Lessons learned on Tunisia’s ‘perilous path to freedom’

tunis-flagTunisia’s experience holds many lessons for other countries undergoing a democratic transition, says Rached Ghannouchi, the founder and president of the Ennahda Party.

Tunisia’s success was built on consensus, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

This has prevented fragile democratic institutions from collapsing due to political conflict. Tunisia’s commitment to inclusion also allowed us to navigate questions of transitional justice and begin addressing decades of inequality and an economy plagued by inherited structural problems. There can be no majority or minority when building the foundations of democracy.

The decision not to nominate an Ennahda presidential candidate reflected our willingness to make sacrifices to prevent polarization. Domination by any one political faction risks a return to the authoritarianism under which Tunisians suffered for three decades.

The labor unions of the UGTT were the most significant of the civil society groups that played a vital role in advancing and defending the transition, says Salah Eddin al Jourshi, President of the Al Jaheth Cultural Forum.

“There are dangers that threaten the process of building a healthy civil society from parties who have a completely opposite understanding of civil society in its modern meaning,” he told the Arab Reform Initiative’s Bassma Kodmani and Salam Kawabiki:

This new force, and we use the term “force” here because civil society played an important role when the parties were weak and fought each other, intervened to limit the ramifications of these disputes, or at least to direct them to a specific course of action. ….Civil society played a major role in preparing for the holding of elections that were important in the history of Tunisia. Through this process, some civil society leaders joined the executive authority and for three years now, are government leaders or in state institutions. Many of them were nurtured in civil society and managed associations and human rights organisations. They were behind the first commission that was established. If there had been a similar commission in Egypt, events would not have unfolded as they have. In order for the commission to protect the revolution and democratic transition, the head and members were from civil society.

Europe can play a vital role in sustaining Tunisia’s progress and promoting an alternative, Ghannouchi adds:

Increased foreign direct investment and trade can create high-skilled jobs that provide social mobility, strengthen our society and limit the appeal of extremist groups. Simultaneously, it will offer European companies with operations in Tunisia a high-quality gateway to Africa. The combination of increased regional security and business growth can only be a positive for Tunisia and Europe. …..But Tunisia’s democratic transition remains unfinished and cannot be taken for granted. Tunisia’s friends in Europe can help ensure our continued progress, a contribution that will benefit not just Tunisia but the rest of the region and beyond.


Three remarks on Tunisia’s transition

tunisia pollsFor all the political progress that has been made, Tunisia’s economic transition has hardly begun, and political disillusionment of large parts of the population remains a major issue, notes political analyst Benjamin Preisler. The victory of Béji Caïd Essebsi and his party, Nidaa Tounes, has to be understood in the context of the latter and seems likely to pose a major obstacle to the advancement of the former.  Three points are especially worth noting, he writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Election Reports:

1) One of the two factors making possible Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s victories was the decrease in the overall number of voters.

For the first free Tunisian elections in 2011 for its Constitutive Assembly4,308,888 voters turned out. The legislative elections in 2014 had3,579,256 voters, 729,632 fewer. Note how close in size this figure is to the 554,286 voters the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha lost while – mostly – in government between these two elections. The first and second rounds of the 2014 presidential elections had 3,339,666 and 3,189,672participants, respectively. Real voter turnout – not the participation rates published by the ISIE and calculated based on the 8,289,924 eligible voter figure from 2011  – went from 51.9 percent in 2011 to 43.2 percent, 40,3 percent, and 38.5 percent, respectively, in 2014…..

2) Neither Nidaa Tounes nor Essebsi received much of its electoral support from the revolutionaries.

The Tunisian revolution had its origin in the disfavored interior. It was initiated and sustained in the face of a massive security crackdown in late 2010 by the un- or underemployed youths of the region before finding its denouement in the capital in early 2011.

Yet, Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s support is especially strong in the richer coastal regions. …..Theirs is a nonrevolutionary majority in the sense that many of its supporters clamor for a return to the supposed political and economic stability as well as security of the pre-revolutionary days. Doubts about this new majority’s commitment to the democratic transition process and issues such as transition justice persist (see here, here, or here).

3) The big question: To what extent will Nidaa Tounes reform the economy against the interest of its own constituency?

The World Bank has published an insightful, self-critical report of the Tunisian economy during the Ben Ali years and ever since. This report underlines the transitional government’s arguably biggest failure, namely that “the economic system that existed under Ben Ali has not been changed significantly.” It is an open question whether this was due to incompetence on the part of Ennahdha and its coalition partners or entrenched opposition in administrative and business circles against these changes.


