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“Tunisia has been robbed. We are free to speak out now, but life has not changed. The revolution must continue.”

Tunisia: Democracy Year One

by SERGE HALIMI

The dictator has gone, so is the Tunisian revolution over? There are more than a hundred, mostly unknown, parties seeking a place in the Constituent Assembly, and anything is possible. The assembly to be elected on October 23 will have impeccable democratic credentials: proportional representation, gender parity (even if 95 per cent of the leading candidates are men), strict regulation of campaign finances, opinion polls and political advertising. The assembly will be representative, and also powerful. It will determine the balance of power, the form of government (presidential or parliamentary), the place of religion in the country’s institutions and, if it wishes, even the state’s role in the economy. There is the excitement of novelty, the hope of establishing an Arab and Muslim democracy. “If it doesn’t work here, it won’t work anywhere,” said a woman from the Pôle démocratique moderniste (PDM), sure of Tunisia’s ability to remain the regional torchbearer.

The polling stations in Bizerte will need many, or very big, tables: voters will be invited to choose between 63 lists of candidates, almost half claiming to be “independent.”  How to choose among the manifestos with their variations on the same old platitudes: “Arab-Muslim identity”, “social market economy”, “regional development”, “the state as policy-maker”?

“The key to the revolution is the centre left”, says Nicolas Pouillard of the International Crisis Group, which has published several reports on Tunisia. Kamel Morjane and other former big shots in Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s party, the Rassemblement démocratique citoyen (RCD), claim to belong to the centre — and so do their old opponents in the Parti démocratique progressiste (PDP), regrouped under the leadership of Nejib Chebbi. But the Islamists of Ennahda (Renaissance) say they are centrist too, and so do their main secular opponents, the former communists of Ettajdid (Renewal) and the socialists of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés (FDTL), even if the latter both claim to belong to the centre left. Even the Tunisian Labour Party (PTT), founded by leaders of the main trade union (UGTT), takes the same position, although the unions have just played a major part in a social uprising. Confusing? Yes. And here too, Ben Ali’s influence lives on: the RCD was neo-liberal in economics, pro-police in politics and a member of the Socialist International.

At least, the political identity of the main parties is clear — unlike the character of their leaders. (A long time opponent of the dictatorship, Chebbi was one thing after another, close to the Baath Party in Iraq, a Marxist-Leninist and a socialist, before joining the neo-liberal centre and cosying up to the business community. His relations with the Islamists have also changed and appear to have deteriorated in the past three months.)

The same cannot be said of the shadowy Union patriotique libre (UPL) founded in June by Slim Riahi, a businessman in London who made his fortune in Libya and who is opposed to limits on political budgets, which he regards as designed to prevent the emergence of new forces — including his own, which does not appear to be short of funds. His chosen spokesman, a company chairman with a diploma in management from Paris University, has just presented the party program: “Our development model is based on participation by the people, a market economy with more social equality, dignity and employment for all, and regional development.” The UPL will take care to “preserve the country’s Arab-Muslim identity”, with due regard to its “identification with universal values.” In the light of these wonderfully precise commitments, the voters will no doubt know what they have to do. If not, the leading UPL candidate for Tunis, former footballer Chokri el-Ouaer, should get their votes.

The UPL is only one of many changing, artificial parties that hope to be rewarded by a democratization that owes them nothing. There is no guarantee that, within a month of the election, or in a year, when the constituent assembly’s work will probably be done, some of those who had no part in bringing down Ben Ali’s government and who profited from his sinecures will come to the fore again. They need only explain — as they are already doing — that order must be restored, work must be resumed, everything has already changed and it is enough that the tyrant has gone. The French revolution of February 1848 is associated with Alphonse de Lamartine; 10 months after the Republic was proclaimed, the writer and former foreign minister stood as a candidate in the presidential elections. He won 21,032 votes, while Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, representing the monarchists and the party of law and order, polled 5,587,759.

‘No drinking water, no infrastructure’

Hamma Hammami, leader of the Parti communiste ouvrier de Tunisie (PCOT), does not rule out a similar restoration. So, while the social networks are buzzing with rumours of the machinations of a “shadow government”, with businessmen close to the old regime pulling the strings, he insists “the revolution must continue”. He made the point on September 9 at Lassouda, a small farming community near Sidi Bouzid, where the fuse that started the Arab uprisings was lit last December: “Tunisia has been robbed. We are free to speak out now, but life has not changed. The revolution must continue in order to secure the wellbeing of the majority. Some people have the means to travel all over America, others haven’t enough to pay for an aspirin. The water problem could be solved with less than 1 per cent of the money Ben Ali stole.”

A farmer had spoken about water: “We have had nothing — no drinking water, no infrastructure — from any government since 1956 [the date of independence]. They commissioned ‘studies’ but there was no investment. They start projects that never come to anything.” Seven thousand people depend on a single water main along the road, which is constantly failing. Drilling on a promising well was stopped and the top sealed when the authorities realised they would have to drill through rock.

So the excitement of the elections provides an opportunity for people to demand tokens of development, a secondary school, a dispensary, good roads. The region is rich (olives, pistachios, almonds) but the people poor. Some farmers still live in crowded conditions in poor, grey stone, houses, sleeping on foam “mattresses” three centimetres thick, on the ground, a very long way from the charming dwellings of La Marsa and the stately homes of Carthage.

The question is whether the election of a constituent assembly will enable Tunisians to punish the corrupt authorities of the old regime, dismantle the bloated police force, heal the regional and social divisions, and introduce the “positive territorial discrimination” recommended by the leader of the Congrès pour la République (CPR), the militant human rights advocate Moncef Marzouki.

