Debate continues over women’s rights in the new Tunisian constitution

As I noted in my post of August 3, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly created controversy when the commission on rights and liberties approved an article in the constitution that states: women’s rights should be protected under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country.

Women’s rights groups reacted strongly to the language, which has been seen by many in the country as an attempt to undermine women’s rights . As Aljazeera noted: “When Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly published the new draft constitution, a storm broke out over its words about women. Thousands of Tunisians were not impressed. “Oh woman, rebel – guarantee your rights in the constitution,” chanted supporters of gender equality as they marched on August 13 from the 14 January Square to the Conference Palace in the capital of Tunis…Estimates placed the number of protesters between 5,000 and 30,000. “Equality all the way – no complementarity in the constitution,” they shouted. Sister marches were held across Tunisia, in celebration of National Women’s Day [which celebrates the signing into law of the personal status code].”

How Ennahda sees it
Ennahda responded to these protests by reaffirming that it sees men and women as equal and considered the debate over the subject politicized by its opponents. Many in the party saw the law as nothing more than a misunderstanding over words.

The National explains: “Complementarity is at the heart of how Ennahda sees the role of women: party members believe that women have an equal, but different, role to play in the society. This is not an uncommon view among religious groups, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, who believe God created mankind in pairs and assigned different roles to each gender. That makes this proposed insertion of women’s “complementary” role something of a political misfire. Ennahda is picking an unnecessary fight. The party tried to row back a bit from the wording, arguing that “complementarity should be construed in a positive way”, according to Farida Abidi, an assembly member. She pointed out that there is a clear article in the proposed constitution: “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever.” But this is slightly disingenuous. What critics of complementarity are arguing for is the freedom to choose roles in society. Equal treatment before the law is not the same as equal participation in society.”

Monica Marks argues that Tunisians, the media, and activists have misinterpreted what she considers to be the correct Arabic translation used in the draft law, preferring to translate complementarity as fulfillment of each other. It should be noted, however, many in the Ennahda movement have embraced the language of complementarity, including party leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Regardless of the true intentions of the language, and the continued support for the article by Ennahda’s leadership, Marks says that the language is unlikely to pass. She writes in the FP “It is unlikely that Article 28 will pass muster with the revisionary committee scheduled to edit and harmonize this draft constitution over the coming months. Sihem Badi, Tunisia’s Minister of Women and Families, has already spoken out against the law, and a prominent female representative of Ennahda, Ms. Souad Abderrahim, has also suggested it is in need of revision. Though Ennahda controls a majority of seats on the rights and liberties committee, it will have a difficult time obtaining the necessary 109 out of 217 total votes needed within the constituent assembly to pass the article. Ennahda holds 41 percent of seats in the current constituent assembly — enough for a plurality, but not enough to bulldoze an absolute majority of parliamentarians into voting for the law.”

More controversially, and questionably (given that the constitution will be the high law and the basis for all civil law, including the PSC), Marks argues the law will have no effect on women in Tunisia. “Even if the article does pass as it is currently formulated, it is unlikely to seriously undermine women’s current legal standing in Tunisia. The law does not contradict or negate Tunisia’s Personal Status Code — a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights. The Personal Status Code prohibited polygamy and gave women the right to divorce.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s party leader, rejects Marks and embraces the language of complementarity in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family education and care. There he not a disengagement of the state?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. By children, we take responsibility, we must assume until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children. Must intervene. For example, you cannot ask a woman who has six children to go to work, it must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

For women, another article considers the complement of man. No there not a decline in women’s gains?

This is a good project. Who can deny that the man and woman complete each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man either. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Tunisian militant Emna Mnif also counters Marks on the law’s potential impact, arguing that the article in question is a direct attack on the personal status code. Stigmatization of women and the personal status code, which Tunisia earned in the wake of independence in 1956, is nothing other putting into doubt the process of emancipation and modernization of Tunisian society which has been a societal model that has been the exception in the Maghreb Tunisian and Arab-Muslim world…It is an infringement of rights of not only Tunisian women, but also those of the family and, more broadly, a society that values the individual, regardless of gender or condition, (an individual elevated to the level of citizen, sovereign and responsible, placed at the center of the foundation of the democratic state.”

