Crucial months ahead in Tunisia

Tunisia’s reform movement has achieved a great deal in recent weeks, but a smooth and swift transition to democracy cannot be taken for granted

In the two months since the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January, Tunisia has seen a dramatic series of reforms that have changed the face of society.

Some of the most momentous have been announced only in recent days. On 7 March, the interim government declared that it would disband the political police and the state security service. The security apparatus was used by the Ben Ali regime to monitor the media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties, and to suppress their freedoms. Human rights groups have accused them of committing abuses on a systemic scale, and in particular, of torturing detainees.

Cabinet reshuffles

On the same day, interim prime minister, 84-year-old Beji Caid Sebsi, announced the formation of a new cabinet. It was the latest in a long line of executive reshuffles since the beginning of the year, but it was the most significant so far, bringing an end to the participation in the cabinet of ministers that had served under Ben Ali.

The new administration, made up of technocrats, who are forbidden from standing in future elections, will govern the country for an interim period ending on 24 July, when Tunisians will vote to elect a new constituent assembly. Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), will not be allowed to field candidates in the elections, following a court ruling on 9 March dissolving the party.

There has also been a re-emergence in recent weeks of political parties previously banned. They include Al-Nahda, an Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi, sentenced by the Ben Ali regime to life imprisonment for plotting against the state, and the Congress for the Republic, a secular party under the leadership of Moncef Marzouki. Both parties operated in exile during Ben Ali’s rule – Al-Nahda in London and the Congress for the Republic in Paris. Both have now returned to Tunisia.

A number of other parties, tolerated by Ben Ali, but not allowed to effectively oppose the regime, now enjoy a freedom of expression that would not have been possible just a few weeks ago.

The degree of freedom afforded to the press and NGOs, too, is unrecognisable from that under Ben Ali’s regime. In the run-up to the second meeting of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis in 2005, plain-clothed security officials lurked on every floor of the capital’s business hotels to ensure that unauthorised meetings did not take place. In stark contrast, a news conference organised by Human Rights Watch on 30 January was allowed to go ahead unhindered. It was also reported in an even-handed fashion by the local press – the same media that until Ben Ali’s deposition had boycotted the organisation.

“We’ve seen the legalisation of pretty much all political parties that want to participate in Tunisian politics,” says Michael Willis, a specialist in the Maghreb at Oxford University in the UK.

“We’ve seen the flourishing of freedom of speech. Newspapers are unrecognisable from before and are discussing concepts of democracy and what shape the new constitution should take. All the books that were previously banned are now being imported. There’s a real change in the political atmosphere, where people can now openly discuss things.”

Reforms initiated

NGOs that have long campaigned for greater freedoms in Tunisia have welcomed the changes introduced to date.

“There has been a series of reforms, including a sweeping amnesty law that has seen the release of all political prisoners and the return home of political exiles,” says Eric Goldstein, research director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.

“Views can now be aired on television and radio that before were subject to black-out either by the state media or by those closely associated to the regime. For the first time, Tunisians are interested in what their own media is saying, not just [Qatar’s] Al-Jazeera and France 24. And on 24 July, there will be elections. All of these are significant achievements.”

The significance of the toppling of Ben Ali after 23 years in power has not been confined to Tunisia. Anti-government protesters in Algeria and Egypt waved Tunisian flags, and some copied street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in Tunisia on 17 December triggering the subsequent protests.

But while the toppling of the Tunisian leader was unquestionably dramatic, and has ushered in changes that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, talk of revolution may be premature. At every stage of the political change over the past two months, the regime has sought to concede as little as possible.

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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.