Tunisia during Ramadan: A month of (political) reflection

The holy month of Ramadan tends to grind most daily activities to a halt in Tunisia. The work day is cut in half, and productivity plummets, especially so this year, as Ramadan coincides with the scorching Tunisian summer.

The night, however, is a different story. After breaking the fast – usually with family – Tunisians take to the streets, cafes, and public spaces to enjoy the cool evenings, listen to music, or chat with friends.

This year, evenings during Ramadan have also included public debates, political rallies, and meetings of civil society. On any given evening in Tunis, usually starting around 10 p.m., one can find Tunisians gathering to debate the future of the country. In many cases, these gatherings evoke previous political or social leaders from Tunisia’s history, such as early Tunisian poet Abou el Kacem el Chebbi or Saleh Ben Youssef. Political rallies tend to be more understated than usual, a reflection of a religious, rather than competitive, mentality.

On a recent evening in the Medina in Tunis, which begins to rouse itself around 9:30, I witnessed gatherings from all kinds of groups, the green parties of Tunisia were discussing climate change, while the center left party PDP was discussing their economic agenda. The Tahar Hadad Club had the the ambiance of a philosophy society  that was thinking about the big ideas Hadad himself contemplated. My Tunisian friends impressed on me the importance of Hadad in Tunisian society. Hadad was a Tunisian thinker from the early 20th century, who fought for women’s and worker’s rights, and against polygamy. Many credit him as the inspiration for the modern, secular society Habib Bourguiba installed in Tunisia upon independence from France. On Saturday, a local radio station broadcast a multi-hour debate on the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus presidential system and the importance of electing a constitutional assembly prior to installing a legitimate government.

In short, it is true that Tunisians remain frustrated at the pace of reform and of the usual cast of characters and issues that dominate the airwaves two months prior to the first free elections in the country’s history. But underneath the bluster, there is a society that is discussing, debating, persuading, and pushing for the ideas that will change this country. It is no surprise that in a country that has been at the vanguard of some of the most important thinkers in the Arab world that these debates are raging. The pace of change may be slow, but it is happening.


5 lessons from the Tunisian Registration drive

Yesterday’s close of the voter registration process was anticlimactic. In the first major work of the Tunisian Independent Elections Commission (ISIE), 52 percent of Tunisians registered for the October 23 elections of the constituent assembly, which will draft a new constitution for the country.

Despite a robust registration campaign, efforts were hampered by the combination of Ramadan and summer holidays, voter apathy and distrust, and some mixed messages from elections authorities about who needed to register.

I’ve written extensively on voter registration in the past few weeks (here, here, here, and here). Here are some key lessons I’ve learned from the campaign and how it may effect the upcoming elections:

1) The ISIE has show an ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Extending the registration deadline, increasing communications, and adapting to the needs of the electorate are a good sign for the elections.

2) The ISIE has been transparent in its process, posting registration numbers everyday. This is a good example and one that will hopefully reassure voters who have a long memory of fraudulent elections.

3) If Missouri is the Show-Me-State, Tunisia is the Show-Me-Country. Voters have shown that politicians must be convincing and trustworthy before Tunisians will hand them the keys to the country (see also lesson 5).

4) Civil society and ISIE must work together to drive voter turnout. However distrustful Tunisians are of the political process (see lesson 3), the legitimacy of the elections is critical for the country to move forward. A protest vote is better than no vote at all. Civil society groups must help convince voters that their voice is needed, even if the politicians cannot.

5) Political parties have a lot of work to do in order to convince voters. Petty debates rather than bread and butter issues will only further alienate Tunisians. The party that responds best to these issues (psst….it’s the economy) has the best chance come October.

There are about two weeks before the end of Ramadan and summer. Smart political parties, the ISIE, and civil society organizations will likely use this time to strategize for the last few weeks of the campaign.

Tunisia: Transitional failure or an impossible situation?

Marina Ottaway, eminent democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, writes this week in the National Interest about the risks in transitional governance in Tunisia and Egypt. She highlights the illegitimacy of the regimes and how the lengthy transition between the uprisings last winter and the elections, almost one year later, have threatened the countries with chaos.

The delay is putting new pressure on the transitional governments. Governance cannot be in abeyance forever. Decisions need to be made, measures enacted. People are tired of waiting; they want to see change; they want officials of the old regime to be brought to justice; they demand economic improvement. And they are sending a clear message by taking to the streets again. This is initiating a vicious circle. Governments have less legitimacy than ever, yet they are expected to act. And they are feeling directly under attack, which is beginning to prompt an authoritarian response….

