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.


The deeply troubling arrests of the “Mahdia Affair”

A disturbing story from the coastal town of Mahdia in Tunisia has inflamed passions in the ongoing religious debates in Tunisia. The story involves two Tunisians sentenced to seven years of prison for posting offensive pictures on Facebook. First some details, from Reuters:

Two young Tunisians have been sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fueled allegations the country’s new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech….”They were sentenced … to seven years in prison for violation of morality, and disturbing public order,” said Chokri Nefti, a justice ministry spokesman….The sentence was handed down on March 28 but was not reported until Thursday, when bloggers started posting information about the case on the Internet.

The Tunisian bloggers who wrote about it include Olfa Riahi, who wrote about the story for the open source Tunisian website Nawaat. She provides an interesting and thorough account of the proceedings, including an extended interview with the prosecuting lawyer.

The government avoided taking a hard stand on the issue. Tunisia Live reported:

When asked about the judge’s decision to impose a maximum sentence, Chokri Nafti, press attaché of the Ministry of Justice asserted that the judge “is independent and free to choose the minimal or the maximal sentence.” He argued that “as long the judge respects the law and does not arrive at a verdict that contradicts the law, we cannot interfere in the decision of the court.”

Tunisian public responses to the case have, as usual, been mixed. While many have condemned the conviction, others see the Facebook posts as more than just the private expression of individuals, but as an incitement to disturb the public order. Others have fallen in the middle, condemning the offensive acts while calling for civil fines against the accused.

The issue of publication of offensive materials continues to be a sensitive issue in the country. The fact that Tunisia still has a Ben Ali era criminal law code has made these cases even more extreme. The two men were prosecuted under a section of the criminal code used by Ben Ali to imprison anyone who went against the regime.

One thing is certain, these sentences will, just as in the Ben Ali era, make Facebook users think twice before posting their personal views. That is a true irony in post-revolutionary Tunisia – the authorities may not be watching – but free speech is anything but assured.

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.

The strange return of Habib Bourguiba to Tunisia

On Saturday in Monastir a strange event took place. Gathered together in the same place for the first time in decades were the Destourians – supporters of the former Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. They met to discuss plans to provide a unified political front in an effort to return the country to what it described as the path it departed from under Ben Ali, and the equally fatal path of the Islamists.

Blogger for French magazine Marianne, Martine Gozlan, described the event:

…forces of modernity are looking to unite to resist obscurantism: that was the sense of the mass meeting held Saturday, March 24 in Monastir under the auspices of Beji Caid Essebsi, the previous Prime Minister, and in the wake of the founding father whose massive portrait dominated the meeting: Habib Bourguiba….The old Beji Caid Essebsi, who was once his traveling companion, and had the difficult task of leading post Ben Ali Tunisia to the polls last October 23rd, had assembled all the forces of the centrist opposition on Saturday March 24th.

The reformation of Destourian parties has elicited many reactions here from across the political spectrum. While the potential impact of a return to Bourguibism excites many Tunisians, to others it is the first step toward a return of authoritarianism.

You don’t have to go far in Tunisia to find people who love Habib Bourguiba. A populist and a nationalist, Tunisia’s first leader after independence modernized the country, Many Tunisians, particularly those born before independence, see Bourguiba not only as a force for good, but as a true leader of Tunisians – he is their Papa. And while many of his supporters will decry his authoritarianism, they also applaud what they saw was a relatively uncorrupt individual who only wanted the best for his country. These people often also supported Ben Ali, at least up until the point that his nepotism and kleptocratic ways became known. During the uprising last year, they didn’t want an overthrow of the system, just a cleaning up.

Detractors of Bourguisme tell a very different story. They see Bourguiba as a meglomaniac who denied human rights and set the stage for Ben Ali. To Ennahdha supporters, Bourguiba relentlessly pursued, persecuted, and imprisoned them. But not only that – Bourguiba reviled Islamists. When asked what separated him from an Islamist, Bourguiba replied: “Fourteen centuries.”

When Bourguiba-era minister Beji Caid Essebsi stepped back into the political scene last February to take over the caretaker government, both hardcore Ennahdha supporters and human rights activists squirmed. While he justified his lack of fundamental reforms by saying that he was just an interim leader and that the elected leaders should make those decisions, his opponents saw someone who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the ancien regime well-placed to retakeover the country.

Recent statements, followed by Saturday’s conference in Monastir, by other so-called Destourians have put many people edge, just as they have excited many who see in the party a chance to unify the country.

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.

Tunisian-American journalist Wafa Ben Hassine sees trouble in the potential alliance between leftists and members of the former regime:

It appeared that Essebsi and his crew were desperately seeking to rebrand the RCD. The Caid Essebsi and co. are succeeding, albeit only within a small niche. To this niche, Essebsi is simply the reincarnation of Bourguiba, representing modernity and ‘balance’ in social values….

