How will 2019 fit into the story of Tunisia's democratic development?

Tunisians go to the polls on Sunday for the second democratic presidential election in the country’s modern history. What will they be thinking about as they cast their ballots? Jobs? Human rights? Pollution? How will these and other priorities reshape the political landscape in the months and years to come, as the country navigates the choppy waters of economic stagnation and more stringent popular demands for elected leaders to deliver? And how do those leaders—from the president all the way down—actually realize the promises they make during election season?

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The answers to these questions are relevant not just to the people of Tunisia—the birthplace of the Arab Spring—but for small-‘d’ democrats across the region who look to the country for hope and guidance. In the newest episode of the DemWorks podcast, Leo Spaans, our country director in Tunisia, and Les Campbell, NDI regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, try to provide some answers.

Les Campbell: Hello all, my name is Les Campbell. I'm senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute. I'll be your host for this DemWorks podcast. It's no secret democracy faces substantial challenges around the world. But while the challenges are great, we at NDI believe the opportunities are even greater. For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small-‘d’ democrats around the world to help countries develop democratic institutions, practices and skills necessary for success. Over that period, we've worked in more than 150 countries. Through our DemWorks podcasts and videos, we’re engaging in conversation with those who have been on the frontlines of democratic development work around the world. They'll share what they do, how they do it, their on-the-ground experiences, the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, and the unique national contexts in which they must operate—and in the process, show how democracy works.

This month, NDI is exploring the role of youth in politics: how they are engaging differently online and outside of traditional institutions, the change that youth are making in their communities, and how they're organizing across the world—in many ways without borders.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 were in many ways a beginning, not an end. I bring up the Arab uprisings of 2011 because they were driven by youth. Far from marking the end of activism from young people around the Arab world, the uprisings of 2011 marked the beginning of an era of change, and of changed demands. Young people in the Arab world are no longer content to be ruled by autocrats. They're voicing their desire to join the rest of the world, and they want to leave behind old fashioned, backwards state-run economies and escape the bonds of censorship and repression. Well, many of their demands were met after the uprisings of 2011, notably in Tunisia and to a lesser extent in Morocco and Jordan. In 2019, young people are back on the streets, and this time their voices are as strong—perhaps even stronger. From Algeria to Sudan, and many countries in-between, the streets are seething. But there are also a number of quiet initiatives, including a number of those that are implemented by NDI that we'll talk about today, that give voice and power to youth.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I'm the director at NDI for the Middle East and North Africa, and I'll talk about my experiences around the region. But I'm joined in this conversation by Leo Spaans, NDI’s resident director in Tunisia. Leo's worked for NDI since 2003. He was resident director of our programs in Haiti, Mozambique and Malawi. Before joining NDI, Leo worked as a consultant, and helped the Mozambican government and non-government organisations implement public sector reform. I'll just mention before I formally welcome Leo that Leo is one of a great many people at NDI who is a non-American, who brings in this case a European experience and context and sensibility to our work. Leo, welcome.

Leo Spaans: Thank you, Les.

Les: So, today we're going to talk about a couple of things. We'll try to fit it all in, and in a reasonable period of time. Some huge issues we're going to talk about. Youth: that's the focus of our talks over the next little while, and especially the youth role in demanding change across the Middle East. But Leo, because we have so much experience in the region—and we've been watching for these years, especially since 2011, what's going on in the region—we're going to just give our take on what's happening right now in the region, kind of a blow-by-blow in some ways, country by country, and then after that we're going to come back to Tunisia. In fact, Leo is literally off the plane this afternoon. He drove straight from Dulles to be on this podcast, straight from Tunisia. So, what he has to say is hot off the presses. He's in Washington this week to participate in a number of meetings with think tanks and so on, analyzing what's going on in Tunisia. So we're going to take advantage of [his being here] to do sort of a deep dive into Tunisia, as well as look at the region.

