Tunisians lighting the path towards a new social contract

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“The moon is the same moon above you
Aglow with its cool evening light
but shining at night; in Tunisia
never does it shine so bright.”

~ Dizzy Gillespie, lyrics to Night in Tunisia

World Bank | Arne HoelIt was an immense spark of light – a flame – that engulfed desperation and oppression in Sidi Bouzid.   Making its way through the alleyways of Sousse, through the olive trees and along the ports of Sfax, and traversing through the streets of Meknassy, the light took hold of Tunisian cities in the same hot-blooded and fiery spirit as the Arabian horses that have roamed its land for centuries before. The light continued on its way along the coast of Monastir, and illuminated the alleyways of Sbikhi, and Chebba, until it cast its radiance on the heart of Tunis. 

Mohammad Bouazizi will never know that the light he lit in his small town of Sidi Bouzid was destined to be the source of his country’s own self-awakening; his spoken words fell largely on unheeding ears.  Yet Bouazizi’s actions spoke louder and signaled the deep discontentment that has taken root in many countries in the region over the past decades.  In the words of Abou Kacem Echebbi, one of Tunisia’s most famous poets, “if one day, a people desire to live, then fate will answer their call. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall…” Indeed, we are witnessing this phenomenon today, when the will of the masses has placed Tunisia on a historic trajectory towards greater social justice and a better quality of life for its people. 

Throughout the Arab world, I hear mention of a new social contract being shaped – an implicit agreement of mutual consent laying out the ground rules for corresponding duties of citizens and the government. One of Tunisia’s new foundations is the acknowledgment of the right to information, expressed through the adopted of an Access to Information law in May 2011.  Attending a recent seminar held in Tunis designed to raise awareness on thenew obligations of the public administration and civil society in this regard is an example of how this dialogue is taking shape.Indeed, the passing of the Access to Information law is a monumental step in the right direction in an effort to shed light on the webs of corruption and discretion that has plagued Tunisian livelihood in the past.  As they say – ‘light is the best disinfectant.’ 

Yet, what is more fascinating is another type of contract – the duty of society to itself.  Even in the midst of a post-revolution, Tunisian institutions are still functioning, well founded on the pillars of dignity and mutual respect that is engrained deep in the country’s social fabric.  Reaffirming the spirit of the revolution are the words I heard recently during my visit to Tunis – “it is not the force of law that will change us – we will change ourselves.”  In this historic time in Tunisia’s history, it is ultimately the will of its people that will guide its path forward. In the context of the right to information, it is as much the demand side as it is the supply that will ensure the successful implementation of the new law.  The force of light in Tunisia is its people and in the words of Dizzie Gillespie, ‘never does it shine so bright.’

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