Return of the ancien regime?
Controversy over the mandate of the country's constituent assembly and recent violence are threatening Tunisia's still-fragile stability, writes Asaad bin Ahmed in Tunis
Click to view caption|
Tunisia's ministers of human rights and justice comment on the extradition of Libya's former prime minister who is the first official to be returned to trial under Libya's transitional leadership
Tunisians may soon face a situation similar to that which Egypt faced following the announcement of the results of the first round of the country's presidential elections, which presented either an Islamist-controlled government or the return of the old regime.
In the absence of a credible counterweight to the ruling troika made up of the Al-Nahda, Congress for the Republic and Al-Takatol Parties, former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi's initiative to form a new party, the Nida Tunis or Call for Tunisia Party, has struck the right note among a number of the country's political forces, particularly following the recent violence at the Abdeliya Arts Fair outside Tunis.
However, the Essebsi initiative has also stirred alarm and not only because Essebsi is associated with the regime of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, who was forced to flee the country during the Tunisian revolution last year.
When announcing the formation of the new Party, Essebsi said that the term of the country's current constituent assembly was due to end on 23 October and that new legislative elections would have to be held soon after, citing a decree made by a former interim president to the effect that the constituent assembly would have to draft a new constitution within a year of its election.
This meant, Essebsi said, that the current constituent assembly would lose its mandate one year after the last elections, triggering widespread controversy.
Some observers said that Essebsi was acting irresponsibly in questioning the mandate of the assembly, since this could result in a return to a constitutional vacuum if the constitution is not drafted by October. This could reverse the improvement in the country that had been seen over the past year, threatening to plunge it back into chaos.
Others agreed with Essebsi that the assembly's one-year term was politically binding because it was approved by the majority of the country's political parties and movements. Should the ruling troika not abide by it, the government would lose its credibility and jeopardise the standing of the constituent assembly in the eyes of the public, they said.
However, some legal scholars have argued that the results of last year's elections handed legitimacy to the assembly and hence the authority to set any timeframe it deems necessary to draw up a new constitution, even if this extends beyond the deadline stipulated in the decree issued by the former president.
Several politicians have taken this as a cue to warn against "wresting legitimacy from the constituent assembly and returning it to the street," which according to them could pave the way to violence and a breakdown in security that would be difficult to bring under control.
In some ways, it is curious that the controversy has arisen at all, since two months ago the president of the constituent assembly, Mustafa bin Jaafar, announced that the constitution would be completed before the 23 October deadline and that the first elections under the new constitution would be held in March 2013.
According to reports from the assembly committees, a first draft of the constitution should be ready by mid-July for presentation to a full meeting of the assembly and discussion by public opinion.
As a result, some observers believe that Essebsi's initiative to create the new party was in fact aimed at facilitating the return of members of the former ruling and now-dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), warning of designs to reverse the Revolution and circumvent the will of the Tunisian people, which had voiced itself through the ousting of the Bin Ali dictatorship and the dissolution of its party machine.
According to Essebsi, it is unjust to issue a sweeping condemnation of all former RCD members, since, he has said, many were not involved in the corruption of the former regime. Those who were involved should be brought to justice and punished on the basis of proper legal evidence, he has said.
However, in the course of the violence and security breakdown that occurred during the Revolution many documents in the archives of the security agencies, courts, and other government offices were destroyed.
Prominent ex-RCD figures were prohibited from participating in the last elections, in accordance with article 5 of the law for the elections to the constituent assembly, and there have been moves to try to exclude former RCD members from the political process for at least five years.
The Congress for the Republic Party has submitted a bill to this end, and the troika has vowed to pass it before the next elections and before the new constitution is promulgated. However, there is still a possibility that the bill may founder as a result of technicalities in form or wording.
The staff of a significant number of Tunisian government departments and agencies were once affiliated with the RCD, and many former RCD members continue to perform their duties in these agencies. Many such agencies won the support of public opinion for continuing to do their jobs throughout the country's transitional period, despite the political and constitutional vacuum.
It also appears that the government headed by Al-Nahda Party prime minister Hamadi Jebali is not in a hurry to bring members of the former regime to justice, having thus far confined itself to a few corruption investigations, such as appointments in Tunisian Airlines and the suspension of a handful of customs officials and judges.
This apparent procrastination has aggravated general disgruntlement at the fact that many former RCD figures still remain in influential positions in the country.
Essebsi's announcement also came in the aftermath of the Abdeliya incident, when it appeared that Salafis had gone on the rampage against works of art they considered to be blasphemous that had been exhibited at an art fair in the Abdeliya Palace north of the capital.
However, it later came to light that a former RCD member had photographed some of the paintings and taken them to a Salafist mosque with the deliberate intention of provoking the protests.
The photographs were then published on the Internet, and a wave of rioting erupted in which Salafis attacked the exhibition hall and set fire to police stations, a courthouse and a number of other government buildings, leading to the imposition of a three-day curfew.
The crisis provoked renewed fears over freedom of expression in Tunisia and the need to refrain from offending the religious sensitivities of the Tunisian people. At the same time, it also revealed the presence of forces operating behind the scenes in the country with the intention of spreading chaos and instability, a design that the Essebsi call for new constituent assembly elections on 23 October may be intended to further.
On 24 June, the Tunisian authorities also extradited Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, the last prime minister under the former Gaddafi regime, to the Libyan authorities.
The extradition triggered a rift in the heart of the troika because it took place without the knowledge or consent of President Moncef Marzouki, and it was sharply criticised on human rights grounds because the extradition had taken place before the Tunisian authorities had obtained guarantees that Al-Mahmoudi would receive a fair trial and because Jebali had ordered the transfer without obtaining the president's signature.
Some observers say that Tunisia was obliged to hand Al-Mahmoudi over to Libya because of the extradition treaty that is in force between the two countries. Moreover, such observers say, the decision was in the hands of the Tunisian judiciary and not the president.
The decision to extradite the former Libyan prime minister had first been taken in September 2011, when Essebsi was still prime minister. However, implementation was deferred until the Tunisian authorities had received reassurances on human rights issues.
A committee was formed for this purpose that visited Libya to ascertain the conditions under which Al-Mahmoudi would be detained and tried. The committee then issued a positive report.
Even so, Marzouki has insisted on his objections to the handover of Al-Mahmoudi, and he has said that he will bring the issue to the attention of the constituent assembly which is expected to convene to discuss this issue on Friday. Announcing the decision last Tuesday raised anger among the opposition, possibly further threatening Tunisia's fragile stability.