Mnif’s argument about the family and the individual is also a major concern of human rights activists concerning this language. Giving familial rights, as Ghannouchi notes in his interview with Jeune Afrique, emphasizes a family structure as the center of the society, subverting the rights of individuals.

Beji Caid Essebsi condemned the draft law and called those who would call into question women’s rights similar to animals.

Tunisia assembly defines woman as man’s associate, reactions from Tunisia

Perhaps we can blame it on the summertime; which is usual in its heat, but lately with an unseasonable mugginess. But the latest news from Tunisia’s constituent assembly has caused outrage for many here. At issue is constitutional article 27, passed yesterday in the committee on rights and freedoms, one of the six committees drafting the new constitution. As Tunisia Live states:

The article….states that women’s rights should be protected “under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country,” …It was approved by a vote of 12 to 8 by the Commission of Rights and Liberties, with 9 of those voting for the clause coming from Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.

After the committee passed the law, Tunisian lawmaker Selma Mabrouk went to Facebook to protest what she saw as a backward step for women’s rights, in this the country with some of the most liberal rights for women in the Arab world. Mag 14 writes:

Ms. Mabrouk has posted a text simply titled “Bad day at the commission rights and freedoms.” She stresses that “the problem is that this meeting served as a pretext to members of Ennahdha to return to the principle of equality between men and women, that principle was unanimously endorsed in the article 22.” Article 22 in states that “citizens have equal rights and freedoms before the law without discrimination of any kind.”

Mabrouk is arguing that even though another article in the constitution (#22) has endorsed the principle of equality, article 27 is a backdoor way to go back on what had been a campaign promise of Tunisia’s dominant party, Ennahda.

Tunisia analyst and blogger Thierry Bressillon looks at the text proposed by Mabrouk, which was not passed: “The state guarantees the rights of women and her achievements in every field. It is forbidden to enact laws that may impair (her rights or achievements) in any manner whatsoever. The state must fight against all forms of discrimination or physical or psychological violence against women.” comparing it to the text that was passed by the majority: “The state protects the rights of women and its achievements under the principle of complementarity with the man within the family and as a partner to man in the development of the country. The State guarantees equal opportunities for women in all responsibilities. The State guarantees the fight against violence against women.”

He adds: “The notion of complementarity raises strong emotions. It challenges the principle of equality which was until now the official doctrine in Tunisia and internalized by many Tunisians.”

Tunisian-American activist Wafa Ben Hassine confirms this sentiment in an article in Nawaat: “Of all aspects of the constitution that Tunisians were worried about, women’s rights was the last on many people’s minds – the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that.”

Bresillon goes on to argue that the article conforms to many Islamist notions of feminism, which value the role of women, but reject the notion of equality as a Western import. I can’t speak to the Islamist notions of equality, but this is certainly the perception of Ennahda that many of Tunisia’s opposition members hold. This especially after the fact that Ennahda lawmakers this week also proposed a blasphemy law that would criminalize any blasphemous speech or actions, including the recent art exhibit which caused riots in Tunisia in June by Salafists. directed against the three main monotheistic religions. The new law was also widely criticized by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch:

 

While the blasphemy law is likely to have more widespread support in Tunisian society, which remains religious and conservative, it is unclear if the law on women’s rights will have the same support. Support for women’s rights has deep roots in Tunisia, not just because of the famous personal status code, put into place by Habib Bourguiba, but also from a deep intellectual tradition from Tunisian intellectuals such as Tahar Hadad, both of whom remain national heroes.

Recent polling by the Pew Forum has shown that many women in Tunisia are concerned over whether the ruling party would protect women’s rights, with over 36% of young women worried that their rights would be reduced. I’ll close with quote from Wafa Ben Hassine, who writes:

Putting aside the crude, incondite language the clause uses – an awful injustice is done to a whole society when the constitution of a country deems it apt to define a woman and her rights as complementary to man’s existence. The real debate should not be centered on women’s rights. Instead, it should focus on humancitizen rights. Relegating the woman’s role to complementary to that of a man’s could have serious effects on generations to come. The clause insinuates that women cannot stand alone as complete – that they are dependent on men.