….What is alarming are the scores of left-wing parties that made their way down to Monastir yesterday. The left should be more careful about its actions and what they reflect – the Tunisian left is already painted as an elitist segment of society. Why exacerbate the image, and in turn appear to betray the very values that led to Ben Ali’s ouster?

Bourguiba, over 24 years since being deposed, still stirs emotions and makes headlines in this country which he built in his image.  Almost half of the population knows Bourguiba only from history books – many of which are being rewritten as we speak. Whether the reconstitution of his party and his ideas will take hold is far from certain.

Have Tunisian Salafists written themselves out of the new constitution?

Tunisian Salafists demonstrated this weekend on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. Thousands of supporters rallied for the Quran, for the institution of Charia law, and to show Tunisians that they would not back down.

But the image that will remain for most Tunisians is one of a half dozen Salafists scaling the clocktower in front of the Ministry of the Interior and waving their black flags with the shahada. See above photo courtesy of Tunisia Live.

The government, led by moderate Islamist movement Ennahdha, has been walking a tightrope with Salafist groups. The Interior Minister told Le Monde last week that jihadist groups were the number one danger for Tunisia, but he was also careful to distinguish between Salafist groups and jihadist ones. Ennahdha leaders have told me that their goal is to not push these groups underground, but to neutralize them by allowing them to protest.

Nevertheless, Ennahdha seems to be feeling the pressure from ordinary Tunisians, who group both violent and non-violent fundamentalist groups as extremist. This might partly explain Ennahdha’s announcement today that it will leave the first article of the constitution as is. Article 1 has been the subject of debate, particularly for those who argue that it should include charia as the principle source of legislation.

The debate over charia is far from over. However, it appears that the more the Salafist are in the news, especially when they are allowed to deface public buildings, the less popular they become. The question is whether or not the public will continue to support Ennahdha’s “light touch” when it comes to these groups – or whether it will force Ennahdha to track further toward the center.

Will the Tunisian left return to authoritarian Bourguisme – more reactions on Tunisia’s Independence Day

As I wrote yesterday, the left celebrated Tunisia’s indpendence day on Tuesday with a peaceful celebration downtown. Much of the reporting afterward was self-congratulatory – the left had shown that it can mobilize! Some reactions from the left, however, were more critical. These criticisms focus on the fact that the left seems perpetually unable to get the support of popular classes – and that could lead to a return of authoritarianism.

Emna El Hammi writes:

If this celebration was primarily a celebration for all Tunisians, it is the left who was the chief representative, and with it clichés about the so-called westernized fringe of Tunisian society. For, once again, it was the left that was in the streets to defend against the Islamists, the values of democracy and freedoms. The left are the ones who struggle to unite the working class and find themselves in a grotesque image of a champagne socialist, westernized, bourgeois and not caring about their own hedonistic pleasures, and despising the poor.

She goes on to discuss how dangerous this image is for the left:

[These] events show once again that we are still struggling to get out of the identity debate that divides society in two….The left scarcely understand that if it wants to win legitimacy among Tunisians, especially those from the working class, it needs to get out of this identity debate and focus its policy on employment, social justice and social rights, which represent the real concerns of the population. It must also have a real desire to bring together Tunisian people around a common societal goal.

And that’s where we measure the threat of a possible Destourian [Bourguibiste] comeback, these ex-RCDists who have reconverted to the principles of Bourguiba, and seek to rebuild their popular legitimacy on the back of a revolution that they never sought. The reformation of former RCDists would be incredibly damaging to the left, they have a perfect knowledge of the [political] terrain and networks that have allowed them to feed the poor under Ben Ali. What is freedom or democracy when, in front, you are offered a job and a salary…

Bidules blog echoes El Hammi’s fears of a return to Bourguisme:

The Doustouriens [Bourguibists] the RCDists {Ben Alists]…A political force that dominated the country for 55 years. Today nobody talks about it almost as if it has no weight on the [political] scene. It is ignored, media appearances are rare. Are we going to underestimate this force? Tunisia is divided into two camps: the conservatives and modernists. Are the Doustouriens taking advantage of this bipolarity and this atmosphere of instability to prepare the BIG COMEBACK?…

…These forces may rise as a viable alternative following the failure of the Troika [the ruling coalition] economically and in the fight against corruption. In addition, errors in choosing the government leaders and cases of nepotism and favoritism led to the dismay of many Tunisians. Other democratic forces have been bogged down in ideological debates and issues over identity and struggle to move from being elitist parties to popular parties.

The idea of the former ruling party, refitted as a nationalist party based on authoritarian Bourguism, coming back into party may seem far off at this point. But recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows that former Bourguiba era politician and interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is second only to Moncef Marzouki in popularity among Tunisians, with over 80 percent supporting him. On the other hand, links to the RCD are still toxic in Tunisia and there is nothing Ennahdha would like more than to be able to brand their opponents as remnants of the former regime.

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.