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.

Political Party update 1: Marzouki shows independence, the CPR chooses its new leadership

I’m back from a little vacation and will be providing a series of updates to Kefteji over the course of the week. We start today with a continuation of my series on Tunisian political parties. Despite August holidays, Ramadan, and Aid el-Fitr, political wrangling continued in Tunisia in the month of August.

Today’s updates focus on the parties most in the news, the CPR, which held its congress this month, Ennahdha, and Nidaa Tunis. It’s interesting to note the discourse between these three elements as they position themselves ahead of the coming constitutional battles and next year’s elections. Smaller parties made few headlines, although rumors swirled over potential coalitions that have not yet seen the light of day. Given my lag in posting, I’ve separated out the main headlines into three parts. Click here for installments 2 and 3.

The CPR held its party congress this week. Highlights:

Marzouki angered his coalition partner, Ennahdha, with the following remarks, as reported in Jeune Afrique on Aug 25. “What complicates the situation is the growing sense that our brothers in Ennahda are working to control the administrative and political state,” the president wrote in the statement read by one of his advisers at the opening of Congress. “These are practices that remind us of the bygone era” of the deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he said, denouncing “the appointments of Ennahda supporters in key positions whether they are competent or not.” In protest, several members of the government belonging to the Islamist party left the room, including the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, and the Interior, Ali Larayedh, according to an AFP journalist.

Some members of the CPR distanced themselves from Marzouki, while Ennahda criticized the president. “The discourse of Moncef Marzouki to the opening of the Congress of CPR is catastrophic,” said Taher Hmila on the sidelines of the congress from which he was excluded. He added that it was a contradictory discourse, sometimes calling the cohesion between the members of Troika and sometimes criticizing the coalition. Samir Dilou, Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice (and sometimes Ennahda spokesman, withdrew from the Congress, saying that there was an unjustified attack against the party Ennahdha.

Leaders argues that Marzouki’s strategy is a way to assure his reelection, distancing himself from Ennahda.

The highlight of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) congress held over the weekend has been the virulent attack by Moncef Marzouki against his Ennhadha allies he has accused of seeking to monopolize power…marking the tone for a political season that looks to be very eventful.

Marzouki had already launched his reelection campaign, in the spring, with a priority of trying to find the best way to keep the direct elections of the presidency, without having to seek the support of Ennahdha. The polls certainly give show his popularity, generated by its strong media presence…, and his frequent trips abroad… Without confusing notoriety, popularity, populism and, ultimately, the final vote, analysts know that the nature of the political system has not yet been set (presidential, parliamentary, mixed…) and the time that separates us from elections is likely to be extended until next summer, meaning that all calculations may lead to false speculation.

TAP, the Tunisian news agency, reports that “the CPR has announced its official position that it continues to support the maintenance of a presidential regime, although it noted that it will respect the position of its coalition partners.

The congress also named the new party secretary, giving insight into CPR’s internal politics. Liberation reports: “Maintaining Mohamed Abbou, 46 years as Secretary General of CPR seems to confirm this line (of criticism of Ennahda), the latter having resigned in late June the post of Minister of Administrative Reform, saying the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali not let him exercise his prerogatives in the fight against corruption.”

Leaders has the full list of party leaders.

Meanwhile, Abderraouf Ayadi, former Secretary General of CPR said he is creating a new independent movement of the CPR to further strengthen the mechanisms of democracy.

See also political update 2 and 3.

NPR Series on Tunisia looks at politics, women, presidents, and booze

Filling up on legmi by the side of the road

NPR reporters buying moonshine on the side of the road. Photo by John Poole, NPR

NPR’s Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Tunisia this week on the first leg of a road trip across North Africa. He’s filed a number of interesting reports that are well worth checking out.

Some highlights:

Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity – including an interview with Ferida Lebidi, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Ennahdha. She talk about political repression under the former regime and, interestingly, how she would like to institute the death penalty for adulterers.

Some Taboos Vanish In Tunisia, Replaced By Others – discussing religious taboos replacing political taboos and new censorship in Tunisia. Money quote: “Tunisia is the laboratory of the Arab world. We are today addressing all the questions we should have addressed one century ago. We are negotiating our past, our common values, where are the red lines of the freedom of speech.”

Tunisia’s Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President - An interview with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. Money quote: “We badly need the help of our friends in Europe, in the United States, because Tunisia is now a kind of lab — the whole Arab world is watching,” he said. “This year, which is the most dangerous year because it’s the year after the revolution, and the level of expectation is very, very high. And people are waiting for everything — for a miracle.”

Once Tolerated, Alcohol Now Creates Rift In Tunisia- Stories are rampant about attacks on the alcohol industry in Tunisia, but Inskeep provides us with this nugget: “Since Tunisia’s revolution, the company that brews Celtia has reported sales have actually increased. And that company is a state-run enterprise. That means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.”