The authorities may have done nothing since 1956, but change has come to Lassouda. The cafe has a high-speed internet link, almost everyone has a mobile phone, most of the young and some of their parents use Facebook. The farmer explaining the water problem to the PCOT delegation looks like an old engraving, until his grievances are interrupted by a call on his mobile and his neighbor is distracted by a text message from his son who lives in Paris. The political rally is held under a blazing sun and onlookers shelter under awnings, one for men, the other for women and children. The audience is predominantly male.

Hammami is asked to state his position on religion. “It’s a trick question”, mutters a militant. The reply — “Tunisians are Muslims. This does not pose a problem. We defend individual freedoms, freedom of faith, freedom of expression” — causes a stir. So he adds: “The party is not against religion, nor against mosques. Ben Ali wept when he visited Mecca [on his pilgrimage in 2003]. But he was a thief.” That is greeted with laughter and applause.

Talking to us, Hammami adds: “Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, bought a large estate and named every road on the property after one of the Prophet’s 99 names. He founded the Zeitouna Islamic bank and a radio station with the same name, broadcasting religious programs only. Where did the Islamist leader, Sheikh Rashid Ghannoushi, seek refuge when he fled from Ben Ali’s repressive regime? In the UK, a secular state. And where did the secular Ben Ali seek refuge when he fled from the revolution? In Saudi Arabia … Facts are better than theories.” Particularly when the Islamists are expected to be the most important party in the constituent assembly.

Bourguiba and Ataturk

One of the Ennahda leaders, Ali Laaridh, admitted that experience of police repression and exile had affected the views of his comrades: “We have suffered abuse. We know what the violation of human rights means. We have lived in 50 different countries. And we have learned about democracy and women’s rights. So we should be judged by the long way we have come. See how we live, us and our families: my wife works, my daughters study, one of them does not wear a veil.”

Is this enough to dispel doubts about Islamist doublespeak? Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer representing members of the opposition persecuted under the old regime, is worried about “Ennahda meetings where there are banners proclaiming ‘No voice may be raised above the voice of the Muslim people!’ … There is a big difference between what the leaders say and what some of the members do.” Though it was reasonable, Laaridh’s reply was not reassuring: “You can never be sure that any party will do all it said it would.”

Some Ennahda leaders, anxious to prove their democratic credentials, constantly cite the “Turkish model” of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently welcomed in Tunisia. (The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood seem to have appreciated his advice rather less, as they fear Turkish domination in the Middle East.) The comparison is illuminating. In both countries, a charismatic leader (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Habib Bourguiba) favored, and later imposed, a separation of politics and religion, even drawing on western rationalist sources, sometimes explicitly. Many Tunisian Islamists seem to consider that Bourguiba de-arabised Tunisia just as Atatürk de-easternised Turkey: he tied it too closely to Europe. So while the Ennahda programme does not question neo-liberalism or free trade, it proposes a shift away from western investors and tour operators, toward “Islamist” investors and tour operators from the region or the Gulf.

Everybody talks about democracy, and that includes Laaridh, who argues that the constituent assembly must have “complete freedom”, that is, “it must be able to draw on Arab-Muslim religious sources.” He bemoans the fact that under Bourguiba “the state imposed, indeed forced, evolution in the direction of rationality” under a quasi “Soviet system”. He does not dispute what has been gained in the past 50 years but claims it should have been achieved “at less expense”.

The Islamists seem to hold the best cards. Sure of the impact a moral message will have in a country where fortunes were stolen by the Ben Ali clan, Ennahda has little to fear in a debate with westernized “radicals”, who are in a difficult position. Omeyya Seddik, a left-wing activist and former member of the PDP, explains to us: “They have been leading lights for a hundred years. They will be completely sidelined. Social standing is at stake here.”

Article 1 of the present constitution is the subject of much controversy. Drafted with considerable care by Bourguiba, it reads: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic, and its type of government is the Republic.” Deliberately equivocal, it confirms that Tunisia is Muslim. But it could also be interpreted as meaning that this religious outcome could be mandated, making the Qur’an a source of public law. To remove the religious reference would incense the Islamists; to define what it means could upset the secularists. The wording will most probably be retained. In Hammami’s opinion, “The Islamists started the debate on article 1 to set a trap for the secularists but they have fallen into it themselves. The proper response was to ask: ‘Why do you want to stress that Tunisia is Muslim? What for? To enforce sharia law? To challenge equal rights for women?’ Whenever these questions were raised, the Islamists backed down.”

The Socialists in the FDTL also refuse to be trapped on the issue. When they defend the code on personal status, which — save for inheritance — grants women equal rights with men, they present this as a fundamental feature of national identity, not a principle transplanted from the western rationalist tradition. Their program tackles the question with skill: “The identity of the Tunisian people is deeply imbued with Arab-Muslim values and enriched by successive civilizations; it is fundamentally modern and open to world cultures.” On  September 10 Mustafa Ben Jafar, leader of the FDTL, closing a meeting at Sidi Bouzid, a seaside resort north of Tunis, delivered another hopeful message: “Those who refuse to accept that the country must change are trying to frighten us with bogeymen. We should have faith in ourselves. A country as small as Tunisia, which stood firm when a war was being waged on its borders, is a strong country.”

A country as strong as this might even perhaps be able to provide water to Sidi Bouzid sometime soon.

 

Translated by Barbara Wilson 

Serge Halimi is the editorial director of Le Monde Diplomatique. This article first appeared in the October edition excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique and CounterPunch  features two or three articles from LMD every month.

All rights reserved ©  Le Monde diplomatique.