Constitution watch – updates on the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution

In what hopefully (depending on government progress and my discipline) will be a regular feature on the blog over the coming months, I give you my first “constitution watch” – updating readers on progress in the Constituent Assembly in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

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Two articles this week discussed contents of the preambule of the new constitution, which were leaked, separately, to reporters.

An article appearing in the Tunisian magazine Leaders reports that the new constitution will explicitly define the Tunisian republic as a civil state. According to their sources in the assembly it will also maintain the first article of the constitution and define the regime as republican, abolish the death penalty, and confirm respect for universal values.

In a separate article published by Tunisia Live on Wednesday, the English-language site reports that the constitution will emphasize “applying Islamic principles to the constitution, explicitly defining the Arab-Muslim identity of the state.” The article is unclear on whether these are separate articles in the preambule or not. “The draft also describes the new regime as “republican, democratic, and participatory,” based on respect for the people’s sovereignty and the separation of state powers.” The report also states that the draft will be released to the public next Monday, June 4.

There are no major revelations here, although it will be interesting to see how “applying Islamic principles to the constitution” will actually read in the final draft. Many secular opponents of the government have feared that while Ennahdha has specifically rejected references to sharia in the constitution, they will try to introduce a form of religion-based value tests for the country’s lawmakers and judiciary.

For a further discussion on how the constitution is actually being put together, see this article by Duncan Pickard in the Carnegie Endowment.

See also my previous discussion of including Sharia in the preambule here.

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]

A news update from Tunisia

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

Salafism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Movements

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

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

Foreign Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Elections Commission

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

Ben Ali

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

Government

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

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

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

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

Ennahdha

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

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

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

Economy

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

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

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

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

Justice/Civil liberties

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

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

File:Persepolis film.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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