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Tunisians To Choose New Leader After 1st Democratically Elected President Dies


Tunisia said goodbye to its first democratically elected president over the weekend. President Beji Caid Essebsi died last week at the age of 92. He had helped the North African country transition to democracy after it erupted in protests during the 2011 Arab Spring. Immediately after Essebsi's death, the Tunisian parliament named its speaker Mohamed Ennaceur interim president.

Now experts are keeping a close eye on the country as Tunisians prepare to elect a new leader in September. One of those experts is Sarah Yerkes. She's a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and she's here in our studio to talk about what the future looks like for Tunisia and the region.


SARAH YERKES: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So remind us of the history of how Tunisia became the start of this spread of protests across the region that became known as the Arab Spring.

YERKES: So Tunisia started it all. There was a person, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire. He was angry with the government. He started the whole revolution, which then eventually spread to Egypt. And we had this phenomenon called the Arab Spring, where a lot of countries - the people realized they had power. They saw in Tunisia, they unseated a dictator who had been in power for 30 years. The same thing happened in Egypt. And people thought, why not try it here, too? But Tunisia is now the last man standing. The rest of the countries did not result in democratic change.

SHAPIRO: I mean, some of them went down into a horrific civil war, like Syria, I mean, Yemen. These countries are so much worse off. How significant was Essebsi in steering Tunisia towards a more peaceful path?

YERKES: Essebsi was really crucial. He and another leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who's the head of the Islamist party Ennahda (ph) - the two of them are really the godfathers of the Tunisian transition. They decided to put the country ahead of their own political ambitions when things started to go off the rails in 2012, 2013. Their assassinations - they decided, you know what? We're going to come together despite our, really, dislike for each other. We're going to make sure that Tunisia stays on track.

SHAPIRO: There's a popular narrative that Tunisia is the only country to have emerged from the Arab Spring better off. I have a friend there who is a human rights lawyer, and he told me there were no human rights lawyers before 2011 in this country. But you write that narrative that the country is better off now is not necessarily entirely true. Explain.

YERKES: Sure. The economy, which is actually what led the Arab Spring to start in the first place, is worse than it was back in 2010, 2011. Young people, in particular, face high levels of unemployment. University graduates - almost a third of them are unemployed. So things are not looking so great when you look at economics. Politically, it's doing wonderfully. On the economic front, it's actually not. Things are worse than before.

SHAPIRO: Another interesting way to measure Tunisia's success, or lack thereof, is the number of people who are just fleeing the country by sea.

YERKES: Right. Exactly. Tunisia was the No. 1 contributor of migrants to Italy - Tunisians, not people from sub-Saharan Africa going through Tunisia. So this is another big issue. You have brain drain. You have - the suicide rate has almost doubled. All these show that people are frustrated. They're angry. They're not seeing the change they thought democracy would bring them or they thought the revolution would bring them.

SHAPIRO: And a poor economy, youth unemployment - these things can lead to protests, can lead to more political turmoil. What does the future look like for Tunisia? What are you going to be watching as it goes through this government transition?

YERKES: So this transition has been smooth so far, but they're going to have to do elections on a really short schedule. They only have seven weeks to pull off presidential elections. That's not a lot of time. This is a crucial test for Tunisia to see how the democracy can actually move forward. Are they able to keep up with the constitution, to keep up with the procedures that are in place?

But people are watching. They're angry. They're frustrated. They want this government to bring them actual, real change - real change to their pocketbooks. And I'm not sure they're going to be able to do that on the timeline that people want.

SHAPIRO: Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you for joining us today.

YERKES: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.