First, on youth. Why do we end up talking about youth in the Middle East, often interchangeably? We're not the only people doing that. A lot of people do that. Well, in many countries of the Middle East, youth comprise almost 60% of the population. Unemployment in a number of countries—for example Algeria, which we’ll talk about in a second—youth unemployment is often as high as 30 percent. With such high unemployment and limited economic opportunity, the region is sitting on a powder keg of high expectations. How is that manifesting itself? Well, what we've seen lately is a re-emergence of the same kinds of demands for dignity, for change. The same kind of unhappiness that we saw in 2008, 2009, 2010 and then finally 2011. I mentioned all those years before 2011 because there were a number of smaller protests across the region prior to the Arab Spring (or Arab uprising of 2011), and then by 2010 there were a series of stolen elections, of corruption scandals. Those who followed the news then may remember that the WikiLeaks leak of a number of State Department cables uncovered all sorts of—for example in Tunisia—incredible corruption that the US Embassy had noticed among the ruling class in Tunisia, the former president of Tunisia Ben Ali. By 2010, 2011, people in the region had seen stolen elections, incredible corruption, and they were just sick and tired of it. And they hit the streets.

We're seeing somewhat of a repeat right now, of the same type of phenomena. Where in Algeria, we're now in several months of regular protests—every Friday, hundreds of thousands of people on the street in Algeria. Many of us had thought that Algeria was a country that maybe avoided some of the excesses of the 2011 Arab Spring. But in Algeria, more than 70% (7-0 percent) of people are under the age of 30. And Algeria has, other than oil, no economy to speak of. There are only so many people that can work in the public sector. People are just demanding. Young people don't know what their future is in Algeria, so they're on the streets looking for something new. In Sudan, it's not a country that I particularly work on. It falls within the Africa division here at NDI. But the issues are very similar. In Khartoum (in Sudan) the young people on the streets managed to get Omar Al-Bashir, the authoritarian president, to quit. But his replacement so far is not necessarily much better. The people on the streets haven't given up. They're pushing for much more change in Sudan.

But it's not just Sudan and Algeria. Those are high-profile cases, where you get pictures at least every week of hundreds of thousands of people marching. There are important but less obvious things going on in the region. For example, in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is squandering a reported forty-five billion dollars on building a new capital city that no one is quite sure is needed, and there's a deep level of unhappiness in Egypt that public funds aren’t being spent to improve people's lives. I happened to be in Jordan in February when this happened: hundreds of people walked 120 miles from the southern city of [Aqaba] to the capital Amman in Jordan to demand an end to corruption and demand new jobs. It's significant because 120 miles is a long walk. But it happened to coincide with a record cold streak in Jordan, and snow and rain, which is uncommon there. But people persisted, and slept outside in temperatures that were below freezing at night, to do this protest in front of the Royal Court. Which again for those that follow the Middle East, this is abnormal.

In Morocco, typically a very quiet country, a great place. A lot of people like Morocco. But thousands of teachers and their supporters have been converging on the capital city of Rabat (in Morocco) for several months, demanding better pay and benefits, but also chanting for “the end of dictatorship.” It's a little shocking for Morocco. Most people don't see Morocco as a dictatorship, and it really isn't. But it does show that people have had it. The teachers don't get paid enough even to live on, and I think they see corruption in the government, and they see a king for example who's perceived to be out of touch. There have been in Morocco for years now demonstrations in the northern regions of Morocco, typically underdeveloped, away from the capital, away from Casablanca. They don't have the same economic opportunities in the northern part of Morocco and they've seen a lot of protests. I won't go through the entire list. There are many more of this. There are even signs of unrest in Saudi Arabia, where almost every significant woman activist was arrested and put in jail for demanding more rights. Some of the women who were instrumental in convincing the king of Saudi Arabia to give women the right to drive vehicles by themselves found themselves a few months later in jail because the Saudi government can't stand any kind of challenge. Bahrain has had a long-simmering sectarian dispute. Every single opposition party in Bahrain has been outlawed, and people are also on the streets. They're protesting.

The Middle East is not quite what it was in 2011 in terms of the very huge protests that we saw in Syria, in Yemen and Libya which led to the overthrow of a series of long-serving presidents and dictators. I'm not arguing that we're at that stage again. But my argument is that what happened in 2011 was the beginning, not the end. It's not over. These demands, the unhappiness, the lack of opportunity, especially this youth bulge of 60, 70 percent of the population trusting their governments to make things better but then not seeing results, is almost inevitably going to lead to another series of revolts and uprisings. I want to come back to that point in a second, and make a point about the importance of democracy versus autocracy or dictatorship. But before I do that, I've kind of set this up Leo as maybe too dire. I'm not sure that's how I see the region. But most people see Tunisia somewhat differently.

