Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

New political crisis in Tunisia

In the wake of protests across the country’s northern governorates, Tunisia may be entering a new political crisis, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

The governorate of Siliana 210km west of the capital Tunis rose up in revolt last week with hundreds of people being injured in the resulting violence. The uprising triggered similar uprisings across Tunisia’s northwestern governorates, splintering the ruling coalition government and leading many to believe that the country is entering a new political crisis.

The trouble began with a simple argument between two citizens and an employee at the governorate building. It quickly erupted into a general strike in the city and demands for the governor to be sacked and for the province to share in development projects.

It has been two years since the revolution in Tunisia that ousted former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, and people in this region say they have not seen any benefits.

The government has rejected similar demands, saying it “does not have a magic wand and reform takes a long time.” The government in Tunis also said that the governorate’s problems were not specific to individual people and that it would not remove the governor.

Tensions then quickly escalated, with demonstrations leading to clashes with the security forces, the use of tear gas, and, for the first time in Tunisia’s modern history, the use of buckshot against demonstrators.

More than 200 people were injured, 20 of them being taken to the capital for treatment because of their critical condition. At least one demonstrator lost an eye in the fighting. Experts point out that the use of buckshot is banned, even in hunting animals.

The security assault on what began as a peaceful demonstration has enraged many in Tunisia, with some demanding the resignation of the government, including President Moncef Al-Marzouqi.

Although everyone agrees that the government is not responsible for the neglect and underdevelopment in regions such as Siliana, criticism has focussed on how such problems are being addressed.

Political parties across the spectrum condemned the violence by both the crowds and the security forces. Some opposition figures, such as Hama Al-Hamami from the Popular Front Party, used the opportunity to criticise the government for failing to resolve problems and using excessive force against protesters.

Prime Minister Hamad Jebali described the clashes as unwarranted, claiming that some forces on the left, such as Shukri Baleed, a leading figure in the Democratic Nationalist Movement, were inciting attacks and torching state offices and institutions.

Jebali added that the regional office of the General Union of Tunisian Workers had been infiltrated by parties using it to incite people to protest. Hussein Abbasi, the Union’s secretary-general, denied these accusations, but he did not deny that the workers’ unions had intervened to frame the protests.

Others linked the eruption of violence to the draft law on “safeguarding the Revolution against the return of members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally” being sent to the country’s constituent assembly for ratification.

The law bans all ministers, administrators, supporters and officials from the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the party of the former Bin Ali regime, from politics for 10 years.

The draft law has been rejected by several parties such as the Tunisia Call Party led by Al-Baji Qaed Al-Sebsi because he felt it targeted him personally. Kamal Murjan, president of the Initiative Party who served as minister of defence and of foreign affairs under the Ben Ali regime, has also criticised the law. 

Jebali ordered an investigation into who was behind the protests and who was funding them.

In the wake of these developments, President Al-Marzouqi criticised the government’s performance in a brief speech on television. While he expressed solidarity with it as a member of the ruling coalition, he nevertheless called for the formation of a new cabinet with fewer members based on new criteria.

Members would be chosen according to their qualifications and not on party quotas, as was the case a year ago when the government was formed. Al-Marzouqi called for calm and urged people not to seek out the instigators of the violence.

However, his statement triggered a new crisis within the ruling coalition because his call to dissolve the cabinet had not been coordinated with the ruling troika. This angered the government’s grassroots supporters, which had expected changes to be made to the ruling structure.

Health minister and member of the ruling Islamist Nahda Party’s executive committee Abdel-Latif Al-Mekki said the issue was being discussed and that the changes could include the post of president.

Al-Marzouqi became president as part of a three-way agreement with the Nahda and the opposition Ettakatol Party. Many observers have described his recent position as a betrayal of this agreement, while others see it as premature electioneering.

Al-Marzouqi’s own Congress for the Republic Party and the Ettakatol Party have so far lost more than half their members in the assembly, weakening the ruling coalition which is already having trouble in passing legislation.

Jebali did not deny that the troika could be revised within days to include members of other parties, such as the Republican Party or The Path Party, which is an offshoot of the Congress for the Republic Party.

A cabinet reshuffle has been in the air since last summer during the conference of the Nahda Movement, but no details have been released. Today, a reshuffle may be more urgent, since the country’s new constitution has still not been fully drafted and there has been pressure from members of the now-dissolved RCD to stage a political comeback.

It seems unlikely that Tunisia can weather many more political upheavals when what is needed is national consensus to end the daily sense of crisis.

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