Republic day in Tunisia, waiting for a pardon

Tunisia’s Mornaguia jail

Today, July 25, Tunisia celebrates its birth as a republic. On this day in 1957, Tunisia, having already announced its independence 15 months earlier, officially became a republican regime. While most Tunisians spend today as one would any holiday, relaxing with friends and family, some Tunisian families are waiting for word from the president on pardons for their imprisoned family members.

While both inside and outside of Tunisia the emphasis has usually been on political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, conditions of Tunisian prisons have not improved since the revolution, except for those who were pardoned in one of the general amnesties since January 14, 2011.

Nevertheless, Tunisia’s jails remain notoriously harsh. Conditions are spartan, with many prisoners sleeping 50 to a room. The lucky ones may get a “private” room, containing only 7 other men. And with draconian sentencing, Tunisians, convicted of what might be considered petty crimes in other countries, may languish for years in prison in Tunisia. Recall that only recently, two young men in Mahdia were sentenced to seven years in jail for blasphemy. While the “affaire Mahdia” has become somewhat of a cause celebre, many Tunisians guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs or petty vandalism can spend years in Tunisia’s jails.

On this, the 55th Republic Day in Tunisia, it is the families of these prisoners that are praying for a miracle. Praying that their sons or brothers, or fathers will receive a presidential pardon and a new lease on life. Today can act as a subtle reminder for those who thankfully do not have to experience the tragedy of having a family member in jail, that even those who have erred deserve respect and human dignity.

Political party watch – updates on the state of Tunisia’s political parties

A CPR supporting car with Marzouki’s signature glasses.

One of the continuing themes in Tunisian politics is the ever changing political landscape of Tunisia’s political parties. Changes within secular parties have become a daily occurrence, and the upcoming assembly of Ennahdha and the legalization of at least one Salafist party have shown the shifting sands of Tunisia’s electoral politics. As I noted earlier this month, the secular parties have had a notoriously tough time organizing. But as the results of the Egyptian elections have shown us, even strong organization among Islamists has not reduced their electoral vulnerabilities. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of updates on the state of political parties in Tunisia.

——

Destourian Parties: According to a recent press release, at least four Destourian (or Bourguibist) parties are once again trying to coordinate their activities. Readers may recall that a large gathering of Destourians, led by transitional leader Beji Caid Essebsi last March, attempted to unite all of the former regime parties, only to collapse just days later.

Ettaktol: Amidst further falls in (notoriously unreliable) Tunisian opinion polls, the political bureau of Tunisia’s third major party in the Constituent Assembly attempts a further reshuffling. The party leader, Mustapha ben Jafaar eluded to a potential alliance or fusion of Ettaktol with another political party. Their congress is scheduled for next fall.

CPR: President Moncef Marzouki’s party, the CPR, after a mass exodus of officials from the party, attempted to calm supporters that it was breaking apart. Leaders reports that according to internal sources, the party is engaged at rebuilding its internal structures and recapitalizing its much depleted funds (it reportedly only has 11,000TND, or about $7,000 in its account?!). Regional congresses are scheduled in June.

Republican Party (Former PDP/Afek): The Republican Party (an amalgamation of the PDP and Afeq) has called for a national unity government. Accusing the government of incompetence, Secretary General Maya Jbiri called on the government to admit its defeat and to reconstitute a much reduced caretaker government. Readers may recall that Ennahdha had proposed this after the elections, while PDP leaders said that their duty was to stand in opposition.

PCOT: The Tunisian Communist Part (PCOT) saw another one of its offices attacked, this time just outside Tunis. The  party has been the source of continued harassment in recent weeks. The party stopped short of accusing any party, although other attacks have taken place by Salafi activists in Tunis and in other regions. Meanwhile, the PCOT continues to call for the cancellation of Tunisia’s external debt incurred under Ben Ali. While the issue has been an issue for the PCOT for some time, it was recently resurrected with the election of French president Francois Hollande who indicated support for the measure during a visit to Tunisia last year.

Related political party news: Francis Fukuyama says that the deficiency of Facebook as an organizing tool for political parties is one reason why liberal parties in Arab Spring countries have such trouble against the party machines of Islamist movements. Money quote:

[Liberals] could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.