Q: Almost nothing that I said really applies exactly to Tunisia, because it's a country that has decided to go down a path of democracy and more openness, and it has an elected government that I assume is trying to respond to these things. But, just listening to my characterization of the region, how does Tunisia fit into that? Am I overdoing it, or is Tunisia really an exception to everything I just said?

Leo: Thanks Les, for giving that regional overview. Indeed, comparing what's happening now in Tunisia, I think there is still reason for some optimism. There seems to be some realism also in Tunisia, that people really want to construct a new society, and use the democratic tools. We have been lucky recently, by the passing of a decentralization law that really gives a new kind of dynamic at the base, at a grass-roots level. That's really something that citizens now hope can be a new approach to build and use the democratic institutions, and have a dialogue with their politicians. But nevertheless, there are signals to worry as well. Demonstrations are taking place also in Tunisia. People are demonstrating against higher prices, of course. People are no longer talking about a loss of purchase power, but they start talking about poverty. In our recent focus group discussions, poverty is a word being used more and more, and that's new. So yeah, there is definitely reason for concern if you do look at young people. Of course, it was a young guy in 2010 that set himself on fire, and that set off the whole Arabic Spring.

Les: Mohamed Bouazizi was his name, right?

Leo: Right. A dramatic event, of course. What you see is young people are starting to disengage from politics. They don't have trust anymore in the political system, or you could also say that perhaps they still have trust in the system, but they don't think that their politicians are using the system in the right way. That means something for us, of course. What can we do with these politicians to respond more to what people expect from them? Our focus group discussions with people give us real good insights. People do want politicians to come to them, to come into the region, to discuss new laws, to get a sense of what people want, to respond to that. So there are possibilities to remain interacting with politics. But overall, there is a growing disinterest absolutely also in Tunisia. What is working very well is having young people engaging with parliament through an internship program. There, we see that that gives young people the chance to start with taking minutes, but then they are studying pieces of legislation, they're writing amendments, and they are getting engaged with the whole political work that's being done. That's the kind of engagement that I think is very positive, because while they are doing work it's also kind of civic engagement of young people, and getting them involved in politics. So, a mixed picture, and we are going to have elections. We will speak about that a little bit later, perhaps.

Les: Well actually, I was just going to jump in before you go onto that too, because we will definitely talk about Tunisian elections which are coming up at the end of this year. But you mentioned a couple things that I thought probably are worth going in more detail about, but also you mentioned a couple things that NDI does. I'm sure some of the people listening to this are just saying: “What exactly does NDI do? The National Democratic Institute, what is that exactly?” You mentioned right off the top a couple things that are interesting.

One, as you mentioned focus groups—and I should say that one of the activities that we can often bring to a country is to help measure public opinion. Why? Not because—we don't have any vested interest in what the public opinion is, but we use that to bring that information to politicians and government leaders in a lot of the developing countries that we work in—for example, Tunisia. Political leaders don't have ready access to what people are thinking, or at least scientific information on what they're thinking. Leo was mentioning that NDI is able to conduct professional, proper public opinion research, including focus groups. Get information on people's priorities, what they'd like to see in their town, their village, in their household, and then bring that objective information—because we don't have a dog in the fight—basically bring that objective information to the politicians and the political parties and say: “Hey, here are some things that you should think about in terms of policy.” Or to parliamentarians and say: “As you're thinking about new laws, here are citizens’ priorities.” So that's one of the reasons that Leo has mentioned focus groups.

Also, Leo—and maybe you can expand on this, too—you talked about decentralization. I was mentioning in Morocco—next door to Tunisia, obviously—that parts of Morocco are doing pretty well. The capital city's pretty good. I mean, it's a nice place, Rabat. A lot of jobs (government jobs). The coastal cities, some of the resort cities. For example, Marrakesh, on the coast. It's in the desert but it does pretty well, gets a ton of French tourists, but there are a lot of parts of Morocco, in the interior and certain parts of the coast that are remote, that don't have government jobs, and so on. They're really suffering, and so people are very disaffected.

