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.

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]

A glitch in Egyptian protocol or a purposeful humiliation? Marzouki’s trip to Egypt

Proper protocol: Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba being greeted by U.S. President John F Kennedy in New York in 1961. Photo courtesy of JFK Library.

Tunisian social networks have been abuzz today over President Moncef Marzouki’s visit to Egypt and the apparent lack of protocol provided for the Tunisia head of state. While newly elected Egyptian president Morsi held a joint press conference with Marzouki today and met with him privately, many commenters have been outraged that Marzouki was greeted not by Morsi, or the Egyptian prime minister (as had been expected), but by the relatively low level minister of electricity.

More abuzz came this afternoon as photos came out of Marzouki’s meeting with Morsi, in which contrary to usual protocol, only the Egyptian flag was on display (see photo below).Embedded image permalink

Of course, none of these events are happening in a vacuum. Marzouki has had a difficult few weeks with his presidential powers coming into question over the government’s apparent non-consultation with him over the extradition of the former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. Marzouki then proceeded to try to fire the Central Bank governor, a decision that backfired after the prime minister, Ennahda member Hamadi Jebali, reversed his position on the firing and refused to support Marzouki’s move.

Against these troubles for Marzouki, came the reports that Ennahda is pushing strongly in the Constituent Assembly for an unelected, figurehead presidency in the new constitution. This adds further fuel to the fire for those who think that the Islamist party is trying to diminish the role of the presidency for their own policy gains – this time through their counterparts in Egypt.

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.

Tunisian transition leader speaks out – a must read interview

Image courtesy of Tunisia Live

Yadh ben Achour is one of Tunisia’s best known political philosophers. A lawyer by training, his academic work has focused on constitutional law and the role of Islam in a modern democratic state. He is best known for his leadership of Tunisia’s High Commission for the Transition which guided the government’s work and oversaw last October’s elections. You can read more from his bio at Tunisia Live.

Although criticized by some for being too secular, he is generally considered to be a highly respected jurist and his recent interview in La Presse is a must read for its clarity on the political situation. Some excerpts from the interview:

On whether Tunisia’s current situation meets expectations: Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Tunisia is in the midst of a democratic age of rare intensity. Yes, insofar as the strength of democratic civil society is undeniable, forcing governments to be more modest. No, because this period, without a constitution, without a permanent government, has become too long…the longer the transitional period is lengthened, the more dangers proliferate.

On the public debates taking place and Turkey: Everything we’ve done so far has been a waste of valuable time in lamentable and ridiculous discussions about female circumcision, the niqab, Sharia, the caliphate, and other dreams and utopias which all proceed from thoughts which will never be realized. It was these very thoughts that were once the fundamental causes of the general decline of the Muslim world. Turkey, ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, is admired not because it applies Sharia, or agrees with Salafism, or is inspired by the somber niqab for its fashion. The reasons for its success comes from the fact that they lead a secular state, which has achieved an economic growth rate well above 7% and is led by a competent government.

On the current government: For now, what we should avoid is harassing the government critics through impromptu or unjust attacks. But the government must, in turn, avoid blunders or improvising its actions. We need better coordination between the three heads of state. I will not go further in my criticism. I would say, however, that some ministers and secretaries of state, notoriously incompetent, are really not in their place and are sources of problems. I think that there should be a ministerial reshuffle urgently to get rid of some ministers and secretaries of state whose capabilities are extremely limited.

On the consolidation of political parties: What we observed during the elections of October 2011 is a certain lack of rationality, because of fragmentation and the number of political organizations, whether partisan or independent, and the phenomenon of lost votes. Remember that in some electoral districts, voters were forced to choose between 95 lists, which is an aberration. For future elections, therefore, we must first enter into cycles of consolidation among various political parties belonging to the same ideological family. This is what is happening now.