 

[Finally, a note to readers, I'll be on summer holidays for the next couple weeks, more from Tunisia upon my return]

The strange constitutional crisis in Tunisia – Marzouki’s role in question

I’m on assignment this week, without time to post extensively, but I did want to draw attention to what appears to be a nascent constitutional crisis in Tunisia. The issue stems from the extradition last week of former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. While other news sources offer greater coverage of the crisis itself, one interesting aspect is the role of Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president. Since Marzouki took office he has been beset by chatter among the political classes that he is not up to being the president, and that he sacrificed his party for his own political gain.

The fact that he was excluded from the decision to extradite Mahmoudi only confirmed some of these prejudices against the president. Even to his supporters, the row has shown that he does not exercise the power of a chief executive who is supposed to be in charge of foreign policy. Marzouki has decided to fight this battle in the court of public opinion and he appears to have the support of a number of opposition politicians – who are nominally in opposition to his own party. Over 70 members of the constituent assembly voted in favor of no-confidence for the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, who made the decision to extradite Mahmoudi. It is unclear what a vote of this nature would entail, as there is no functional constitution in place that would govern new elections. It is more likely that the opposition vote is simply a show of strength against the government for what they consider to be an illegal and unilateral decision.

One final note, Tunisia Live reports that Marzouki has even threatened to resign over the issue. While this is unlikely, the threat shows the very open fissures that have been created within the ruling coalition.

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

Ennahdha’s reelection strategy takes shape

For those who missed my article last week on ForeignPolicy.com, here’s a link and an excerpt:

While outside the country Tunisia’s successful elections and relatively peaceful transition have been praised, Tunisians have been more skeptical. Many have criticized the government’s slow pace and opposition parties have capitalized on the perceived inaction by the government on the economy and security situation. The electoral timetable, along with the government’s recently released budget, are both tactical and strategic. The timetable will ward off criticism of its intentions to hold power indefinitely and the deadline will set the pace for constitution writing in the coming year. The budget-busting spending will aim to curry favor among voters, who are eager to see tangible material benefits from their historic uprising. Together, one begins to see the foundations for Ennahda’s electoral strategy.

The announcement of the timetable is most welcome and a relief to those who feared the government would try to preserve its mandate indefinitely. Despite that the timetable exceeds the one-year limit that had been agreed upon by a coalition of parties, including Ennahdha, last September, it will allow all political parties to focus on their electoral strategies, their potential weaknesses, and areas they will want to exploit for electoral gain next March.

For Ennahda, its strategy approaching elections is coming into focus. It is based on three principles — spend big, marginalize opponents, and blame others for failures.

…..

Ennahda’s strategy is not just a Machiavellian calculation to retain power; it is also due to the corner they have been painted into by their opponents. For decades Ennahda has been labeled an extremist party, despite all efforts to throw off the label — including 20 years of statements by the movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi. The party seems to have finally realized that it is more advantageous to use extremist terminology on its opponents than to fight it. The same is true for the economic situation. Before the new government even took power critics were blaming the party for indecision and inaction on the economy. While Ennahda’s strategy is political and often mischaracterizes its opponents, the party is playing by the electoral rules.

The electoral timetable announcement and the agreement to reinstate the electoral commission, the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE), are positive steps. Ennahda has done the country a service in setting out a clear path. It is in the driver’s seat for the next 12 months and it will be an interesting ride to see how Ennahda campaigns and whether its opponents can find a counter-attack against what remains a very popular movement.

The strange return of Habib Bourguiba to Tunisia

On Saturday in Monastir a strange event took place. Gathered together in the same place for the first time in decades were the Destourians – supporters of the former Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. They met to discuss plans to provide a unified political front in an effort to return the country to what it described as the path it departed from under Ben Ali, and the equally fatal path of the Islamists.

Blogger for French magazine Marianne, Martine Gozlan, described the event:

…forces of modernity are looking to unite to resist obscurantism: that was the sense of the mass meeting held Saturday, March 24 in Monastir under the auspices of Beji Caid Essebsi, the previous Prime Minister, and in the wake of the founding father whose massive portrait dominated the meeting: Habib Bourguiba….The old Beji Caid Essebsi, who was once his traveling companion, and had the difficult task of leading post Ben Ali Tunisia to the polls last October 23rd, had assembled all the forces of the centrist opposition on Saturday March 24th.