Q: I think Tunisia is the same way, right? The coast, in the capital city, probably not so terrible. But maybe other parts of the country are doing poorly. Is that the case?

Leo: Yeah, that's absolutely true. And it's not only because the coast is attracting tourism, but also historically that's the domain of the former presidents, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Those areas on the coast, that they call the Sahel, were historically favored. In the inner part of the country, the situation is far more difficult. That's also one of our objectives: to politically engage citizens, and politicians more in interacting with their voters and their citizens inside of the country, to try to get the economy going. Because I'm making a link between these de-favorised parts of the country and those focus group discussions. Time and again, priority number one is the economy—get the economy going. Try to get us jobs, and help people get a decent income and access to basic services. That's one of the difficult things I think also in our kind of work. That if you look at what we have been able to achieve in Tunisia, getting institutions well-organised. Parliament is decently functioning, political parties are trying to get their work done. But if it's about sectoral work, how do you get the economy going? How do we get water to households? How do you work on sanitation? And other topics. That's something that politicians don't have the knowledge for, so we try also to help them to get access to knowledge. In our most recent programs, we have observed that we should perhaps not only invest in the top of the system, not only in the top of parliament, and the top of political parties but also make this connection with the local level, and with citizens. Try to connect citizens, civil society organizations with specific knowledge on environmental issues, on economic issues, that know about value chains, that can help the economy get going. To make that link between politicians and this knowledge. Because knowledge development is a very important thing. I think that's what we're trying to realize in our current programs.

Les: Yeah, I was going to jump in there to say that you've also mentioned two things that are maybe—when people think of NDI or think of democracy assistance, or what an organization might be doing abroad to try to encourage more democracy—they may not think of right away. Things like decentralization or economic development. But at NDI, we’re thinking about that a lot. You've mentioned decentralization a number of times, and working at the local level. I should mention that we don't have an ideological taste for decentralization. Again, as an organization, we're not here to tell people what to do or what they should believe in. But we're talking about decentralization as it relates to getting more people involved. If you're living out in a region that's being ignored by the center, you think that politics don't matter. The politicians don't care. The best thing you can do from our experience is to move some services, move some responsibilities out to the regions. Give them the ability to spend some public money, raise some tax money, allow local people to set priorities, meet, have a local council that's empowered to make decisions. When you do that, we found that people become better citizens, they become more engaged, they don't just sit out where they live and look at the center and criticize the center. They realize that they can take some control of their own destiny. Decentralization is something that can really benefit the overall health of democracy.

Leo, I might just get you to address something else more, which is the economy and economic development, because that's important too. One of the criticisms that I hear of democracy work is—when I tell people what I do, and that I do it in the Middle East, first of all, some people express skepticism about that. I think they're wrong and I'll talk about that in a minute, about democracy in the Middle East. But the second thing people say is: “Well, people don't want democracy. They want to eat. They want a job.” And we agree with that, I think. I'll get you to talk about that in a second. I think we definitely agree that people want a job, but I think they want a job and they want the ability to have some control over their lives. I think they want both. But I think perhaps years ago we were remiss in not being as cognizant or as thoughtful about the economy as we should have been, because of course it's true that you can have democracy but if people can’t eat, or they don't have jobs, they will become disaffected.

Q: But if you have a couple of examples, maybe of things that are going on in Tunisia that NDI is doing or that you're seeing that are sort of combining these two things—democracy and economic development. How do you think about that? Or, is there something that can be done to make that work better together?

Leo: Thanks for that question, Les. At this very moment, we are reaching out to the local branches of political parties to ask them the question: “What are the things that you would like to work on? What do your citizens now find important?” And again, for them the economy is number one, and environmental issues—that's number two. Environmental issues means in this case access to clean water, and waste management, in reality. We’re just starting to explore now what could we do with these local branches and their communities in the domain of economy, and one of the very concrete things that's coming up now is that people want to have access in their community to wifi in particular spots in town, to get better communication, about market prices could be the case, but could also be other topics. So we see there that dialogue with the political branches—

Les: —Wifi. I think I'm just realizing you said “we-fee.” We typically say “wifi.” Just in case people are wondering exactly what that term is.

Leo: Ah, yeah. Thank you. Yes, that’s the French.