On the government response to security and justice: [The government’s actions on] security and justice give a clear impression of working under the inspiration of the principle of a double standard. From the case of Nessma TV to the recent sentencing of young activists on Facebook sentenced to seven years of prison by the trial court of Mahdia or the repression of the demonstration by unemployed young people on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, despite the ban, to the case of the newspaper “Atounisia”, or the aggression against the journalists Ben Hamida Soufiane and Zied Krichen and Professor Hamadi Redissi , or in the case of the national flag being insulted and defamed at Manouba, justice, every time, proved extremely harsh vis-à-vis the movement of intellectuals or artists of democratic and secular modernists and extremely soft or extremely slow, vis-à-vis the Islamists and Salafist movements of all sizes. All these events leave, objectively, the impression that the state is biased, which is a very bad sign. I’m not trying to judge intentions. They may be good. I describe a fact of opinion, an objective fact. It is true that the reaction of the interior minister, and Mr. Rached Ghannouchi, against the Salafists, tried to reassure the public. This is a good step. But we expect concrete action.

On the nature of the new constitution: Most important in our draft constitution is not about the nature of the regime. On this point, we must rely on the wisdom of the National Constituent Assembly. The real goal will be manifested through a declaration of human rights in the body of the constitution, then by the general principles of state organization which aim to ensure the neutrality of the administration, the separation of politics and religion, very strict control and management of public funds.


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.

Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.

The Arab spring lexicon: Tunisian revolution downgraded from revolution to turning point by way of uprising

The Tunisian Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, speaking in Berlin this week, called the events that led to former dictator Ben Ali’s departure a “turning point” – further changing the Tunisian lexicon.

What began as a revolution in Tunisia was eventually downgraded to an uprising by many Tunisian and Arab commentators. The Guardian reported that “Tunisia hovers between uprising and revolution.” Tunisian and foreign bloggers also jumped on the term revolution – with so many state actors still in place, how could it be a true revolution?

A french blogger sums it up:

To speak of popular uprising rather than revolution is a way to emphasize that the recent events in Tunisia did not abolish the Ben Ali system. They swept away the autocrat and his closest network [of family and friends], but the entire edifice on which rested its hegemony is still in place.

According to Islamist and scholar Tariq Ramadan:

No “springtime” has come; no revolution has taken place, as I have insisted ever since the very first uprisings….

…Uprisings need clear regional and international objectives in order to become revolutions. For the time-being, the United States, Europe and Israel – like China, Russia and India – are protecting their own interests, both openly and behind the scenes.

Were the Arab world to lose hope in the wake of its failed uprisings, the great powers would have lost nothing. To succeed, the revolutions of today demand nothing less than an Arab consciousness, which only the people of the region can express. If, and only if, they do not abandon the struggle.

Prime Minister Jebali seems to be further refining the terminology, downgraded from an uprising to a mere “turning point.” The continuity between past and present is assured.

Of course, whether you choose revolution, uprising, or turning point, it’s nothing compared to many Tunisians, who insist on calling it a coup d’etat. This report by France 24 explains how many Tunisian and French analysts (and the public at large), think that the departure of Ben Ali was orchestrated by the American military. Under this theory, while there was a popular uprising, there could not have been a revolution – because an outside force was the principle actor responsible for the dictator’s departure. I suppose you could call it a turning point as well.

The lexicological debate over Tunisia’s “revolution” mirrors the very public debate in the West over the term Arab Spring. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper in the States without some mention of the Arab Spring actually being and Arab Winter.

For one term, however, there is no debate. While Tunisians argue over whether it was an uprising, revolution, turning point, or coup d’etat – everyone knows it wasn’t jasmine.

Perhaps in the end the events in Tunisia last year will be known like the French or American national days, by its calendar date – January 14, 201. How does translate to the Islamic calendar?

[On a personal note: In my writings I initially referred to the overthrow as a revolution, but quickly changed course and have been (mostly) consistent in calling it an uprising.]

 

Are press freedoms in Tunisia really in the crosshairs? Refuting Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post wasn’t the first to sound the danger alarm – but his op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday was clear, Tunisia is back-sliding on press freedom. The article has been cited numerous times in the last two days as evidence that the Arab Spring, even in Tunisia, is turning cold (see here, here, here, and here).

Unfortunately for Americans, whose news on Tunisia is few and far between, Abrams analysis is inaccurate and prosaic and a miscaracterization of the very important debate Tunisia is having over the judicial system, the media, and basic freedoms.

Abrams says: “Tunisia is everyone’s favorite Arab country nowadays, the one where the Arab Spring started and that has the best chance to “make it” to democracy. So it would be especially disturbing if Tunisia, and its supposedly moderate Islamist government, led by the Ennahda party, went off track…..Yet several prosecutions in Tunisia show that old habits die hard.”