More on Tunisian political parties here, here, and here.

Memorial Day in Tunisia: Bittersweet patriotism

2,481 gravestones mark American soldiers enterred in the U.S. War Cemetery at Carthage. See also the slideshow of the 2012 Memorial Day commemoration below.

Americans around the world celebrate Memorial Day today, a holiday to honor the dead, especially those who have fallen in battle. Nowhere are the commemorations more heartfelt, and personal, than in U.S. war cemeteries. Tunisia is home to one of 24 American war cemeteries around the world, and the only one in North Africa, where 2,841 American soldiersare enterred, their lives lost during the North African campaign against the Nazis in 1942-1943. Today the cemetery hosted a memorial service to honor these soldiers.

The setting was beautiful; a crisp clear summer morning in Carthage, a brass band from the U.S. Navy Europe band; and the always well-maintained grounds hosted the 100 or so visitors, mostly embassy personnel and their families. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray paid respect to not only those soldiers who fought against the Nazis, but also to those who died in Tunisia’s uprising in 2011. He noted the coincidence that Tunisia’s uprising began in the same places that are so familiar to U.S. students of World War II, Kasserine, Sbeitla, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid. Their cause was, as the Ambassador noted, universal – freedom. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 6th fleet noted that, much like in Tunisia, so many of the fallen U.S. soldiers came from towns in the hinterlands, such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

Foreign war cemeteries serve a dual purpose, the commemoration of the fallen, and the remembrance of battles that liberated foreign lands. In France, Belgium and England, home to 16 U.S. cemeteries, these dual roles coincide gracefully. The historical memory of the U.S. role in these countries during WWI and WWII, as well as afterwards in the reconstruction of Europe after WWII remains a positive sign of transatlantic relations.

In Tunisia, however, the memory of U.S. intervention, though honorable, is bittersweet. Foreign soldiers invaded and vanquished colonial power, France, only to be later defeated by different foreign soldiers who promptly reinstalled the colonial powers. While the U.S. publicly advocated for self-determination of colonial territories as part of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, by the end of the war, the U.S. had backtracked, leaving independence leaders in Tunisia frustrated. Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, in a speech given to commemorate the inauguration of the cemetery noted:

Like other peoples, the Tunisian people lived through the poignant tragedy of war and through the dark hours under the occupation of the Axis troops. The victory of the Allied troops did not bring to Tunisia immediate realization of her national aspirations.  It was indeed a great frustration for a people who fought on the side of freedom and made many a sacrifice during the last two wars for the cause of peace with human justice among men, for human dignity, and recognition of the peoples’ right of self-determination. [Read the complete letter here]

In interviews conducted among Tunisian visitors to the cemetery, one gets the impression that the cemetery is a historical oddity – beautiful, but strange. The memorial, unlike those in Europe, does not commemorate a shared history, a shared sacrifice. Nevertheless, these cemeteries, with their grace and tranquility, do represent something universal. To walk among the gravestones of soldiers who died so young and in foreign lands one cannot help but be moved.

Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

File:El Ghriba.jpg

The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

File:Persepolis film.jpg

Today Nessma TV, a Tunisian television station, was found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the public order for last October’s airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Prosecutors brought lawsuits against the TV owner and other involved in the film’s production and translation into Tunisian dialect.* While both convictions are setbacks for free speech in Tunisia, it is the conviction of the film’s translator and producers that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

(For more background on the case, see Masood Hayoun’s article in the Atlantic this week)

The case has played out for over 8 months, beginning with the film’s airing just weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on October 23. Outraged by the film’s brief scene with God, protests ensued immediately after the airing – followed by a lawsuit brought by conservative lawyers. Nessma TV employees were threatened and Karoui’s house was ransacked. The new government, led by Islamist party Ennahdha, condemned the violence against Karoui – as well as the “provocation” caused by the film.

The convictions show failures in Tunisia’s political system on three levels.