Les: It actually looks like “we-fee” when you think about it. When you see it written. I thought I’d throw that in there.

Leo: Right, right. So, information and communication are very important also for businessmen to set up their businesses, to know the market prices, and wifi could help there. Another thing is to get people more connected to their property. Land rights are something that is very much lacking. A deed on your property. That's something that, not only in Tunisia but in the underdeveloped world—if that's not well-organized, people don't get loans. It's for women also very difficult to get access to money and to enterprise. Those are two topics that people started to work on. We also expect that people want to invest some time and energy in the development of particular value chains in the agriculture. There is a huge potential in Tunisia to get that going. Those are a few examples of what we are working on, in dialogue with politicians and citizens.

Les: Those are great examples, thanks. You know, when you mention some of these economic issues for Tunisia it reminds me of the incredible potential of North Africa. That if ever the countries of North Africa could become truly functioning democracies, and also start to cooperate more with each other—a lot of people may not know that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are not exactly friendly with each other. Some less friendly than others. There are historical fights and border disputes and so on. But I always think of it this way. If you took Tunisia: it’s got incredible human potential, great population, good education system (especially for the region, very good education system compared to other countries in the region), motivated people, homogeneous country with people who are willing to work together. If you combine that with Algeria's natural resources—they have minerals, they have oil (Tunisia actually doesn't have very many natural resources)—and you put that together with the incredible, phenomenal geographical beauty of Morocco and Tunisia to some extent, the Roman ruins and the tourism, the agriculture—

Leo: The cultural heritage.

Les: —Tunisia is an incredibly productive agricultural place that could probably feed the entire region. So, if you ever had even those three countries—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia—all behaving democratically, all cooperating, you would have a really prosperous place. Democracy is not just a word. It's not just some sort of thing. It's not people just voting in elections. That might in some ways be one of the least important things. It's also about working together. Having systems of accountability. Being able to cooperate with other countries. Being able to manage disputes. And so on. I just mentioned that again because we throw this word “democracy” around a lot, but it's much more than voting or political parties (although that's part of it). I wanted to just also go off on a slightly different tangent, which is: I've said politics, democracy in the Middle East—just as in most of the world right now—political party is kind of a dirty word. Politics is kind of a dirty word. Parliament is not a particularly great word. We do public opinion research, as I mentioned. We find that throughout the region, political institutions are held in low regard. This is not unique to the Middle East. It's exactly the same in Washington, and most places right now. But we're trying to engage more young people in politics. We think that's important. It's part of the answer. But they don't react very well if you say: “Join a political party.” In Tunisia—you can confirm if I'm right—but I think most young people don't think of a political party: “We're running for parliament,” necessarily as the answer.

Leo: Is that the dream? No, no.

Les: Kind of the opposite, right? They want to get rich and have a good job, probably in the private sector. Would that be more of a common dream? One thing NDI has done is develop a number of new models for youth participation. We don't do this in Tunisia but in a couple of other places. Jordan, which is also a country—like Tunisia, like Morocco—which is slowly liberalizing, trying to be more free, a little bit, slowly moving toward a more free model. But with a program there that we call “Ana Usharek”, an Arabic word. Ana Usharek, which means “I participate” in Arabic. “I participate.” It's a model that right now encompasses more than 35 universities and dozens and dozens of high schools, and it's basically a civic education program that teaches people, teaches students at high school and university the idea of participating, of being citizens, of what it takes, not just what you get but also your responsibilities, and goes in depth into the meanings of all these democratic structures, and so on. But then it goes further. There's something called Ana Usharek+ which then encourages young people to put together projects and advocacy programs to actually change things in their local community, in their school, in their community. It goes further, it gets them to interact with elected members, have town halls and so on. We sponsor national debate programs where they debate issues with other students. And we've exported this model of youth engagement, “I Engage,” Ana Usharek, also now to Morocco, particularly in some of the underserved areas of Morocco, the more marginal areas outside the capital. In Morocco, we call it “Ayju Charku” which is actually the Moroccan Arabic version of the same thing. We do something similar in western Iraq, in the Mosul area, in the newly liberated areas from ISIS. And we've been doing something similar in Syria for years, including in Raqqa province which was recently liberated from ISIS as well. It's a way of engaging young people in the future, but not necessarily through parties or through politics because those are dirty words. I just mentioned all this because I think you have to sometimes be creative, you know? You can't force people to engage in a way they're not going to engage. But just before we end this, I wanted to make one other broad point about the region. Before I move on, Leo, I just wondered if you had any more to add on the question of youth, and in Tunisia.

