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

Tunisian Progress to Democracy Unstoppable

Despite many obstacles, prospects for reforms still look good.
By Fouad Hamdan
  • Political banners at a protest in Tunis. The upper one says “I’m Muslim, I’m Tunisian, I’m against Ennahda”, while the one below says “We won’t accept a second RCD” – a reference to ousted President Ben Ali’s ruling party. (Photo: Fouad Hamdan)
    Political banners at a protest in Tunis. The upper one says “I’m Muslim, I’m Tunisian, I’m against Ennahda”, while the one below says “We won’t accept a second RCD” – a reference to ousted President Ben Ali’s ruling party. (Photo: Fouad Hamdan)

Sit in a cafe in Tunis’s old medina, in the middle-class Nasr area or in the wealthy suburb of Marsa, and almost everyone will be arguing passionately about the current political situation and how a future democracy should look.

Who will rule the country once elections are held? Will the Islamic Ennahda party try to turn Tunisia into an Iranian-style state? Why are the secular parties not as well organised as Ennahda ? Who should one vote for out of the more than 100 new parties?

There are also heated debates about the structure of the political system that is to be put in place – the relative powers of the president and prime minister, the relationship between state and religion, women’s rights, economic policy, reform of the judiciary and security services, and combating corruption.

The explosion of newfound freedoms since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after a three-week uprising is something no one can ever take away from Tunisians. If there is any consensus, it is that the hard-won freedom of expression is inviolable.

On January 14, many Tunisians believed that everything was going to be just fine from now on. But they quickly realised that the incoming government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi merely wanted to perpetuate the hated Ben Ali regime. After further protests, Ghannouchi was removed and replaced in late February by Beji Caid el-Sebsi, who had served as a minister under Ben Ali’s predecessor, the late Habib Bourguiba.

El-Sebsi’s transitional government is currently steering the country through difficult waters until elections are held, which will happen once a constitutional assembly – due to be elected on October 23 – has drafted a constitution shaping the future institutions of government.

In parallel with the interim government, the High Commission for Achieving the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, chaired by law professor Yadh Ben Achour, has been mapping out future reforms. The commission includes judges, civil society members and representatives of the major parties that survived years of oppression in Tunisia and in exile abroad. In turn, it has set up an electoral committee headed by veteran human rights activist Kamel Jendoubi, to organise and monitor the October election.

Pessimists would argue that Islamism is on the rise, threatening personal rights and women’s rights in particular; that the economy has been in trouble since December 2010; and that youth unemployment and poverty in rural areas are still a source of instability. Another cause for alarm is the fact that members of Ben Ali’s dissolved party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, RCD, are clinging to key positions in the security services and the judiciary.

Since Ben Ali’s downfall, the country has been rocked by frequent demonstrations. Civil society activists blame former RCD members for outbreaks of violence. In one incident in June, seven people were killed shops looted and set on fire in the mining town of Metlaoui, after rumours circulated that only certain tribes would be offered jobs at the nearby Gafsa phosphate complex.

In early August, thousands of people protested in Tunis and provincial towns over what they saw as the government`s failure to break with the Ben Ali era. The protests were sparked by the release of former justice minister Bechir Tekkari from prison and the news that Saida Agrebi, a friend of Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi, had fled to Paris.

El-Sebsi has promised a tougher line on allies of the ousted president. To assuage public anger, a Tunis court sentenced Ben Ali to 35 years in jail in June. He was tried in absentia because Saudi Arabia has refused to extradite him.

But it seems doubtful that el-Sebsi can deliver on his pledge, given that his cabinet lacks the legitimacy to drive through serious reforms. During this transition period, it is not going to be possible to holding all top officials and businessmen accountable for past crimes.

The Ennahda party, seen as a frontrunner in future elections, is creating disquiet among voters who suspect it of being less than frank about its true aims.

The party’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi often says it wants to become a modern democratic movement like Turkey`s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP. But thus far, it has failed to come out with clear policies on universal human rights, or on equal inheritance rights for women.

The party lost much of the female vote when it suggested that the best way to reduce youth unemployment would be to pay women around 280 US dollars a month to leave their jobs and stay at home. The proposal was not only a public relations disaster, but also economic nonsense. Religious women who might otherwise have voted for Ennahda told me they would not be doing so because of the party’s ambiguous policies.

Ennahda means “awakening”. The time has come for the party to live up to its name. Ghannouchi will marginalise the party if he does not truly democratise it.

Other parties also face challenges – opposition and civil society groups developed survival skills when standing up to the Ben Ali regime at home and in exile, but fighting for ideas in a free society is a different art. They are now learning the hard way how to develop political programme and advocacy campaigns, increase membership numbers and win votes.

Despite continuing protests and efforts by Ben Ali loyalists to disrupt the democratic process, it is nevertheless possible to be optimistic. In principle, everything is still on track.

The roadmap for moving towards a truly open and democratic system is sound. El-Sebsi and the political reform commission have gained widespread acceptance, and army generals with no political ambitions are guaranteeing overall security and keeping a close eye on the feared police and intelligence agencies.

Tunisians are rapidly developing a democratic culture that will enable them to tackle four major challenges after the October 23 election for a constitutional assembly – forging a coalition of several parties to form Tunisia’s first truly legitimate government, reforming the police and judiciary, creating jobs for young people and reducing the economic inequalities between different regions; and launching a process of transitional justice that will see human rights abusers and corrupt individuals prosecuted.

The revolution in Tunisia did not end when Ben Ali fled. It has been continuing slowly since then, and will receive a boost after October 23.

The Tunisian people, who abhor violence and extremism, will remain vigilant against the risk of counter-revolution. Former RCD members, Baathist ideologues and Salafi fundamentalists have no chance of winning massive support.

I believe Tunisia will develop into an exemplary Arab democracy, despite the bumpy road ahead.

`We have many tough years ahead,”, leading women’s rights activist Sana Ben Achour said. “But be in no doubt that Tunisia will overcome all the difficulties. And if at some point men lack the courage to continue the fight, more Tunisian women will pursue it because they never give up.”

I believe her.

Fouad Hamdan, a former DPA correspondent in Cairo and the Gulf, was the founding executive director of the Arab Human Rights Fund in Beirut in 2008-10. Since January 2011 he has been working on democracy-building projects in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.