Firstly, the fact that the case was a criminal case is a miscarriage. Human rights groups  have pointed out that the prosecutions have been based on Ben Ali era criminal codes which essentially allow the government to prosecute anyone who might be deemed to have done something offensive. These laws were used liberally by the former dictatorship and it is disturbing to see them still being used to silence speech. (see here and here for more background on the criminal aspects of the case)

Secondly, the conviction of the film’s translator is particularly troubling. Supporters of the convictions often use the argument that governments have the right to protect public morality over the airwaves. This is true and is an often used restriction on free speech throughout the world – but that should extend only to the television station itself. The fact that the film’s translator was convicted shows that the prosecution not only wants to restrict diffusion of potentially controversial speech, but to limit its very creation.*

Finally, there is the failure of the government to defend free speech. Each time the government has expressed its opinions about the free speech cases it has been equivocal. “We do not support violence or provocation to violence.” This is unacceptable in a case like this. The government has every right to condemn Nessma. It has every right to condemn the film. It has every right to encourage Tunisians to boycott the film or its supporters.

But it is cowardly to not defend the people who translate art against prosecution; to not call for the end of authoritarian restrictions on speech; and to not differentiate between free speech and provocations.

*This paragraph originally identified Boughnim as the translator based on an outdated article on Tunisia Live. Tunisia Live has subsequently updated their article, stating: “Karoui was fined 2,400 dinars. In addition, Hedi Boughnim, programming director at Nessma TV, and Nedia Jamal, president of the women’s organization that dubbed the movie, were each fined 1,200 dinars.”

May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

Will Egypt’s disfunction spillover to Tunisia? The presidential race raises questions

Despite the obvious parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and the clear effect Tunisia’s successful ouster of Ben Ali inspired Egyptian activists, there has been surprisingly little cross-pollination of democratic ideas between Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Egyptian presidential race heats up and Tunisia enters another dangerous escalation between secularists and Islamists, there is the possibility that Tunisia’s Islamists, long a bastion of moderation among Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties, will adopt Egypt’s more conservative approach. This could have two contradictory effects in Tunisia, both of which could drive further fissures through Tunisia’s increasingly divided political landscape.

Despite the dominate narrative of the Arab Spring – as a collection of uprisings linked by common cause against authoritarianism in the Arab world – Tunisian public debate has been largely insulated from events elsewhere in the Arab world. While Tunisians are aware of and sympathetic toward the other uprisings – especially in Libya and Egypt – there has been little public discussion of the paths toward democracy these countries have taken. Tunisians rightly see their path as a model to follow – rather than the violent and chaotic paths followed by their neighbors.

Tunisia’s separate path has also been due to the much more moderate inclinations of its leaders. After well-run and fair elections, Tunisia’s Islamist party immediately joined hands with secularist counterparts to run the government and write the constitution. Unencumbered by ultra-conservative political parties in the government – such as Salafi parties – the coalition has taken many moderate stances, including the announcement last month that Ennahdha would not endorse inclusion of sharia law in the new constitution.

Ennahdha’s moderation, however, has cost it support both among its more conservative members, many of whom are more influenced by traditional Muslim Brotherhood political ideas (from whence the movement began) and by an increasingly vocal Salafi movement, which while officially excluded from politics, is making itself and its views seen across the country. And despite its moderation on key positions, its inaction against rising extremism and its seeming complicity against very public threats to basic freedoms has made Tunisian secularists skeptical if not openly worried about the future path Ennahdha will take.

It is against this backdrop that events in Egypt could conspire to influence Tunisian politics. The New York Times reported today that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate has taken a much more conservative line:

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

The article goes on to describe how throughout the post-Mubarak period, Egypt’s MB has played a much more moderate game:

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel.

What effects could a more conservative Egypt have on Tunisia? They are twofold:

Firstly, while Ennahdha is a well-oiled and disciplined political machine, its leadership is widely recognized as lying at the more liberal end of the party’s political spectrum. The debate over sharia was, by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s own confession, widely contested within the party before being decided upon. Ghannouchi’s argument was not a defense of civil institutions, but rather a wish to avoid a controversial debate at a critical time for the country.

