Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Protests Greet Tunisian Assembly

New parliament urged not to squander achievements of spring revolution.
By Ramy Jarboui
  • Protest against the outcome of the constitutional assembly election in Tunisia. October 25, 2011. (Photo: Freedom at Issue/Flickr)
    Protest against the outcome of the constitutional assembly election in Tunisia. October 25, 2011. (Photo: Freedom at Issue/Flickr)

Protestors gathered outside the first session of Tunisia’s newly-elected constitutional assembly this week, to remind politicians of the challenges that still face the country in its transition to democracy.

The crowds included families of people in the January uprising, as well as bloggers, activists and representatives of women’s groups concerned to ensure their rights are upheld by the 217-member council, which will spend a year drawing up a new constitution.

As the assembly opened on November 22, key posts in Tunisia’s new coalition government were announced. The Islamist party Ennahda, which won most seats in the recent election, gets the post of prime minister, which goes to its secretary general Hamadi Jbeli.

Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic party becomes president, a post that will carry much less weight than it had in the hands of ousted Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The Constituent Assembly itself will be chaired by Mustafa Ben Jaafar of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, also known as Ettakatol.

Many secular-minded Tunisians fear that an Islamist-influenced government might change the direction of the revolution. More generally, most people want to see urgent action on unemployment and economic crisis.

The disparate group of demonstrators reportedly included the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller who set himself on fire last December, sparking the protests.

Holding up a sign reading, “We will never lose our dignity”, one young man outside the gates of parliament said, “I’m proud today because we showed the world that we were the ones who started these revolutions. We continue our march today, setting a good example of democratic transition. I feel deeply sorry for the Egyptians who are still struggling to harvest the fruits of freedom.”

Outside the building, a long line of family members held up pictures of men who died during the revolution, demanding that their killers go on trial, and that their dependants receive compensation.

“We want justice, we want justice,” one mother shouted. “We’ve waited for so long, and you people are still sitting there in your fancy suits, full of lust for power.”

As he sat taking photos and live-blogging the demonstration on his laptop, a man who identified himself as a blogger known as Bacchus, asked, “Why are the salaries of assembly members and other ministerial posts so very high when they’re talking about finding solutions for poverty?”

He added that he thought it sinister that Ennahda wanted control of the interior, justice and foreign ministries. “Internal affairs equals police and control, justice means continuing the police’s job if they get you for being against their party, and foreign affairs means polishing up their image abroad,” he said.

Jalel Brick, a Facebook activist well-known for his opposition to the Islamic party, said, “Ennahda will take over the leadership by controlling all the main ministries, and I guess in the end they will use religion as opium for the people. But young Tunisians should never give up the fight for freedom.”

Details of the cabinet are due to be announced in the next few days, and both government and the Constituent Assembly will have to work hard to prove their credibility in the face of considerable public cynicism.

“I believe the sole aim of this putative coalition is to slice up the government cake among them,” student activist Karima said. “It comes down to greed for power, not the interests of the nation.”

Karima’s friend Makrem added, “Instead of preparing for a new constitution and discussing the potential achievements of the council, they are just fighting over seats.”

In an internet café in front of the interior ministry, a young blogger declared calmly that the consequences of failure were clear.

“I don’t know why people have made such a big deal out of this,” he said. “Just wait and see – if they don’t like them, they should just go out onto the streets and say the magic words of all revolutions – ‘get out’.”

Ramy Jarboui is a Tunisian writer and film-maker.