Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tunisia, one year on

Exactly a year has passed since the 23 October 2011 elections in Tunisia, but what has been achieved, asks Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

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Anti-government demonstrators protest in Tunisia as the country marks the turbulent and tense anniversary of the first free and fair elections

A year has gone by since the first free-and-fair elections were held in Tunisia on 23 October 2011, but although conditions have improved since the first few weeks after last year's revolution, the final verdict on progress since then depends on individual perspectives and political affiliation.

While Tunisia's ruling "troika" government, made up of representatives of the country's main political parties, believes it has succeeded in leading the second transitional phase in terms of improved security, the gradual restarting of the economy and an anticipated 3.3 per cent economic growth rate during this year and 4.5 per cent next year, the opposition parties insist that the troika has failed to save the country from Salafist threats that harm investment and threaten economic collapse.

The Call of Tunisia Coalition, for example, argues that the incumbent government is incapable of leading the country or of overseeing the drafting of a new constitution. It has overstayed its welcome and must now step down, the coalition says, claiming that economic conditions have been deteriorating, as seen by the drop in the value of the Tunisian dinar, the decrease in foreign-currency reserves, and the rise in the trade deficit.

However, other observers say that the performance of both the troika government and the opposition has been disappointing. At a time when the country needs consensus, the various players have bickered and argued amongst themselves at the expense of the public interest and achieving the revolution's goals.

Another aspect of the current situation is the reality on the ground in Tunisia. One year after last year's elections, tensions flared up once again last week, resulting in the death of the regional general-secretary of the farmers union in the Tataouine governorate in southern Tunisia.

Meanwhile, violent clashes and sabotage occurred in the Gabes governorate in the southeast, triggering the declaration of martial law and security forces using live ammunition to disperse protesters.

In the capital Tunis, the army conspicuously redeployed its forces and security was beefed up at sensitive locations in anticipation of any attempts to destabilise the country triggered by the ongoing legitimacy crisis that erupted some weeks ago.

However, despite these developments, life still goes on as normal in most parts of the country, with many Tunisians uninterested in what is happening on the political scene and concentrating on providing for their families and doing the best they can given the circumstances.

Key problems persist, such as unemployment and deferred regional development without the prospect of solution, both of which make a significant portion of Tunisians resent the current government.

Many, especially the country's interim President Moncef Marzouki, civil society and the media, have called for reason to prevail and for the avoidance of violence in order to protect the interests of the country and the people.

Tunisian media outlets accomplished a key feat last week, after a general strike in the media sector succeeded by up to 90 per cent, according to the Tunisian Press Syndicate, forcing the government to meet the media's demands. These include implementing decrees 115 and 116 that separate editorial and administrative jobs in public media institutions and creating an independent association to regulate and oversee the sector.

Media figures in Tunisia view these things as important gains that will protect media freedoms achieved after the revolution. Freedom of expression is now possible in Tunisia, and no one is now locked up because of their views, despite the existence of some residual restrictions.

These have given rise to complaints from media figures, and they have fueled fears among journalists that the oppressive system in place under the former regime may return to haunt them.

The progress in the media sector has been part of action elsewhere aiming to put pressure on the government to give up key ministries and allow the opposition to participate in decision-making.

The troika government has also been under pressure to fire ministers who have been performing poorly, such as the ministers of the interior and of justice, whom the opposition accuses of being too lenient towards extremists inciting violence.

Tunisia's labour unions proposed a conference for national dialogue on 16 October that could have been an opportunity to close ranks among the political players. However, the ruling Al-Nahda Movement and the Congress Party boycotted the initiative, undermining this goal.

Al-Nahda justified its boycott by saying that the initiative could have opened a back door for members of the former ruling Rassemblement constitutionnel d³©mocratique (RCD) Party to return to power, contradicting the goals of last year's Revolution that saw the ousting of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali.

The initiative nonetheless succeeded in forcing the government to clarify its views and to declare the dates of the upcoming elections, now slated for 23 June 2013.

It also forced the government to declare its support for an amended parliamentary system of government in the new Tunisia, enabling Tunisians to directly elect their president.

The ruling troika also announced its agreement to independent figure Kamal Al-Jandubi overseeing the independent Supreme Elections Authority, as he did last year.

All these announcements were made to avoid further turmoil after the expiration of the one-year mandate to write a new constitution, which has nevertheless not yet been written.

The Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the new constitution has, however, been working diligently, and it discussed the first draft of the new constitution at the beginning of this week after several controversial articles were removed.

These included an article criminalising transgressions against "religious sanctities", since this would have restricted freedom of expression, and an article stating that women have a "complementary role" to play to men, since this would have jeopordised gains made by Tunisian women fought hard for over many decades.

It is clear that Al-Nahda has made substantial concessions in these regards, even though it has a majority in government and theoretically could pass its decisions by voting. However, the Movement seems to be trying to avoid imposing a new form of hegemony on the Tunisian people.

Yet, the concessions made by Al-Nahda do not stop there, since its popularity has dropped by 30 per cent over recent weeks, according to an opinion poll published in September by a private polling company.

Its popularity is continuing to fall, especially after social-networking sites carried a videotaped meeting between Al-Ghannouchi and Salafi leaders two weeks ago.

The footage apparently showed Al-Ghannouchi sympathising with the Salafis and urging them to become active in places of worship and public places and in opening Quranic schools.

At the same time, he apparently questioned the credibility of the army and security and administrative agencies, describing them as still being under the control of "secularists".

Al-Ghannouchi and Al-Nahda later issued clarifications about the statements, claiming that they had been edited and taken out of context and that the meeting has aimed to try to convince the Salafis to become part of the political process.

The tape was made in March, they said, and it was being broadcast now to fuel strife on the eve of the 23 October anniversary.

The opposition views the Salafis and Al-Nahda, which apparently protects them, as being the biggest threats facing the country. Meanwhile, Al-Nahda has countered that any return of members of the dissolved former ruling RCD Party via the Call of Tunisia Coalition would be an even more serious threat to the nation's future.

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