Winds of change continue to blow across the Arab world. The spark for this change began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 in protest against the indignities he endured as a produce seller on the street in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid. His subsequent death in January 2011 and a popular uprising led to the fall of the corrupt regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. History has been in the making across the region ever since, as the Arab Spring continues to inspire change and bring down regimes.

The reverberations of the uprising are felt daily in Tunisia. The cleansing of the state apparatus of former regime loyalists, the breakdown in security, and the shift of power from secular-leaning to Islamist movements are only a few of the conflict fault lines.

Tunisians’ joie de vivre and relatively liberal culture is being sorely tested since the October 2011 elections when the Islamist party Ennahda won a plurality of the seats. With two other nominally secular parties, Ennahda, which is openly supported by Qatar, took the dominant role in a coalition government called the troika.

Ever since, acrimonious and often violent verbal confrontations have erupted with opposition parties regularly accusing the troika and Ennahda of incompetence, corruption, and despotism. Meanwhile Ennahda strengthens its hold on power by replacing senior bureaucrats, local leaders, and security personnel with those sympathetic to the party.

The deteriorating atmosphere in recent months could lead to a breakdown in the transition to democracy with a new constitution expected in early 2013 and elections in June. However, little political will exists to reconcile differences and to ensure that a consensus is reached on the electoral process. Along the way, Ennahda is attempting to include in the new constitution provisions that are deeply worrisome to women’s organizations, human rights groups, and secular organizations.

Ennahda’s conservative social agenda and its tolerance of the excesses of the Salafist movement are traumatizing the considerable secular and liberal-minded sectors of Tunisian society. A clash of identities is being fought on the streets and in institutions throughout the country with Islamists assuming a growing public face after several decades of repression.

The increased numbers of women wearing the veil, increased harassment of unveiled young girls and women, introduction of more Islamic studies in schools and universities, harassment of artists and musicians, ransacking of hotels and bars, and pursuit of blasphemy cases are a few of the shifts that worry the secularists.

Citizens’ voices rising

In this environment the chances for a peaceful transition to democracy are being pushed to the limits.

But while the Salafists commit numerous aggressions across the country and the Constituent Assembly appears incapable of addressing critical economic and security issues, a newly flourishing civil society is bringing some hope in the struggle to defend the transition to democracy.

Everywhere, citizens have organized themselves into associations at the local and national levels. Thousands of new community-based groups are bringing positive change to their communities in health, education, economic development, entrepreneurship, and human rights, among other areas. Though new to the game of advocacy, they are quickly bringing the citizens’ voice to the political level.

As the struggle between secularists and Islamists intensifies in the lead-up to the next legislative elections, the civil society sector is mobilizing itself on many fronts. Women’s organizations have formed a national coalition to defend the rights they have fought for and gained over the past 50 years. Secular groups established a coalition for tolerance and peace on Nov. 16 dedicated to a peaceful transition to democracy. Social justice organizations, including the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers, have mobilized in preparation for the World Social Forum, which is being hosted in Tunisia in March 2013.

Meanwhile, Islamist associations across the country are actively building their base, raising funds, and providing support to the poor.

Canada conspicuously absent

As the road to democracy plays out in Tunisia, the international community is pursing its own interests. The European Union, many of its individual member states, the Swiss, and the United States have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the country in an attempt to keep the democratic process on track, to promote economic development, and to strengthen citizens’ voices.

Since January 2011 more than $100 million alone has gone to initiatives to support the newly flourishing civil society.

However, despite a small contribution to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to support voter registration in Tunisia in 2011 and direct support to the transition government in Libya, Canada has been conspicuously absent in its support for civil society and democracy initiatives throughout the Arab world since the start of the Arab Spring. Even though the Canadian International Development Agency and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade claim democracy promotion as part of their core mandates, both have missed the opportunity for Canada to enhance its international reputation by actively supporting civil societies in this region.

Though not a guarantee, a flourishing civil society is a critical ingredient for peaceful transition to democracy. As the sector matures and learns to maintain its independence from political parties, it will become vital to ensuring that Tunisia does not plummet once again into dictatorship.

Canada and Canadians would regain our good reputation in the Arab world if both CIDA and DFAIT could find the means to support civil societies in their quest for democracy.

Opinion piece by NCCAR board member David Comerford which appeared Dec. 5th, 2012 in Embassy.