“Employment, freedom and national dignity”, 5 years later in post-revolutionary Tunisia

COMMENTARY – On the 14th of January 2015, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled from Tunisia with his family for a lengthy exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. After several weeks of social unrest, which erupted through the immolation of the young fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, the regime of Ben Ali fell under the pressure from the Tunisian street. Five years later, post-revolutionary Tunisia is still following an arduous path of democratisation altered by several deadly terrorist attacks in 2015. However, the Tunisian way of compromise and mutual dialogue has demonstrated its resilience.

English

Five years after the fall of Ben Ali’s domination over Tunisian affairs, the Tunisian people is still carrying its transition towards a freer Tunisia. Whereas only a few kilometres away from the Eastern Tunisian border, neighbouring Libya, another country which overthrew its authoritarian regime in the midst of the 2011 Arab springs, the disarray of the Libyan state and the bitterness of inner divisions prevail. Optimism is still not prevalent in Tunis, however, in five years Tunisians have achieved to follow their own febrile transitional path.

 

The constructive sides of the (bloody) “Jasmin” revolution

A blossoming freedom of expression

The clearest victory of this revolution is about the enhancement of the freedom of speech. Tunisians have started to enjoy debating about politics, a completely new habit for a people used to hide its political thoughts under Ben Ali. Tenths of parties and political movements have emerged (and disappeared) representing all movements of thought and obedience in the society. The best organised were definitely the Islamist conservatives of Ennahda (the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood party) who are also one of the few to remain united as a party after five years of existence in the political arena. This new use of the freedom of speech is also embodied by the flourishment of plenty of new media, from independent online news websites to televisions and radios. Therefore, it has not always been easy to bring new ideas to the audience. For instance in October 2011, the screening of the animated film “Persepolis” (from director Marjane Satrapi), where god is represented by an old man, sparked protests from conservative believers and a trial against Nessma tv’s CEO . Nevertheless, the civil society was freed to create new NGOs and to vibrantly participate in public debates. The NGOs Al-Bawsala  (checking the work of the parliament), I-Watch  (focusing against corruption) and Shams  (asking for the depenalisation of homosexuality) illustrate Tunisia’s diversity and public involvement. 

 

A new constitution born through a winning culture of compromise

Secondly, the revolution has achieved another considerable step, the successful adoption of a new constitution in January 2014. Promise of the revolution, this considerable process of national inclusion was a unique and difficult objective to reach. Beyond several passionate debates on controversial questions, such as the status of women in the society , the different (and many) political currents and parties elected at the national constituent assembly concretised the legal evolution of Tunisia. And this culture of compromise is also one of the main reasons explaining Tunisia’s resilience in pursuing its democratic transition. Despite the pressures, the national dialogue prevailed over all the bloody events hitting the country, from the assassinations of Chokri Belaid  and Mohamed Brahmi  to the 2015 terrorist attacks against the visitors of the Bardo Museum , the Imperial Sousse hotel’s beach  and the presidential guard on Mohammed V Boulevard in Tunis . Political parties and representatives of the civil society achieved to preserve Tunisia’s stability and national cohesion thanks to their ability to forge consensual agreements. Ennahda, which took power in 2012 within a Troika formed with two centre-left parties, feared of having the same destiny as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Not willing to be whipped-out of the political map via an eventual counter-revolution, Rached Ghannouchi (Ennahda’s leader) opted for a low-profile and constructive dialogue with its opponents in order to save the fate of the party. The perseverance of the Quartet, a coalition of four movements from the civil society (trade union UGTT, employers’ association UTICA, the Tunisian League for Human-Rights LTDH and the bar association), in forging a sustainable national dialogue have probably been the key to Tunisia’s partly successful transition. As such, the Quartet received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 rewarding its endless work and positive influence over Tunisia’s destiny . Today, Nidaa Tounes, the secular centrist party of President Beji Caïd Essebsi, and Ennahda are forming an unprecedented governing coalition.

 

The disillusions of the revolution

A fragile national cohesion 

However, the hopes were high after Ben Ali’s departure and today the disillusions are real. As the Tunisian society lived under the fear of repression from the police state created by Ben Ali, it only started to discover its diversity and its divisions in post-revolutionary Tunisia. The lines of fractures are numerous and Tunisians were probably not apprehending such a divided polity. Ennahda’s success in the polls and the conservativeness of its social policies have drawn-up deep lines of opposition between Tunisians. Mezri Haddad, a Tunisian thinker bitterly expresses his deception and declared that the new Tunisia gave birth to a “homo islamicus” rather than a democratic and civilised “homo-arabicus” . Numerous are the Tunisians missing Ben Ali’s openness towards women rights and progressiveness on social matters for instance. The disparities are manifest between urban and periphery, women and men, secular and religious, young and mature citizens. And today this diversity of disappointed secular and urban citizens, which brought Nidaa Tounes to power in 2014, is the cause of its implosion. Prime Minister Habib Essid had to reshuffle his government on the 6th of January 2016 . 28 deputies defected from the party after a controversial succession of the party’s leadership to the president’s son, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi at the party’s congress in Sousse on the 9th of January 2016 . Such a political instability characterizes the last five years with six different governments being appointed successively. In the meantime Ennahda, patiently awaits for a more favourable political environment to assume the leadership of the nation. With 69 deputies, Ghannouchi’s party is now the first in the country and remains steadily supported by its core electorate.