Q: We have talked about their alienation, but do you see programs—either NDI or doesn't have to be NDI, other organizations—doing something that you think is creative or interesting to get young people engaged, even if it's not necessarily with parties or parliaments?

Leo: Well, I think many people are stressing in all the countries where we work that civic education should be should be done more. I don't see that happening much, actually. But I'm also asking myself the question, there: To what degree are we influencing also government to invest more in creating a good basis for good citizenship, because it's not only the international organizations that should do that. I think the government needs also stimulus there, and that's something that I want to look into also in the country where we are working. What I find interesting about what you tell about this program in Jordan with civil society is there is a big hesitancy indeed to advise political parties on particular topics. Citizens want to stay away indeed, and one of the things we try now to do—and we have chosen for the entry point of working with local branches of parties—is get that engagement with young people. We do it through the political branches, and see if we can destroy that barrier that now exists between politics and the civic actors that want to work for the same objectives. We have seen good results there in the area of sustainable development, where civic organizations have concretely advised and accompanied politicians, young people, elder people. So, I do hope that that mistrust of politics—that we can create a few examples where that's not valid, and where people really want to invest in their politicians with the knowledge that they have as civic actors.

Les: That's great. I really think this is the future. I mean, I've been working on democracy issues in the Middle East for more than 25 years, and there's been a lot of progress. Some people don't think so. There has actually been an incredible amount of progress across the region. The number of (for example) the number of women in politics has gone up exponentially. The number of free elections has gone up incredibly. The international election observers are now welcomed in virtually every country. Not every country, but most countries of the region. There are now elected local governments. When I started 25 years ago, there were no elected local governments to speak of in the entire region. There are now independent election commissions in six or seven of the countries in the region. So it's been a lot of progress, but there have also been tremendous failures, and I think when most people think of the region they think of the failures, the conflicts: Syria, Libya, Yemen, maybe Egypt. It's not in conflict right now but you saw the spectacular fall of Mubarak. I'll just make one point on that, and then I want to give you the last word on the Tunisian elections which are coming up at the end of the year. But just to make one point, I find that when people look at the region they often look at the problem areas, where there are conflicts—as I say, Libya, Syria—and say: “Well, it's hopeless.” These countries are in conflict.

But I'd like to challenge the listeners to look at the region a little differently. Say, in the countries that we've talked mostly about today: Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan. Three great examples right there. I'd probably throw Lebanon in this as well. Countries where there's been a sustained attempt over many years to be more open, to try to make progress, to give people more freedom, to elect democratic institutions, to decentralize, to have local councils and so on. These countries have not degenerated into conflict. They've in fact survived all these years of upheaval in the region. They're not perfect countries by any stretch of the imagination. Not full democracies by any stretch. But they've survived, and they're moving on. What's interesting to me is that the countries where they made zero attempt at any openness, didn't allow any freedom whatsoever, that were run by complete dictators—and I'm thinking of examples as I mentioned: Libya, Syria, I probably will put Yemen in this although there were some attempts there. These countries were fragile and in brittle condition, and they broke down, and when people made demands the country collapsed. Libya and Syria collapsed into chaos, basically. And there was no one left to pick up the pieces. There was no one left. Libya, you know by definition—no one in Libya had any experience in an elected institution, or with local government, or anything else. There was nothing like that in Libya, and really nothing to speak of in Syria either. So, just a little food for thought.

Even if what's going on in the region is not perfect, even if it's going to require many many more years—probably decades—some reform is better than no reform. The countries that have embarked on some sort of path, reward more openness, are much more resilient than the dictatorships. So when I hear people say “You know what we need in the Middle East are dictators,” I get quite upset about that, because we've seen what dictators bring. They bring war and chaos and conflict. And we see what democracy brings, even if it's limited. It brings more progress, and in a peaceful way. So I'll leave it at that. We're running out of time. For those people that do follow Tunisia a little bit—and I'm sure there are some people listening that do—they'll know that there will be both presidential and parliamentary elections in Tunisia this fall. We don't want to get too far in the weeds, and get into all the names and acronyms and parties and blah-blah-blah.