If Egypt tilts further to the right, Tunisia’s more conservative Islamists – many trained side-by-side with their Brothers in Egypt – could begin to press for more conservative stances within Ennahdha – testing Ghannouchi’s leadership. Tunisia’s Salafi groups may be further emboldened at pressing for more radical change. At the same time, Ennahdha’s secular partners in the government (CPR and Ettaktol), already under pressure from opposition groups to join them, would be forced to choose between abandoning their partner in government, or going along with a platform much more conservative than they had agreed upon.

Secondly, Tunisia’s secularists (in this case I use the term to describe both secularists in the liberal sense, as well as those from the Bourguiba mold), already anxious about a country run by Islamists, may take bolder actions against the government. Already Tunisian secularists are sounding the alarm bells. At a meeting yesterday, secularists from various parties gathered to voice their extreme concern over events over the weekend which saw Salafi activists disrupt a planned event of a well-known secularist activist and a physical attack on a political figure. The events, troubling in and of themselves, caused even greater alarm by the perceived luke-warm response of the Ennahdha ministers at the justice and interior ministries. The meeting yesterday included calls for the opposition to boycott the Constituent Assembly and to change their tactics from those of opposition movements to “resistance” movements.

Tunisia’s secularist will look with anxiety to an Egypt which has turned further to the right. Coupled with Ennahdha’s moderate rhetoric, secularist alarmism has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Tunisia. Most Tunisians simply do not see their country following the path of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the Algerian civil war – with its complex moral narrative – is already a decade in the past. An Egypt which has turned toward the extreme would provide secularists with a narrative that could be a call to action among secular sympathizers in the country.

Both of these effects would be dangerous for Tunisia. Already polarized, Tunisia’s fragile political system would break down if the CPR and Ettaktol abandoned the government. Neither Ennahdha nor the secularists have enough seats to form a majority government. But even barring this extreme example, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to compromise in an even more polarized political environment. With elections scheduled within a year, the government may find it difficult to write the constitution on time – creating further pressure in the system as the country would face a constitutional crisis and the government (in whatever form it took) would face criticism that it could not act.

Ghorbal: Tunisia ignoring the real problem with the constitution – the courts

Samy Ghorbal, a Tunisian writer and political advisor to the opposition PDP, writes in Slate Afrique this week that while secularists celebrated Ennahdha’s abandonment of inscribing sharia law in the new constitution, they are ignoring the real problem – which is how the constitutional council interprets the constitution.

His argument, which no doubt many of my more conservative readers will take issue with, nonetheless raises the important fact that many essential debates over the shape of Tunisia’s future regime have yet to take place.

Some excerpts, translated by me, below. The whole article, in French, is worth a read.

…The real battle [not that based on Article 1 of the constitution], focusing on the architecture and processes of constitutional review, is just beginning. Because it is the role of a constitutional judge to propose and establish an interpretation of this section [Article 1). It is he who will tell how it should be understood, what it permits and what it prohibits….Everything will depend, ultimately, on the court or the Constitutional Council to be established; the checks and balances within it; and how its members will be appointed.

Tunisia has no tradition of independent constitutional justice. It is starting from zero. Established by presidential decree in 1987, the Constitutional Council, which ceased to exist after the (January 2011) Revolution, when the Constitution was repealed, was complicit in the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Can a constitutional court, which has long indulged in a servile/auxiliary role of the state, fulfill its cultural revolution and become the guarantor of rights and freedoms? Will it be given the means to do so?

These issues are of crucial importance for the future of the young Tunisian democracy. Yet they are strangely absent from public debate, and have found little echo in the Constituent Assembly. Most “modernist” parties were content to generalize about the rule of law and the need to ensure separation of powers in their election manifestos – without going into details.

The proposals unveiled by the Islamists in their program by 365 points, submitted on 14 September 2011, are equally succinct. Yet, to think about it, they leave no worry. Ennahda says it wants to establish a parliamentary form of democracy, “based on the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

In fact, in their system, all power emanates from the parliament, and, in the event a party would have the absolute majority, then all power emanates in reality from the majority party. Institutions would become hostage to one party or faction – starting with the Council or the Constitutional Court, whose president is elected directly by Parliament. There would be every reason to fear that this body is diverted from its intended liberal and turns, simply,as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the state and religious morality.