He goes on to highlight two cases as evidence that Tunisia is sliding back into the totalitarian darkness of Ben Ali. The first case involves Nessma TV’s owner Nabil Karoui, who faces criminal charges for disturbing public order and violating sacred values over his station’s airing of the French/Iranian cartoon Persepolis last October. The film depicted God in human form, a sacrilege to most Muslims. (For more background on the case see here and here.)

The second case involves local newspaper publisher Nasreddine Ben Saida. His newspaper, Attounsia, reprinted on its front page a GQ photo of half-Tunisian footballer Sami Khedira with his half-naked wife. Ben Saida also faced criminal charges for his offense, but was let off with a $600 fine.

First of all, Abrams is right – the two cases highlight problems that the country must address if it is to truly be considered to have a free press. Firstly, the fact that both cases were prosecuted under criminal law is deeply disturbing. As Amnesty International observes: “the public prosecutor bypassed a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011, resorting instead to using Article 121 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.”

But Abrams dismisses Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s agreement with the use of civil penalties for Ben Saida, and his rejection of what he called “Ben Ali era judgments.” Rather, Abrams is skeptical: “Ghannouchi’s finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed.”

Essentially, Abrams is accusing of the ruling party of attacking the press because of one case that, while still ongoing, took place prior to the elections and another case which is essentially the same as existing American laws on public decency (In fact, if one wants to get technical, Abrams worked for the same administration that in 2006 increased fines for media companies accused of public indecency – and the GQ photo is surprisingly similar to the incident that set off a public debate in the States – the infamous Janet Jackson “nip slip”).

There are legitimate concerns about press freedoms in Tunisia. The country has one of the worst track records for press freedom in the world, and the way in which both cases have been prosecuted raise important concerns. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have all actively both lobbied the Tunisian government and raised awareness of free speech among the citizenry. They have also correctly sounded the alarm bells about reported abuses by the government.

While Tunisians won a victory in the high court last month regarding internet censorship, the fight is far from over. As Reporters Without Borders stated: “This is good news, although we would have preferred that the court had given a final ruling…“We call once again on the Tunisian justice system to reject Internet filtering once and for all on appeal.”

As I have written about previously, Ennahdha is unhappy at the press coverage they have received and have called for greater objectivity by the media. Media advocates are being vigilant because these recent statements, which many have called attacks on the free press. While their vigilence is commendable and necessary, it is also important to point out that parties have every right to criticize the media. In fact, it would be difficult to find a partisan Democrat or Republican who did not question the medias intentions and biases.

After reading Mr. Abrams, I do wonder what his real motivations are – are they to encourage real support for democracy in the region? Or is he trying to undermine the U.S. government efforts in the country?

He states: “the U.S. government has been silent [on these cases]. Tunisian liberals say that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is unengaged with their efforts to make sure the Tunisian model remains one of expanding freedom. The State Department and the White House have said nothing about these incidents.”

I, for one, am happy the the U.S. State Department is not commenting on the Tunisian nipplegate.

Rather, Secretary Clinton decided to focus her visit last month on what matters: visiting civil society and the country’s youth, meeting its political leaders – oh, and committing $190 million in development assistance. Rather than focusing on Tunisian footballers and their model wives, Clinton was focusing on getting funds dispersed to organizations working to make Tunisian civil rights the model for the region.

Perhaps instead of focusing on GQ, Mr. Abrams could have used the opportunity to salute Tunisians on a week in which two women stood up for all Tunisians against obscurantism. Or to raise awareness that today Tunisians around the world are  marking the anniversary of the death of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui with Tunisian National Day for Internet Freedom*.

The U.S. can play a positive role in Tunisia. And Mr. Abrams is right about being vigilent with Tunisia’s new government – no one gets a free pass on civil rights. The fight for freedom in Tunisia is far from over. But it takes more than platitudes and misinformation to change a country.

*Mr. Yahyaoui died as a result of ongoing health problems from the torture he suffered as a prisoner in one of Ben Ali’s gulags. He was one of many that died in Tunisia for reporting the truth and his courage inspired a generation of Tunisians to stand up for their rights to information.