The reformation of Destourian parties has elicited many reactions here from across the political spectrum. While the potential impact of a return to Bourguibism excites many Tunisians, to others it is the first step toward a return of authoritarianism.

You don’t have to go far in Tunisia to find people who love Habib Bourguiba. A populist and a nationalist, Tunisia’s first leader after independence modernized the country, Many Tunisians, particularly those born before independence, see Bourguiba not only as a force for good, but as a true leader of Tunisians – he is their Papa. And while many of his supporters will decry his authoritarianism, they also applaud what they saw was a relatively uncorrupt individual who only wanted the best for his country. These people often also supported Ben Ali, at least up until the point that his nepotism and kleptocratic ways became known. During the uprising last year, they didn’t want an overthrow of the system, just a cleaning up.

Detractors of Bourguisme tell a very different story. They see Bourguiba as a meglomaniac who denied human rights and set the stage for Ben Ali. To Ennahdha supporters, Bourguiba relentlessly pursued, persecuted, and imprisoned them. But not only that – Bourguiba reviled Islamists. When asked what separated him from an Islamist, Bourguiba replied: “Fourteen centuries.”

When Bourguiba-era minister Beji Caid Essebsi stepped back into the political scene last February to take over the caretaker government, both hardcore Ennahdha supporters and human rights activists squirmed. While he justified his lack of fundamental reforms by saying that he was just an interim leader and that the elected leaders should make those decisions, his opponents saw someone who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the ancien regime well-placed to retakeover the country.

Recent statements, followed by Saturday’s conference in Monastir, by other so-called Destourians have put many people edge, just as they have excited many who see in the party a chance to unify the country.

To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.

Tunisian-American journalist Wafa Ben Hassine sees trouble in the potential alliance between leftists and members of the former regime:

It appeared that Essebsi and his crew were desperately seeking to rebrand the RCD. The Caid Essebsi and co. are succeeding, albeit only within a small niche. To this niche, Essebsi is simply the reincarnation of Bourguiba, representing modernity and ‘balance’ in social values….

….What is alarming are the scores of left-wing parties that made their way down to Monastir yesterday. The left should be more careful about its actions and what they reflect – the Tunisian left is already painted as an elitist segment of society. Why exacerbate the image, and in turn appear to betray the very values that led to Ben Ali’s ouster?

Bourguiba, over 24 years since being deposed, still stirs emotions and makes headlines in this country which he built in his image.  Almost half of the population knows Bourguiba only from history books – many of which are being rewritten as we speak. Whether the reconstitution of his party and his ideas will take hold is far from certain.

Secularists celebrate first victory over Islamists in student union elections

Tunisian secularists are abuzz today over the apparent landslide victory of the UGET (l’Union générale des étudiants tunisiens) over the UGTE (l’Union générale tunisienne des étudiants). These came just a week after violent clashes between Salafists and other students at Manouba University. Jeune Afrique reports:

Symbolized by the blocking of the Faculty of Arts of Manouba, but also by various violent incidents in Gabes, Sousse and Kairouan, Islamic-Salafi pressure just suffered a crushing blow.

The Agence France Presse reports:

UGET [secularist] candidates dominated the elections, which took place Thursday, collecting 250 seats out of 284 in forty institutions, according to the official website of the union.
“This is a historic victory”, said Secretary General of Uget, Alaa Zaatour, 14 Mag site.”Academic institutions with more than 4000 students voted almost unanimously for Uget,”he said.

It’s difficult to put any student union election in a broader context. These elections have not been widely followed by the Tunisian media and it is unclear the impact it might have on the direction of universities, let alone society at large.

Jeune Afrique reports on reactions from UGET members:

Ennahda has been poorly served by the support it has given to the Salafists, said Meriem Belhaj, a law student at El-Manar [University]. By not taking a position, it [Ennahhda] suggested that it approved of the violence that has taken place this academic year, which could cause the year to be cancelled; this is not the will of the majority. The students have many concerns, of course, but they are not religious in nature and, especially, do not apply to teachers. “

While many quetsions remain unanswered, there are two lessons we can draw.