 

The terrorist shadow on Tunisia’s democratization

2015 has been a cruel year for Tunisia. Indeed, several deadly terrorist attacks, presumably carried by the followers of Ansar al-Sharia (a Tunisian jihadist group based now in Libya), led President Essebsi to promulgate the state of emergency for 30 days on the 24th of November 2015 . On this day, twelve members of the presidential guard were assassinated at the heart of Tunis. This permanent terrorist threat allows the government to enforce restrictive anti-terrorist laws which are limiting and even violating the newly acquired freedoms. Indeed, in July 2015 a new anti-terrorist law was widely adopted at the Tunisian assembly . It entails the resort to death penalty in many cases of terrorist acts, imprisonment of up to five years for anyone who did not share his awareness about terrorist activities (art. 35), and detention for fifteen days without meeting a lawyer of anyone suspected of terrorism etc.  Finally, the vagueness of the definition of terrorism would allow the Tunisian authorities to repress public demonstrations that would be qualified as terrorist events if they were disturbing public order… 

Regardless of this political tightening of freedoms, the enduring insurgency in the Mount Chaambi, at the Tuniso-Algerian border of Kasserine’s directorate, does not seem to be deterred . There, and for several years already, the fertile ground of Kasserine’s economic deprivation, a neglected youth and historic networks of trans-border criminality and smuggling with Algeria favoured the presence of jihadists. This ambush is not yet extinguished by a Tunisian army lacking training against an asymmetrical enemy. This presence is like a permanent alarm towards the revolution. A reminder of the country’s potential to divert its democratization towards a violent religious U-turn. Moreover, neighbouring Libya’s disarray deeply affects Tunisia. More than 1500 young Tunisians are estimated to fight in the name of the Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic, in the Libyan city of Sirte and its surroundings . Meanwhile, more than 3000 Tunisians are supporting the erection of the “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, thus representing the first contingent of foreign jihadists . Tunis knows that hundreds of them already came back to their homeland and could embody potential security threats to the nation’s stability. However, when the country was led by the Troika, Ennahda’s acquaintances with jihadists and its infiltration of the security apparatus postponed an effective reply from the state . Today, even though President Essebsi declares his determination to impose order the task is still tremendous as thousands of radical imams are active in Tunisia  and are diffusing their propaganda on a deprived youth in need for a destiny. 

 

A waning and weakened economy for a (still) neglected youth

This very youth, which was at the heart of the overturn of the state of fear in Tunisia in winter 2010 and 2011, is today still suffering from the same aches. Political and civil rights were not exactly the demand they carried and asked for. Instead, their requests were based on a deplorable situation of socioeconomic exclusion from the society. Youth anger erupted first from the city of Sidi Bouzid , in central Tunisia, a peripheral region economically disadvantaged where agriculture is the first economic activity. In Tunisia’s countryside, youth is a wide share of the population. This overrepresentation and the government’s incapacity to diversify the Tunisian economy created high unemployment rates for young Tunisians, even after graduating from universities or technical schools . Indeed, for long Ben Ali’s economic development was only turned towards Tunisia’s coastline and its dynamic touristic development. French and Italian tourists were fuelling the beautiful and affordable sea resorts, guaranteeing successful investments to Tunisian and foreign businessmen. Moreover, corruption  was endemic in Ben Ali’s Tunisia as his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family and acquaintances were monopolizing every valuable economic asset in the country . Membership to the Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR), the presidential party, was key to perform a successful professional career. The revolution offered hope to this forgotten youth which could not benefit from top level connections and still expected to build its future in a prosperous and economically inclusive Tunisia. Nevertheless, those regional economic disparities and corruption were and still are patent in 2016 Tunisia. The country is led by an 89 years old politician, Beji Caïd Essebsi, who was a minister of Ben Ali and a member of DCR party. The required economic decentralisation of Tunisia is pending. The IMF recently criticised the Tunisian authorities for their inertia in adopting sustainable economic reforms . And the youth’s societal issues are not a governmental priority. The terrorist attacks have dramatically impacted tourist activity in Tunisia , thus deepening the employment crisis and pushing many foreign investors to leave the country. And rare have been the initiatives favouring youth professional empowerment and with the economic slowdown of the nation, the situation has even worsened. Therefore, desperate journeys to Lampedusa and Sicily from the Tunisian and Libyan shores are more than ever an exit for young Tunisians . Another type of “escape” is a religious radicalisation driving thousands to Daesh contingents in the Levant and in Libya… 

 

But hope is still there…

Tunisia still has a long way before accomplishing the hopes which blossomed from the Tunisian people in winter 2010-2011. The rising instability from neighbouring Libya and Algeria’s incoming political contest for the country’s leadership will certainly challenge even more the country’s febrile path towards democratization. In the meantime, internally, the Tunisian justice still has to launch a painful review of the past in order to consolidate a shared national narrative. This step is necessary to create an inclusive path for the new Tunisia, gathering the victims and the perpetrators of injustices under Ben Ali. Though, in the last five years, Tunisians have certainly demonstrated the maturity and creativity of a people ready to assume the challenges of a perilous transition. And hope, even diminished, is still going on.

 

Jean-Baptiste Allegrini – Research assistant at the CIPADH.

 

Sources:

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