…The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for countries likely to enter transition soon is that it is impossible—as well as unadvisable—to organize elections in a few months. Too much needs to happen first—constitutional amendments, new laws, new parties and some consensus on principles. But a slower process requires a clear roadmap and timetable, with benchmarks and deadlines, not a vague process left to the whims of governments with scant legitimacy and of impatient crowds. Such a process should ideally be agreed upon early on.

Tunisia and Egypt did not do so and are paying the price now in the form of increasingly chaotic situations.

Ottaway’s contention that the slowness of the process is a threat unto itself is valid. However, in the context of Tunisia, this would have been extremely difficult to overcome. As we have seen the challenges in the voter registration process, it has become clear that the initial decision to hold early elections was indeed too ambitious.

The government and the High Commission have continually had to balance competing views on the elections (notably from the differeing views between small and large parties, and secular parties and Ennahdha). While they could have avoided street protests by sticking to a tight timetable and limiting debate about the elections, this would have bypassed critical political stakeholders. These stakeholders have, despite a contentious and alienating public debate, generally respected the timetable and played by the rules of the game.

It is easy to second guess the decisions of the transitional governments – and indeed there are many things for which to be critical. But it is far more difficult to come up with viable alternatives that do not themselves carry substantial political risks.

One aspect Ottoway does not bring up has been the near absence of civil society pressure on the government. While a few well established CSOs, most notably women’s and human rights groups, have been active. Youth groups have either not had the organization, the exposure, or the funding to make a noticeable impact on the public debate. This should not be ignored as political scientists analyze the success or failure of transitions toward democracy in the region.


Tunisia needs a truth commission

I’ve been fairly pessimistic lately, especially in regards to the low voter registration rates. The apparent lack of voter enthusiasm for the first free elections in Tunisia’s history has been disappointing at best and alarming at worst. In particular, the enthusiasm expressed by young Tunisians as they led the uprising against Ben Ali seems to have dissipated, replaced by a profound malaise. Tunisia’s political parties need to get back the activists who brought about the uprising and start addressing the real issues Tunisians care about.

The Western media called it the Facebook revolution, while it didn’t exactly fit, there is no doubt that Tunisians, especially the young, use Facebook as major source for information, sharing political thoughts, and these days, expressing their frustrations over the transition to democracy.

The reasons for this frustration is entirely justifiable. The transitional, non-elected government is headed by an octegenarian hold-over from the Bourguiba era and little has been  done to reform state institutions. In addition, besides the trial of Ben Ali, prosecutors have been slow to prosecute other figures in Ben Ali’s entourage. The release on Thursday of the former transportation minister, Aberrahim Zouari, who had been charge with corruption during his long government career, has caused outrage among online activists.

Activists see this as yet another insult to the revolution, proving that the state is unable to reform the institutions so closely associated with the corruption of the former regime.

In many activist’s eyes, cases like these, and ongoing charges of police brutality, are the reason that they cannot get behind political parties. However, parties that have raised these issues have been branded as looking too closely at the past, and not worrying about the number one issue for Tunisians, the economy. This has created a situation where activists have been disillusioned with the establishment, and ordinary Tunisians are disillusioned with both the activists and the politicians.

And we wonder why voter registration is so low?

The reality is that the unelected, caretaker government has neither the legitimacy nor the support to properly address the crimes of the past while simultaneously preparing for the October 23 elections, let alone keep the moribund economy afloat. They have decided to concentrate on the elections and keeping a modicum of order until they can pass the baton of governance to the Constituent Assembly.

In the mean time, the major political parties in Tunisia have been fighting over campaign finance laws and whether or not the Ennahdha co-founder, Abdelfattah Mouru, should be allowed to have a show on a local television station during Ramadan. These issues are no doubt important for the politicos, but they are alienating voters and they are wasting the energy of the millions of young Tunisians who could change everything.

So how do you motivate young Tunisians? One way would be for a coalition of political parties to back a truth and reconciliation commission that would be established by the Constituent Assembly. The commission would act independently of the government and the legal system and be headed by internationally recognized jurists. It would prosecute crimes against former regime officials while setting the terms for minor officials to regain trust among ordinary Tunisians. It would also need to advise the government on reforming both the Justice and Interior ministries, which have yet to regain the trust of the population.