First, this was the first victory by secularists since the revolution. Despite continued protests and endless commentary since the uprising last January, Tunisian secularists have been consistently beaten in the polls and at the ballot box by Islamists. In that sense, this is at the very least a moral victory for them.

Secondly, while news reports have not focused on turnout or how the elections were conducted, the UGET seemed to be able to mobilize its membership in a way that secular political parties have been unable to do. Voter mobilization was one of the keys to Ennahdha’s victory in October and has been a major stumbling block for secularists in Tunisia.

 

Secular extremists the new buzzword on the Tunisian right

In an interesting parallel to American politics, Tunisia’s right wing, predominantly the Islamist party, Ennahdha, have embarked on a campaign to call out what they consider to be “secular extremists.”

The Associated Press’s Paul Schemm reported this week:

Said Ferjani, a high ranking member of Ennahda, told The Associated Press that the last thing they wanted right now was a culture war between the Salafis and what he calls the “secular fundamentalists.”

“We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab (headscarf),” he said with exasperation. “I don’t think they are very grown up.”

Tunisian blogger Kaouther Ferjani recently wrote about an incident at the Constituent Assembly, where an Assembly member, Tahar Hmila, was verbally assaulted by two women:

Hmila explained that Tunisia suffers from both right-wing extremism and leftist extremism and that they “two sides of the same coin”…

…He urges the government to continue to work hard in bringing success and stability to the country as it would leave little room for both leftist and right-wing extremists to cause disruption.

With news of right wing (Islamist) extremists dominating news in recent weeks, Ennahdha and its supporters appear to be trying to balance what they perceive to be an unfair debate. Essentially, they posit that when a left winger protests for their beliefs, they’re portrayed as freedom fighters, whereas if a right winger does the same thing, they’re obscurantists looking to bring Tunisia back to the Middle Ages.

Ennahdha supporters have been dismayed by attacks on their movement, a movement they see as democratic, having finally gained power legitimately through democratic elections. And yet, despite a clear democratic mandate and a difficult period for the country, the opposition not only attacks their positions but questions their legitimacy and their commitment to democracy.

As an example, since forming the government, much of the Tunisian media has insisted on using the term, provisoire or interim, to describe the government. The explanation used is that the government was set up only for a limited period of time until a new constitution was ratified. (Of course, by the same logic, any democratic government could be called interim, by their nature they are not meant to last.) The rhetoric has appeared more petty than anything else.

Thus, when left wing Tunisians accuse the ruling party of harboring extremist sentiments, Ennahdha’s supporters get exasperated to be grouped together with jihadists and terrorists.

The calculation by Ennahdha seems to be, if you can’t convince them that you’re moderate, you should play be the same rules. It’s a dangerous, but often effective game – for both sides. We’re all extremists!

Constituent services come to Tunisians abroad – kind of

The magazine 216 (for Tunisians abroad) has established a sort of constituent service for Tunisians to follow their elected representatives in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. Tunisian abroad are represented by 18 representatives from various constituencies around the world.

From Tunisiensdumonde’s press release:

The service “Follow my representative,” is a contribution to the dialogue between Tunisian citizens abroad and their elected representatives to the Constituent Assembly, published by the magazine and website Tunisiensdumonde 00216, unrelated to any political party or institution. The ultimate goal is to make Tunisians citizens abroad involved in building democracy in Tunisia….

So far so good. What’s more, the site has usefully added pertinent information and bios about all of Tunisia’s elected reps overseas. Unfortunately, it has also decided to filter submitted questions through an editorial board to avoid “overburdening” the officials:

Each user can submit online a subject in the news. To avoid overloading the work of elected officials and ensure timely responses, we limit the number of public issues to 6 per month. An editorial board selects the questions submitted by citizens based on their interest and their relevance to current events. Once these issues are validated and published on the site, a mail notification is sent to the eighteen representatives abroad to invite them to respond.

Of course, if you don’t want to go through an intermediary, you can also contact your assembly member directly, on Twitter.