Political change fails to quell unrest in Tunisia

10 January 2013


When President Moncef Marzouki visited the small town of Sidi Bouzid in western Tunisia on 17 December, he met with a hostile reception. In a conscious echo of the protests in January 2011 that brought the end of the 23-year rule of Marzouki’s predecessor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, demonstrators chanted “the people want the fall of the government”. Marzouki was pelted with tomatoes and stones and had to be evacuated from the scene by security officials.

The president’s visit to Sidi Bouzid was intended as a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the local fruit seller who on the same day in 2010 set himself alight in a public protest against the government’s failure to meet the basic needs of its people. Two years later, the protests were a statement that for the impoverished citizens of the town too little has changed.

The demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid were not an isolated incident. Earlier in December, thousands took to the streets of Siliana, a small farming town in the centre of northern Tunisia, to protest the lack of progress. More than 200 demonstrators were injured as police responded with tear gas and birdshot.

Frustration at the government’s failure to address Tunisia’s economic problems is understandable. By a number of measures, the economy is in worse shape now than it was two years ago. Unemployment is close to 20 per cent, and more than double that among younger members of the workforce. Regional disparities in standard of living are as stark as ever.

“The reason for the uprising in the first place was because of the economic situation and high youth unemployment, and the situation has got worse rather than better,” says Richard Fox, head of Middle East and Africa sovereign ratings at Fitch Ratings in London.

“Siliana resembles a lot what happened two years ago when the revolution started,” says Sami Zemni, head of the Middle East and North Africa research group at the Ghent University Centre for Third World Studies in Belgium. “People don’t see a lot of change.”

The protests, though, are also a reminder of how far Tunisia has come in the short time since the autocratic Ben Ali was unseated. The former president’s regime was one that tolerated no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, and no freedom of the press. Even during the World Summit on the Information Society, an international conference held in Tunis in 2005 to promote digital communication, plain-clothed security officials patrolled the lobbies and stairways of the country’s hotels to inhibit any form of unauthorised assembly.

Today, these freedoms are far from assured, but they are unrecognisable from two years ago. The independent press is flourishing, and so too is political debate. Notwithstanding the brutality of the police response in Siliana (the government has now outlawed the use of birdshot), the assembly of such a crowd would have been unthinkable under the Ben Ali regime.

“It’s really a constitutive moment for Tunisia,” says Zemni. “It’s reinventing itself from scratch. This includes grievances coming out, which is very new to Tunisia. Before there was no talk of politics. It was impossible to discuss these things. The freedom of speech and the fact that Tunisians are participating in the process is very positive, even if they have good reason to be critical of the government.”

In many ways, Tunisia has been the success story of the regime changes and popular uprisings that have characterised the Middle East in the past two years. Compared to Egypt and Libya, the transition to an interim government has been relatively smooth. A constituent assembly was elected in October 2011 to draw up a new constitution, which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2013, and parliamentary elections are due to follow.

In contrast to Egypt, where the government conspicuously failed to secure a consensus behind the constitution it adopted in December, Tunisia is doing all it can to involve its citizenry in the process. Ultimately, the constitution will be drawn up by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) and adopted by two-thirds majority. But on 23 December the NCA held the first of a series of weekly meetings with civil society representatives from across the country to debate its terms.

“The debate on the constitution is not restricted to the 217 members of the assembly,” says Zemni. “Whenever there is a debate in the assembly, people take the issues to the streets and debate them. There is constant pressure on the assembly to take into account the views of the people. It’s one of the key characteristics of Tunisia’s revolution.”

One of the most controversial features of the political transition in Egypt has been the dominance of one party. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party holds almost half of the seats in parliament, the president is a former member of the movement, and its sympathisers made up the bulk of the constituent assembly.

In Tunisia, Ennahda – also affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood – is the country’s largest party. But Ennahda does not enjoy the same dominance as its counterpart in Egypt. Its secretary-general, Mahadi Jebali, is prime minister, and party leader Rashid Ghannouchi is an influential voice. But the key political roles are shared with other parties. Marzouki, the president, is the leader of the secular, centre-left Congress for the Republic. The speaker, Mustapha ben Jafar, is the secretary-general of Ettakatol, a social democratic party.

“Tunisia’s greatest achievement is in turning a page and brokering some kind of new deal,” says Zemni. “There is not really one party, one leader or one movement that can say ‘this is how things are’. Ennahda is the biggest and most powerful party, but it can’t  push through its own agenda without support. Power is disseminated over different stakeholders, and all have a say.”

The demonstrations in Siliana are a case in point. The protests were led by the country’s largest trade union, the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT). Although outside the formal political process, the UGTT has become highly influential in Tunisia’s political transition. On 6 December, it called a series of strikes in Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Gafsa and Sfax, in which hundreds of protestors took to the streets in anti-government protests.

“The union is the most important non-political political actor,” says Zemni. “Although a lot of the social unrest has been spontaneous, the UGTT is based in the local communities and has decades of know-how in how to sustain a social protest movement.”

While the UGTT can be a force for social protest, its influence means that it can also promote political stability. Its decision to call off a planned general strike on 13 December was a conscious choice to stave off further unrest at a delicate time for the government. “Right now, the union has determined that they do not wish to further destabilise the country,” says Zemni.

This is not to say that the battle for the political future of Tunisia has been won. The persistent weaknesses of the country’s economy mean that social protests and industrial action are likely to continue in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the government is beset by challenges from both secularists and the orthodox Muslim Salafists over the role of religion in the newly constituted state.

With the exception of a now notorious YouTube clip in which Ghannouchi is shown telling Salafists that they should take a “patient” approach to controlling the “media, economy and administration”, Ennahda has shown itself willing to moderate its own Islamist agenda. It has withdrawn from an earlier position in which it declared that sharia law should be the basis for the new constitution, and dropped a planned article stating that “all attacks on the sacred” would be outlawed. The rights of women, enshrined in the existing personal status code, have also been guaranteed.

But the Salafists, who are not represented in the constituent assembly, have captured the headlines in recent months through a series of violent protests against a regime that it considers too liberal in its imposition of Islamic values. In May 2012, Salafists burned police stations and attacked bars selling alcohol in several towns in the northwest of the country, and they were at the heart of violent clashes outside the US embassy in September protesting the release of a US film that mocked the prophet Mohammed.

There have been numerous instances of Salafists seizing mosques to preach their own message, and Islamic fundamentalists have disrupted the campuses of several universities demanding the “imposition of their own interpretation of Islam in the curriculum and in campus life and dress”, according to a Human Rights Watch report in December 2011.

Although a number of arrests have been made, the government has been criticised for doing too little to bring the Islamist protestors to book. This perceived failure has prompted the rise of a new secular party, Nidaa Tounes, created by former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi in June, and the moderate Popular Front, formed in October to combat what it called the Qatari-influenced Ennahda and the US-influenced Nidaa. Nidaa is now the second-most popular party in Tunisia, supported by almost 30 per cent of the population, while the Popular Front already has 10 per cent, according to recent polls.

The battle for the soul of Tunisia’s revolution is far from complete, and the longer it continues, the more it will distract attention from the urgent task of rebuilding the country’s economy and addressing the grievances of Tunisia’s poor. But despite the many challenges that these political confrontations present, they are also a sign that for the first time in more than two decades, Tunisians are able to engage in shaping their political destiny.

This article was first published by MEED. To view the original article, click here.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.