This idea is not new, many NGOs have called for this, but it has not been broadly endorsed by the leading political parties. A multi-party endorsement of a strong and independent commission could serve as a catalyst for Tunisians who think that their revolution was stolen. It would also show that Tunisian parties could agree on some fundamental principles for governance and accountability that ordinary Tunisians think are lacking from the entire political establishment. Agreement on a truth commission prior to the elections would also allow parties to pivot their campaigns back to addressing the economic needs of the country.

If there is one lesson from the lackluster results of the voter registration campaign, Tunisian politicians must do something to get ordinary, young Tunisians into political life. There is political space for this to happen, but someone must act soon.

Passive resistance or simple indifference, why are Tunisians avoiding voter registration?

I have written previously about the lackluster results of the Tunisian voter registration campaign. Despite the election authorities’ redoubling of their efforts in print, radio and television and desperate calls from Tunisian activists, the total number of voters registered totaled only 1.2 million out of over 7 million as of this Saturday, prompting elections authorities to prolong the registration period for an additional 12 days. (as of August 2, 2 million Tunisians have registered, about 25 percent) A low rate of voter registration has potentially devastating consequences for the elections and the transition in Tunisia.

Why Tunisians aren’t registering?

Several theories exist about why Tunisians are avoiding registering. While some have questioned the campaign tactics of the elections authority and the ignorance of Tunisians about the process, most have acknowledged that despite some initial delays the campaign to get voters registered has been well organized. On a recent trip outside of Tunis the print and radio ads were omnipresent, suggesting that the awareness campaign has not just been active in the capital.

One of the most common theories is that Tunisians tend to procrastinate and that it’s only natural for them to wait until the last minute to register. Given the feeble rate of registrations up to this date, this would create an extremely chaotic situation in the final hours of voter registration.

Another theory is that Tunisians are skeptical about the electoral authorities commitment to free and fair elections. Aljazeera’s Yasmine Ryan highlighted some of these fears in a recent report that showed the lackluster commitment of Tunisians consular officials in Paris to the voter registration process. This corresponds to what many Tunisians here in Tunis have expressed, that the process is flawed and that the elections will be stolen no matter what.

Yet another hypothesis is that Tunisians are adamantly against the holding of a constituent assembly, preferring instead a presidential and parliamentary elections. This theory, recently expressed in a controversial opinion piece on the Tunisian website BusinessNews Tunisia, posits that a constituent assembly will continue to leave the country mired in a transitional period, further aggravating the economic crisis and creating further rifts between Tunisians.

Could feeble registration derail the transition?

The truth is that the poor voter registration numbers are likely a combination of all of these theories. Despite the massive media campaign, Tunisians have no first-hand experience with free elections and may be confused about the necessity to register. The fear that the revolution will be (or already has been) stolen is commonly heard among Tunisians of all political stripes. Others are simply tired of politics and think that elections are another way that Tunisians will be divided against each other.

The consequences of Tunisian inaction have the potential to be the biggest setback yet in their transition to democracy. If a majority of Tunisians abstain from voting (or are prevented from voting because they are not properly registered), this will play into the hands of whichever party does not do well in the elections. The winning parties will be de-legitimized and the constituent assembly will likely face similar problems to those faced by the High Commission (Haute Instance) for the transition – which has been racked in recent weeks by dissensions, most notably from the popular Islamist party, Ennahdha.

Alternatively, a feeble registration rate could make politicians reconsider the elections altogether, either transforming them into proper presidential/elections or into a referendum. However, officials would still be faced with the problem of registering more voters.

The irony of the situation is that even the staunchest critics of the government recognize that voter registration is the key to beginning the true transition. Activists from all sides are dumbfounded by the inaction of their compatriots, who had previously expressed great enthusiasm for voting.

While the electoral commission has bought itself more time, registering 5 million Tunisians in the next 12 days will be extremely difficult, and a poor result could further destabilize the government. While the authorities will likely add electors to the list from the database of national identity cards, this has its drawbacks as well, with a greater risk of fraud (voter registration confirms the place of residence) and more chaos on voting day.

The situation today is both surprising and disturbing, especially given reports that of those registered, only 20 percent are women. The January 14 toppling of Ben Ali and the subsequent transition toward free elections (the first ever in Tunisia) represented a re-writing of the Tunisian social contract – the agreement between the government and the governed – one that would be based on participation and accountability.