Tu­nisia ac­tivists must re­group


TU­NISIA, al­though not per­fect, has nev­er­the­less achieved a model tran­si­tion to democ­racy since the oust­ing dur­ing the 2011 Arab Spring revo­lu­tion of for­mer long­time dic­ta­tor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

As a sign of progress, in the May mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions, Tu­nis, the cap­i­tal city, elected its first woman mayor when Souad Ab­der­rahim, a phar­ma­cist who is a mem­ber of the Is­lamist En­nahda party, won. Ab­der­rahim is a women’s rights ac­tivist.

Or­di­nary cit­i­zens have turned their in­di­vid­ual ac­tivism into start­ing new civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions. The rise of civil so­ci­ety from the em­bers of the Arab Spring is the main rea­son that the coun­try has had a more suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to democ­racy than other north African coun­tries that ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar up­ris­ings.

Most of the Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tions were started by or­di­nary in­di­vid­u­als. In most of the post-Arab Spring coun­tries, these or­di­nary in­di­vid­u­als were el­bowed out af­ter the fall of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, with old po­lit­i­cal elites, mil­i­tary or royal fam­i­lies tak­ing power again.

The big­gest mis­take in all the Arab Spring coun­tries was that the or­di­nary in­di­vid­u­als who led the rev­o­lu­tions did not form al­ter­na­tive po­lit­i­cal par­ties that could take power in place of the old elites.

If they had done so, the Arab Spring could have made a de­ci­sive break with un­demo­cratic, con­ser­va­tive and pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­eties. The Arab Spring in Tu­nisia, how­ever, brought about many new civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions. Af­ter cit­i­zen power un­seated Ben Ali in 2011, the Is­lamist En­nahda Move­ment party, which formed af­ter the col­lapse of the Ben Ali gov­ern­ment, won elec­tions later in the year be­cause the Arab Spring pro­test­ers did not form po­lit­i­cal par­ties of their own.

Pre­dictably, once in power, the Is­lamist En­nahda party did not bring in democ­racy, rights or gen­der equal­ity. The party was ac­cused of the Is­lami­sa­tion of in­sti­tu­tions. It tried to cur­tail new civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions and proved in­ept at turn­ing around the econ­omy. Ac­tivists took to the streets again. In the stand­off, civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, in 2013, stepped in to ne­go­ti­ate the draft­ing of a new demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion, the step­ping down of the Is­lamists and the set­ting up of new elec­tions.

Four large civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, called the Na­tional Di­a­logue Quar­tet, were in­stru­men­tal in build­ing a tran­si­tion to democ­racy.

In the 2014 elec­tions bro­kered by the Quar­tet, the na­tion­al­ist Ni­daa Tounes won a ma­jor­ity and the party’s Beji Caid Essebsi won the pres­i­den­tial run-off in De­cem­ber 2014.

Essebsi had served as for­eign min­is­ter in the eight­ies and speaker of par­lia­ment in the nineties un­der Ben Ali. In 2015, Essebsi in­tro­duced a law, which was passed in 2017, giv­ing amnesty to gov­ern­ment and busi­ness lead­ers ac­cused of ad­min­is­tra­tive cor­rup­tion un­der the Ben Ali regime. In re­turn for amnesty, they were to for­feit as­sets and in­come they ac­quired il­le­gally and pay a fine.

Post Arab Spring gov­ern­ments have strug­gled to turn the econ­omy around af­ter years of mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion and de­cline. Un­em­ploy­ment re­mains high, growth slug­gish and liv­ing stan­dards poor. Many Tu­nisians, es­pe­cially the youth, are mi­grat­ing to Europe in search of jobs. Mil­i­tant Is­lam groups have tried to ex­ploit the lack of eco­nomic progress to re­cruit the poor.

The Essebsi gov­ern­ment has side­lined civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions by try­ing to cut off their for­eign fund­ing or freeze their ac­counts, un­der the pre­text that the funds are used to fi­nance “ter­ror­ism”.

Civil so­ci­ety in Tu­nisia is cru­cial to enforce ac­count­abil­ity, de­liver ser­vices where the gov­ern­ment is not and pro­vide a sense of pur­pose to young peo­ple who may turn to fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lam to seek an­swers to their lack of ma­te­rial progress. The sup­pres­sion of civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions and lead­ers will not only un­der­mine democ­racy and eco­nomic re­cov­ery, it will re­duce the al­ter­na­tives to Is­lamist fun­da­men­tal­ist move­ments and ideas in the pub­lic space.

In spite of his at­tacks on civil so­ci­ety crit­ics, Essebsi has in­tro­duced key demo­cratic re­forms. He es­tab­lished an In­di­vid­ual Free­doms and Equal­ity Com­mit­tee to pro­pose new laws to en­trenched free­dom of ex­pres­sion, as­so­ci­a­tion, hu­man rights and gen­der equal­ity.

In Au­gust, Essebsi pro­posed a bill to par­lia­ment, based on pro­pos­als from the In­di­vid­ual Free­doms and Equal­ity Com­mit­tee, grant­ing women and men equal in­her­i­tance rights, a cru­cial step to­wards gen­der equal­ity. The pro­posal is op­posed by Mus­lim con­ser­va­tives. Cur­rent in­her­i­tance law is based on the Qur’an, which cod­i­fies that women can only in­herit half of what men do. Essebsi gave in half­way to Mus­lim con­ser­va­tives by promis­ing that fam­i­lies wish­ing to con­tinue the cur­rent prac­tice can do so, whether the new law is adopted or not. The In­di­vid­ual Free­doms and Equal­ity Com­mit­tee has also rec­om­mended the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, free­dom of con­science and abol­ish­ing the death penalty.

Mus­lim groups and con­ser­va­tives have launched protests against the In­di­vid­ual Free­doms and Equal­ity Com­mit­tee’s re­form pro­pos­als.

Since its 2014 par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tion losses, the En­nahda has tried to trans­form it­self into a demo­cratic Mus­lim party. It has abol­ished the no­tion of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam, as prac­tised by al­most all north African Is­lamic par­ties.

Nev­er­the­less, the En­nahda, al­though in its new guise sup­ports some of the demo­cratic re­forms, it is also gal­vanis­ing con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious-based op­po­si­tion to the re­forms, adding to a secular-mod­ernist-demo­cratic ver­sus Is­lamist-con­ser­va­tive cleav­age in Tu­nisian pol­i­tics, for sup­port for the 2019 elec­tions.

Tu­nisia’s ac­tivists must now create a new po­lit­i­cal party, fo­cused on democratis­ing so­ci­ety. If they do not do, they will play sec­ond fid­dle to the Ni­daa Tounes, which is the old post-in­de­pen­dence elite dressed in new clothes, and the Is­lamist En­nahda party, which re­mains con­ser­va­tive.

• Wil­liam Gumede is chair­per­son of the Democ­racy Works Foun­da­tion, and au­thor of South Africa in BRICS.

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