While the media are saturated with stories from Libya, we rarely hear what's happening in next-door Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.
That's too bad, because Tunisia is a far more important barometer of democracy's prospects in the region than Libya. Its positive attributes -- see below -- give it better odds than its neighbors to make democracy work.
Indeed, if Tunisia's experiment fails, there is far less hope for Libya, Egypt or Syria, let alone a stitched-together tribal state like Yemen. That's why it's important for Americans to watch developments in Tunis and help in any way we can.
"We have institutions which work, we have well-educated people and educated women," says Chema Gargouri, the dynamic president of the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, a nongovernmental organization that helps women start small businesses.
She points out that, unlike Libya, Tunisia is not a tribal society, and its institutions were not crushed by a former ruler. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia's population is small (10.5 million) and 90 percent literate, unburdened by a huge, uneducated rural population. Unlike Syria or Iraq, Tunisia is not plagued by sectarian divides; 99 percent of its people are Sunni Muslims.
But, as Gargouri is ready to concede, these Tunisian positives do not guarantee an easy transition to democracy. Although Tunisia is quiet and its beaches glorious, its crucial tourist industry collapsed in the wake of the revolution. Discontent is rising. Young Tunisians who expected immediate results -- and jobs -- from their revolution are growing impatient. Tunisian officials say there are 700,000 unemployed in the country, including 170,000 university graduates.
Elections for an assembly that will write a new constitution are set for October. But, unused to free politics, Tunisians have registered more than 90 political parties. This will split the vote of those who want a nonreligious state.
The faltering economy has boosted the previously banned (and well-funded) Islamist party, Al Nahda, which is expected to win 20 percent to 30 percent of the vote. This will give the Islamists substantial influence in writing the constitution.
But Gargouri insists Tunisia's educated women will not let their rights be taken away. "We say individuals matter, not just the umma (the collective Muslim community). Individuals are saying, 'We want to choose.' "
Let's hope she's correct. But to buy time for democratic institutions to develop, it is essential for the new Tunisian government to create more jobs and give young people hope for the future.
More U.S. attention can help.
Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia businessman with long ties to Tunisia, would like to see the Obama administration encourage U.S. companies to explore business prospects in Tunisia and help Tunisia develop its small-business sector, along with cultural tourism. More academic exchanges would also boost ties between the two countries.
After all, it's in America's interest (and Libya's, too) that the Tunisian experiment work. Tunisia started the Arab revolution. With its homogeneous population and educated middle class, it has the best prospect of providing a role model for the rest.
That's why we should listen to Chema Gargouri when she urges: "Don't forget Tunisia. We started this. If it doesn't work with 10 million Tunisians, with strong Tunisian women, it won't work in Egypt or elsewhere."