Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Nascent challenges of revolution

Two years after the January Revolution, Tunisians are feeling increasingly disenchanted with the country’s Islamist-led government, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been nearly two years since former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali fled the country in Tunisia’s January 2011 Revolution and a little over a year since Tunisians took part in the country’s first free and fair elections. Their aspiration then was that the new government would pull the country out of poverty, injustice and repression and bring about freedom, dignity and prosperity.
Such were the aspirations of the revolution, but since then the new government has not fulfilled them, raising questions as to what has blocked such aspirations and what the future now holds for Tunisia’s population.
Anyone walking down Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis a week before the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution would notice the barbed wire still surrounding the Ministry of Interior building and the heavy security presence. On the other side of the street in front of the French embassy, armoured vehicles and equipment are stationed at the ready for any emergency threatening the diplomatic mission of one of Tunisia’s key partners.
As one passes the street cafés, where the unemployed spend much of their time along with some private and public sector employees, shreds of conversation can be heard that go some way towards explaining the present state of confusion. Public opinion is preoccupied with the general strike called by the UGTT, Tunisia’s largest trade union, or news from the border with Algeria about clashes between the Tunisian National Guard and armed groups believed to be connected with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
There is also talk about the slow pace of drafting the country’s new constitution, a task entrusted to the constituent assembly, the sharp price hikes, and the government’s failure to address the country’s problems and take control of policy.
People express their opinions freely in the press and other media once used by the ousted former president to deceive domestic and foreign opinion. Freedom of expression and the freedom of the media have undoubtedly been key gains of the revolution, agreed on by the leaders of Tunisia’s political parties and all those following developments in Tunisia.
Nonetheless, journalists are still harassed and there are no legal guarantees of press freedom. There has also been a war of words between the media and the ruling Al-Nahda Party, which has claimed that the formerly state-controlled media has been distorting its activities and the country’s image. According to Al-Nahda, the media projects “an inaccurate picture of reality, which is improving in terms of security, as well as economically and socially”.
While the media’s content has markedly improved, the country’s press is still struggling to defend its freedom and gain guarantees to meet the simplest requirements of a decent life for journalists who were marginalised for decades under the former regime.
Some analysts believe that the coalition government led by Al-Nahda Prime Minister Hamadi Al-Jibali, together with Al-Nahda itself, committed a serious mistake when it launched its campaign against the media. This has made it more difficult to address the country’s many problems and resulted in an estrangement from society, since the government has now been left with few ways of connecting with the people in general.
In the absence of facts and figures about the country’s economic and social situation, Tunisia’s new rulers made a series of promises that they have been unable to keep in the wake of their election victory. In September, Al-Jibali admitted on state television that the government had misjudged the level of corruption and deterioration in the country, something that had been known for years to political analysts who pointed to Bin Ali’s two decades in power and the imprisonment or exile of all opposing voices.
Al-Nahda and the other political parties’ inexperience in governing has led to problems, since almost all the new ministers took several months to comprehend their new duties and were often met with resistance to change from within their own ministries. At first, the influence of the former regime was heavily felt, and the appointment of new officials has taken time and still continues today.
Because the revolution came as a surprise to many, Tunisia’s political parties, including the current opposition, had few alternatives to the former regime. As a result, the government has followed similar development policies since taking office, and the 2012 budget, passed last April, was clear evidence of the continued operation of the old machine.
The opposition, marginalised under Bin Ali, did not have an alternative programme for power, and as a result it has acted more as an obstruction to the present government’s policies than as a source of new ideas. The parties that did badly in the post-revolutionary elections sprang into action as soon as the results were announced by raising doubts before the new government had even begun its work.
They exaggerated the issues and manipulated their media contacts in order to voice misgivings about the true intentions of the three parties taking part in Tunisia’s co-called troika government, distorting their image at home and abroad. They have also focussed on ideological conflict at the expense of consensus on the goals of the revolution, which were equitable development, employment, dignity and freedom.
The government’s poor choices have not helped this situation, among them its decision to be lenient towards Salafist forces that have attacked journalists and artists and have declared some areas of the country to be “Islamic emirates”. Such choices have split the government, negatively influencing public opinion which has questioned where the country is heading in the absence of a clear agenda.
The government’s contradictory political rhetoric and its poor communications strategy have led to the eruption of protests on several occasions, leading the government to respond with a security crackdown against protests and demonstrations.
The most important of these took place on 9 April and 13 September in front of the US embassy in Tunis, when five Salafis were killed and dozens were arrested. Two later died in prison after going on hunger strike. There were also the events at Douar Hicher in the last week of October, which represented a turning point in dealing with the Salafist current.
After two Salafis were killed in the latter incident, Salafi leaders such as Abu Ayad and Al-Bashir bin Hussein disclaimed responsibility for the violence that had taken place during the Abdelliya incident, when an art gallery allegedly displaying blasphemous images was attacked, and during the attack on the US embassy.
The Salafi leaders said that they had led peaceful protests and that those initiating the violence belonged to the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), some of whose members are believed to deal in alcohol and drugs.
Yet, many Tunisians and the country’s foreign partners believe that the Salafis are the greatest danger facing post-revolutionary Tunisia, especially after reports of Al-Qaeda’s presence in North Africa, the confiscation of weapons on the border and confrontations with the National Guard and army in February.
However, Al-Nahda favours dialogue with the Salafis in order to try to convince them to participate in the democratic process, and both Al-Nahda Party and its leader, Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, believe that the biggest threat to the Tunisia’s future comes not from the Salafis but from members of the former ruling party, who, it is claimed, could attempt to return to power.
The formation of the Tunisia Call Party in June this year by Al-Baji Caid Essebsi, the country’s prime minister during the transitional phase, could open the door for the return of the dissolved former ruling party, Al-Nahda believes, seeing this as the gravest threat to the country’s democratic transition. The party has attracted several MPs, and it intends to form a parliamentary bloc.
Other MPs have drafted a law designed to “protect the revolution” that they say will make any return of the former ruling party impossible. However, the draft law, if passed, would also change the composition of the constituent assembly tasked with writing the country’s new constitution, returning the process to square one.
Progress has been made in drafting the new constitution, despite the many obstacles and apparently endless discussion. However, such missteps have led to broadening mistrust among Tunisians, especially after the deadline for finishing the new constitution, 23 October, was missed, causing many to regret voting for MPs having little political experience.
Tunisia today yearns for a consensus government staffed by technocrats and avoiding politicians, hopefully ending the present spiral of uncertainty and hesitation. However, such a government cannot be put in place before the ratification of the new constitution and the holding of legislative and presidential elections, slated for the beginning of summer 2013.
The country’s patriotic forces are urging citizens to take part in these elections and warning about the dangers of violence, incitement and political machinations. Will they succeed in raising awareness of such dangers? We can only wait and see.

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