And finally, Inskeep gives us the story we’ve all been waiting for – how to make Tunisian moonshine.

Road Brew: How To Make Hooch With Tunisian Date Juice (Or Try) - After sampling Tunisian date wine – the NPR photographer stated: “It’s like one-third maple syrup to two-thirds water, but with a hint of dates.” And, after trying to make it in what must have been a dare – “What remained in the bottle was “unbelievably foul.”

 

Education: Tunisian women continue to outpace men and the demographic challenge that creates

Almost 130,000 Tunisian students will attempt to pass the Baccalaureat exam this year. Based on the French system, le Bac is a cumulative exam that allows those who pass to enter the university system.

Suffice it to say – in a country that has emphasized education since its independence – it’s a big deal. Daily news reports update the public on how the exams will be conducted and the mobile phone companies have ensured that every student will receive a text message when the results are announced on June 22.

Recent articles in the Tunisian press have discussed whether with an Islamist government philosophy should still be part of the Bac, the interdiction of the full face veil for women taking the exam, and how the ruling party, Ennahdha, is giving candy to students taking the Bac.

One recent article on the Bac caught my eye – it stated that of the 130,000 students taking the exam, 57 percent will be women. Perhaps not surprising, in a country known since independence for its treatment of women, the results correspond to another trend – it is not just women who are becoming more educated  - according to World Bank data – it’s men who are becoming less educated. While women’s enrollment in primary school has been increasing, overall enrollments have been declining – meaning that fewer and fewer men are enrolling or completing school.

The trend starts early, 92 percent of girls complete a primary education in Tunisia, while only 90 percent of boys do the same – and their numbers are in steep decline, down 17 percent from the high. Of those who complete primary school, 87 percent of girls go on to secondary school, while only 80 percent of boys do. Again this year, more women will complete their secondary education and move on to college.

Yet despite the fact that women’s educational levels are increasing in absolute and relative terms (compared to men), their participation in the labor force remains limited. The World Bank estimates that only 25 percent of women are active workers, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

This corresponds to another sad fact of Tunisian employment – the more educated you are, the worse your prospects are. In an inverse to trends in the U.S., unemployment rates are actually higher in Tunisia for those with college degrees.

As Lahcen Achy noted in his study of Tunisia’s economy for the Carnegie Endowment, “Education turned out to be a double-edged sword by raising the expectations of educated youths and fueling their frustrations…On average, each university graduate remains unemployed for two years and four months, which is nine months longer than for of nongraduates.”

The problem is even worse for women – who often have difficulty getting jobs in the private sector, and yet have found public sector employment harder and harder to come by. As a recent African Development Bank report put it: “out of an equal number of male and female active engineers, the industry and private services sector hires 79 women for every 100 men. On the contrary, the public services sector hires 108 female engineers for every 100 men.”

Now more than ever, the need for education and labor market reforms is apparant. The government is expected to release a report on changes to the secondary educational system. Let’s hope they go beyond the recent announcement that they will once again, in a post-Ottoman empire irony, to teach Turkish in their high schools – and start looking at how to improve the system so that it corresponds to the needs of the Tunisian labor market.

What does it mean to attack Tunisian bar culture?

A series of stories has grabbed the attention of the international press about religious attacks on Tunisian bars and liquor stores. Attacks have occurred across the country over the past year, intensifying in the past 10 days with major incidences in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. These attacks raise the question, what is the prevalence of Tunisian bars and liquor stores? how easy is it to buy alcohol in this Muslim country? and who is being attacked?

From Agence France Presse:

On Saturday, after police arrested a Salafi suspect in the northern town of Jendouba, a group of 200 bearded men attacked the police station with firebombs and stones. They were repulsed with tear gas but went on a rampage through downtown, attacking bars and liquor stores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested. Earlier in the month, another group of conservatives attacked bars in the central town of Sidi Bouzid.

To read the reports, it sounds as if Tunisia’s reputation as the most secular of Arab countries is really true – women and men sip wine together and mingle in a southern version of a Parisian bar. “Pass me the vermouth, honey.” The reality, of course is a little different.

Let’s step away from the 4 star hotel on the coast most tourists find in Tunisia and look at where a typical Tunisian goes to have a drink.

First of all, you’re going to have to get there early. Bars are forbidden to serve after 8 p.m. Secondly, check your pants – if you’re a man, come on in, if not – no booze will be served – these are men only affairs. Finally, do you like dank? If so, you’re in the right place. Tunisian bars have generally not been cleaned since the 1960s.  While I don’t have the precise data, it corresponds roughly to the last time someone was able to open a new bar in Tunisia. Since Bourguiba’s era, alcohol licences have only been available to “Restaurant touristique” meaning that all the bars in Tunisia are roughly from the colonial era. And they smell like it too.

Dive bar does not describe the typical squalor of a Tunisian bar. If you like drinking inside of a roadside gas station men’s restroom, you’ll be right at home. The further you get from the tourist areas, the truer this is.

