaping the new Tunisia. Adopting the principle of rainbow government and power sharing he is happy that there is an electoral system in place that is biased against majority government. He went one step further during our discussions and stated his preference that the same party should not be both the biggest in the Parliament and occupy the role of the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, Ennahda, Tunisia's main Islamic party was the big winner in the recent parliamentary elections gaining the most seats in the parliament. However, in the constitutional assembly, the body tasked with developing the country's new democratic constitution, there is a real sense of working consensually. Compromise is at the core of the discussions core and there is a fundamental understanding that this must be a constitution that carries the hopes and aspirations of all Tunisians not simply one or two factions.

Ennahda is also aware of the concerns many in the East and West have about an Islamic party, with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming the dominant force of Tunisian politics.

They have stated from the offset that they do not wish to include any reference to Sharia law in the new constitution and go as far as saying that they do not view the installation or implementation of Sharia law as a central aim of political Islam - a hugely significant shift in position.

However, for all the political progress being made we must remember that Mohamed Bouazizi did not only protest against a corrupt state regime but also as a street trader who was being crippled by the economic situation of the country. It is on the economic front that the country has stalled since the toppling of Ben Ali.

During our discussions the President put it well, saying "Freedom of expression and assembly are all good and well but you cannot eat them or sustain your family with them".

The Tunisian tourism industry has also evidently paid a heavy price for the revolution, even though it was short and compared to Egypt, Libya and currently Syria not nearly as bloody.

Our visit took place during the Easter break and our hotel was ghostly quiet most evenings. Every Government official we met highlighted how significant a priority this was for them.

Extending closer trade links and partnership with Europe was often stressed as was building upon relationships with Gulf states in addition to talk of creating a North African trading bloc.

However, it is important to remember the overwhelming majority of those now charged with improving Tunisia's economic situation have no experience in the complex role of running a country, government or political institutions. While this lack of political experience can often be refreshing it is clearly a risky strategy.

One political leader told us that of the 217 newly elected members only two had previously ever set foot inside the Parliament.

The country is being hailed as the post-revolution triumph, but there is a sense that toppling the dictator was the easy part. If the Arab Spring is to be successful we need Tunisia to perform economically and Europe has a key role to play - be this in relaxing trade barriers or promoting tourism.

This is especially important as other Arab Spring countries are having mixed success. Egypt's progress is moving at a snail's pace, with the military still being seen as far too dominant and trepidation growing over the increased strength of the Salafist movement. The Libyan National Council is struggling to keep control over the entire country with violence breaking out in the South and Syria and Bahrain continuing to brutally cracking down on any opposition.

Being the spark that lit the fuse of Democracy in the Arab Spring and having made great political and democratic strides means the hopes of an entire region are resting on the positive outcome of the Tunisian revolution. Right from the highest office of the President himself to market traders selling baklava in the narrow streets of the city souks, everyone feels the heavy weight of expectation on their shoulders.

The more significant the prize of success, so too the cost of failure. The political and economic impact of not succeeding will have a devastating impact not just across the region but will be a setback for democracy everywhere - for this reason alone Europe cannot afford to let Tunisia fail.

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