Q: But what do you see happening this fall? For example, there's an Islamist alternative in Tunisia, a moderate Islamist alternative. Will they do well? Will the secular parties do well? Do you see any big changes coming? What's your short take on what happens in October this year?

Leo: Yeah, thanks. I think it will be very, very interesting elections. In particular the presidential ones. What we see indeed is the Islamist party—moderate Islamist party—is well-organized. Compliments to them for that. They might be very successful. They might be even more successful than they would wish for themselves, because that would give them a lot of responsibility. The Egypt example is always a little bit concerning also to them. So that's a scenario. Could Ennahdha be a majority party at some point, even in the parliamentary elections, and what scenario would that bring? Again, a coalition government to keep them moderate? But that's something that the population will not like so much. People are a little bit tired of consensus politics. They are indeed looking for a strong person. A strong party that will make decisions, and will bring the change that they are waiting for.

Les: You’re really seeing that around the world, aren't you?

Leo: Very much, very much.

Les: I mean, it's every country pretty much.

Leo: And jokingly, I would also say, Les, we should include in our programs also “management of expectations,” of people. If there is a revolution, because people expect results too quickly—and quite rightly so—but it definitely does take time. So a scenario could be the moderate Islamist party being successful. Which could be a big chance, because the secular party is breaking up now. That could be two different parties, that could set up a liaison with other centrist parties, and they could get at a majority. That could offer another scenario. And a third thought here is that populism is also something that's getting more and more traction. What does that look like in Tunisia, populism? Well, support for an owner of a media station, a television station who unfortunately lost his son, and he has created the charity in the name of his son. He is doing great things for the people, but there is also the criticism that he's using the poverty of people to enlarge his own image. He also has had some criticism on tax evasion. So, whether he's really completely as charitable as he wants to pretend—that's still to be seen. That's a tendency that could appeal to quite a lot of people. And the last tendency is that there is a lady in the game who has always opposed herself to the revolution, and wants to kill the revolution you could say, would like to go back to the strongman, and the politics of the strongman in the past. So, these are all scenarios that could play out in the coming elections.

Les: I even saw an article recently, Ben Ali being quoted from Saudi Arabia that he'll be coming back.

Leo: Yeah, yeah. Not ill at all.

Les: He's 82 or 83 or something. He says he's in perfect health. So, Tunisia is a beacon of hope and things are going well in some ways. But a lot of worrying tendencies as well. And as you said, expectations. Unrealistically high expectations are a big problem. Again, I don't think Tunisia is special in this regard. I think around the world people expect a lot, and they're not necessarily willing to give a lot. They're looking for magical answers, as you're saying populism. I think so many countries—including this country—people are looking to blame others for their problems. They're not necessarily willing to be as realistic I think maybe as we'd like them to be. Tunisia is not immune from the trends around the world, I think. Well, we'll wrap up there. I just want to thank Leo again for jumping right off the transatlantic flight.

Leo: Thank you so much.

Les: Not just the transatlantic flight, but a long flight from Tunisia to Europe and Europe, here, and so on. But thanks so much. Leo really represents I think what NDI likes to do in the field. He's a fluent French speaker, which is the language of the capital, of politics in Tunisia. He brings his experience from Europe, and has some context there. But he's also worked in the developing world for probably almost two decades now. So it's really a great combination of experiences.

Thanks again, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. If you haven't already done this, you can subscribe to NDI’s podcasts on iTunes and Spotify. If you're already a subscriber, thank you, and please rate and review DemWorks so more people can find and enjoy it. Share DemWorks—both our podcasts and our videos—on social media to amplify the voice of democracy heroes around the world. For more details about NDI, its work—including our new 35th anniversary report, fresh off the presses (I'm not sure you can say that when it's an electronic document. Maybe not off the presses, but it's fresh off someone's computer)—go to And while you're there, sign up for NDI’s monthly newsletter, which I will plug and say is pretty good, because the NDI MENA team does a lot of good stories on there. I'm Les Campbell. This has been DemWorks. Thanks for listening.