What, this doesn’t appeal to you? Perhaps you’d like to drink with your mates at home. No problem. Tunisian liquor stores have all you need – both beer and wine. But you’re going to need sharp elbows – and you’ll have to be punctual. Buying beer at a Tunisian liquor store involves queuing (fighting) with about 50 guys in a cage, usually in a basement, or in an alleyway – most likely both. These stores are typically open for about 2 hours a day. But armed with your loot – at least you can go have your beer in tranquility – just make sure it’s in a black plastic bag – no way can you brandish your beer on the street. Also, be sure it’s not Friday, when no booze is for sale and no bars are open.

Of course, if you’re a little more well to do Jendoubian or Sidi Bouzidois, you might be able to head to the local hotel. Ostensibly for foreign customers, most Tunisian hotels are armed with the “Restaurant touristique” license that allows them the opportunity to sell booze. And of course, if you’re in Jendouba or Sidi Bouzid, there are no tourists, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself, your buds, and be able to enjoy a plate of Ojja to boot. And, of course, you’ll still have the dank, womanless environment we all enjoy when having a glass of pinot gris.

What could possible upset this wonderful bar culture in Tunisia? Well, it seems that the debauchery of a typical Tunisian bar is just a bit too much for some of the country’s more conservative elements. Trashing a bar or liquor store and harassing its customers is what the 2011 uprising was all about, after all – at least for our facial-hair endowed neighbors.

Meanwhile, many question whether these attacks will drive away tourists. Well, the headlines might, but the attacks themselves won’t. The reality is that the vast majority of these attacks are aimed at Tunisians by Tunisians. Is it that surprising that we’ve started to see some push back? Bar owners in Sfax and Jendouba are reportedly coming together to defend their establishments. Now if they could only clean them…..

Ben Ali-style security arrests raise questions on government commitment to security reform

Security has been a major preoccupation of Tunisians since the fall of the previous regime. The fear is based not only on actual risks, including increases in small arms traffic, the release of several thousand prisoners, and general lawlessness – but also on increased crime reporting in the media. Information long surpressed under Ben Ali is now regularly in the news. What is considered banal crime beat reporting in the west (home break-ins, muggings, car theft) was literally unheard of in Ben Ali-era media.

In response to these rising fears, the government has been keen to show resolve and results in its crime fighting measures. Curiously, however, it has approached this in Ben Ali-style fashion – reporting mass arrests in huge crime sweeps in various neighborhoods and cities around the capital and other cities. Reports of several hundred criminals being rounded up are a regular appearance in the country’s print and online media. A recent headline from the state news agency reports: 423 delinquents arrested in Tunis: 423 delinquents, some wanted on charges of murder, theft, violent attacks, possession and trafficking of drugs, and illegal distribution of alcohol here arrested in Tunis between April 12-29.” More reports can be read here, here, here, and here.

Even in reports without the dramatic numbers of arrests, one finds precious little information on the police work involved or the ongoing investigation. A search on the Tunisian news agency found no results for actual convictions or guilty verdicts by Tunisia’s courts against these criminals.

This is curious. The current government, desperate both to show that it can manage the security situation and reform the security apparatus itself – is using the same tactics as Ben Ali to prove its competence. Government reports on jobs and investment projects often follow the same model – reporting huge numbers, with no analysis of concrete results, or follow up that things have actually changed. It reminds me of the headlines in the run up to the January 14, 2011 toppling of Ben Ali – week one the government promised to create 10,000 jobs, week two 50,000, and by week three they were promising 300,000 jobs.

Of course, government press releases are not the only problem. The fact that these are reprinted without any changes in the country’s newspapers shows the inadequecy of reporting that still plagues the Tunisian media. But  the media isn’t running for reelection next year – the government is – and it is the government’s responsibility to show that it is prosecuting real criminals and getting real convictions – and thus making the country safer. Instead, we get something that falls far short.

One of the foremost complaints about the Ben Ali regime was the arbitrary arrest of just about anyone for anything (see Bouazizi, for one). Reporting mass arrests, without correllary stories on the police investigation, the prosecution, or honest crime statistics makes a mockery of the reports themselves and raises questions about what the government is actually doing.

Magnifying the problem is the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government to tackle the security challenges brought on by radical conservative groups, who have recently stepped up attacks on both tourists and establishments deemed un-Islamic.

So we have a situation in which the government seems content to continue the arbitrary arrest of delinquents, yet is unwilling to investigate and hold accountable groups that are a real and open threat – including to the just recovering tourism industry.

The irony in all of this is that the government has made security sector reforms one of its top priorities of 2012. It has released an action plan and a statement of values the security system should uphold, including raising confidence in the system and instituting community policing measures. Its efforts so far, at least by way of official spokemen, have fallen far short of this goal.

[Photo: Image of police at the interior ministry from Nawaat]

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.

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.

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.