Law and order speech aimed directly at ordinary Tunisians

This morning Tunisian Prime Minister par interim Caid Essebsi gave a law and order speech that attempted to calm the country in advance of elections, now just 6 weeks away. Essebsi’s speech called on the security service to maintain order throughout the country, in particular through the application of the state of emergency law. Under the emergency law, the government has the right to forbid sit-ins and strikes, something that has become increasingly common in Tunisia since the revolution of January 14. Essebsi’s speech came on a day when police officers staged a protest (some call it a sit-in) in central Tunis. The Prime Minister confronted the police by calling their labor union illegal and ordering their return to work.

Bloggers in Tunisia have reacted so far with alarm at some of these measures, which they see as directed against protest movements that have received a heavy-handed reaction by the ministry of the interior. Most recently, an August 15 protest by magistrates was marred by violence from police officers (including plain-clothed officers) and heavy use of tear gas. Many politicians will be disappointed that Essebsi did not call for a simultaneous referendum with the election of the constitutional assembly aimed at ensuring a popular vote on the nature of the next government (parliamentary versus presidential).

The PM mentioned attacks that have occurred around the country in recent days, resulting in several deaths and serious injuries in clashes between security forces and malfaiteurs. It is unclear who exactly is behind the violence, many blame former partisans of deposed president Ben Ali, while others blame the situation on general lawlessness, including the release of hundreds of violent criminals during the height of the revolution.

Whatever the cause, Tunisians are worried about the security situation as well as the general chaos that has enveloped the country. Despite a return to relative stability in the capital, residents must face many new worries, from the malign to the mundane. Garbage worker strikes have made the once (mostly) clean capital, a visibly dirtier and less sanitary environment, while homeowners have to increasingly deal with break ins and vandalism to property. Support for sit-ins and strikes has dropped dramatically in the most recent poll by the Tunisian press agency. Essebsi’s move corresponds to an increasing feeling among Tunisians that the situation of the country is out of control and that the government must take control.

The interim government is in a difficult situation. Lacking a mandate to govern, but with extremely high expectations from its citizens, it has struggled to hold together until the October elections. Essebsi’s speech today is the government’s latest attempt to buy time until the elections. While it will surely arouse suspicions from the Tunisian activists and opponents outside the government, it clearly is aimed at addressing the anxieties of a population hoping for greater peace and stability in their lives.

The struggle for dignity – Comparing Georgian and Tunisian democracies

I recently had the pleasure to visit the Republic of Georgia. On top of escaping the stifling summer heat for the cool mountains, I was able to talk to a number of Georgians about their country’s  steps down the road of democracy. It was impossible not to compare these thoughts with those that I hear on a daily basis here in Tunisia.

Some background on Georgia:

The Republic of Georgia gained independence from Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. What followed was a period of chaos and civil war that culminated in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995. A former Soviet statesman and Communist party leader, Shevardnadze led many reforms in Georgia, including a campaign of Westernization and the signing of the Azerbaijan – Black Sea pipeline deal that frustrated already strained relations with Russia. Despite these achievements, his rule was marred by rampant corruption and rent-seeking by senior officials, and his own family. Following flawed elections in 2003, Shevardnadze was forced to resign due to large protests in what became to be known as the Rose Revolution.

In 2004, Mikhael Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition, was elected and embarked on a campaign to root out corruption, while maintaining a staunchly Western-oriented foreign policy (including a disastrous war with Russia in 2008). Saakashvili is credited with jump-starting the economy, but his rule has concerned many as becoming too authoritarian.

During my visit to Georgia, I asked anyone who would talk to me about their thoughts about the country. While many people I spoke to voiced serious concerns about the president, there was no doubt about the country’s commitment to democracy. I asked one person, who had just rattled off a litany of things that were wrong about the country (the security service was too strong and needed reform, the state controlled media was biased, etc), whether the country was really democratic. His response surprised me, “of course it is, it’s just that sometimes democracy needs to be shaken up from time to time.”

In Tunisia, the mood is gloomy. A recent poll indicated that Tunisians are more and more frustrated with the political process and are uncertain about the future of the country. This echoes what one often hears on the street, that the politicians cannot be trusted, that the elections will not bring real change – in essence – that the revolution of January 14 has been highjacked.

It is always dangerous making comparisons between countries with different circumstances, people, and cultures. Even across the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb it is difficult for analysts to compare countries that have thrown off the shackles of their dictators. It is interesting though that the root causes in Georgia as in the Arab world remain remarkably similar – the search for dignity and opportunity as opposed to corruption, where honest work does not bring greater freedom or justice. Georgians struggled through 12 years of mismanagement and corruption following independence before they found their voice. When they overturned their leadership, they did so prior to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, but the reasons were the same, just as they had been following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While means change, human nature remains remarkably similar. What lessons have Georgians learned from their revolutions, coups, colonialism and unstable neighbors (all present in Tunisia in the last 100 years as well)? As one Georgian told me, Georgians are more vigilant than before they do not take anything for granted.

The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Tunisians to show that their commitment to voicing their opinions will not be a once in a lifetime protest movement, but rather, the beginning of a long and constant struggle to create the republic they deserve.