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.