Anti-Islamist claims win as election completes Tunisia’s transition

tunisia mohsen-marzoukAnti-Islamist candidate Beji Caid Essebsi has claimed victory in Tunisia’s first free presidential election which reportedly completes the country’s transition to democracy. But bitter rival and incumbent Moncef Marzouki dismissed the declaration as unfounded and refused to concede defeat, AFP reports:

Tunisians took to the polls on Sunday for the leadership runoff vote, with many calling the ballot a landmark for democracy in the country where the Arab Spring was born. Official results are not due until Monday evening but shortly after polls closed Essebsi’s campaign manager [and former human rights activist] Mohsen Marzouk (above left) said early indicators signalled a victory for Essebsi, leader of the Nidaa Tounes party.

Accepting former regime officials — known as the “Remnants” by their critics — back into politics was one of the steps that initially helped restore calm and keep Tunisia’s often unsteady transition to democracy on track, Reuters reports:

Essebsi took 39 percent of votes in the first round ballot in November with Marzouki winning 33 percent. As front runner, Essebsi dismissed critics who said victory for him would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He argued that he was the technocrat Tunisia needed following three messy years of an Islamist-led coalition government.

TUNISIA UGTT“The presidential elections have awoken old wounds in Tunisian politics,” said Michael Ayari, Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

He points out that the polarization between Islamist and secular groups overlays a fracture between the impoverished south, long excluded from economic development, and the more prosperous coast. The coastal areas have traditionally supplied Tunisia’s ruling elites, exemplified by Mr Sebsi…..Mr Ayari says that whoever wins the presidential election will need to find ways to work alongside the new government to calm tensions and heal divisions.

“Each camp has legitimate grievances and genuinely felt fears about the other,” he told the FT. “Airing them out is a first step to finding a way to coexist peacefully and minimize tensions.”


If Mr. Essebsi’s claim is confirmed by election authorities, his win would culminate the meteoric rise of the anti-Islamist party he established with a message that rebranded him and other former regime figures as experienced statesman uniquely positioned to govern the nation, The Wall St Journal adds:

It would also give the party Nida Tunis control of both the legislature and the presidency, a prospect that some have seen as a setback for Tunisia’s largely successful but halting path to democracy and that risks re-establishing one-party rule.

Mr. Essebsi appeared to try to tamp down such fears in remarks to state television, thanking his rival, Moncef Marzouki. He said he was dedicating his “victory to the martyrs of Tunisia” and called for inclusive politics.

“The divide is not between secularists and Islam,” Marzouki told The New York Times. “The divide is between democrats and nondemocrats.”

Marzouki points to Essebsi’s role in the government that forced him into exile. “Beji Caid Essebsi has nothing to do with democracy,” he said. “He has always been part of the dictatorship.”

Essebsi has enjoyed support from left-leaning journalists, with a number of newspapers endorsing the secularist. But critics maintain that he is a symbol (if not an architect) of the country’s corrupt, authoritarian past, UPI adds:

Marzouki is concerned about losing the election, but he’s more concerned about the political escalation that could follow.

“It will be a confrontation between corrupt dictatorship and radical Islamists,” he said. “These will be the main key players, and we as democrats and human rights activists will be thrown away. And this will be a huge confrontation. This will be terrible for the whole Arab world.”

Can democracy thrive in Arab world?

tunisia demoThe world celebrated the “Arab Spring” as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists, writes AP analyst Dan Perry:

After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.

Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.

“We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition, Perry adds:

Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.

One recommended strong but “benevolent” leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.


Tunisian union leader’s dubious trial

tunisia_ugtt(1)Tunisian police union leader accused of defaming the army has been sentenced to two years in prison, Human Rights Watch said today:

The military first instance tribunal in Tunis imposed the sentence on Sahbi Jouini on November 18, 2014, after conducting an in-absentia trial without notifying him in advance. A military prosecutor initially called Jouini to testify as a witness after he stated during a TV talk show that the Defense Ministry had received prior notice about an armed group attack that killed 16 Tunisian soldiers, but had failed to take protective measures. He told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor changed his status from witness to accused without notifying him. The Tunisian authorities should drop the criminal proceedings against him.

“The proper response by the authorities to Jouini’s accusations is to investigate them,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By sending the messenger off to prison, the Tunisian authorities are trying to shut down public debate about the Defense Ministry’s conduct and capabilities.”