Tunisia Gets to Grips With Democracy

The Tunisians have been torn between revolution and democracy for almost four months. After January’s revolution came a spring of anxious anticipation. Some Tunisians believe the priority should be to sweep away the former regime and its legacy, in order to draw a clear line under political authoritarianism that had lasted since 1956. Others passionately hope for elections to a national constituent assembly on July 24 , a date many feel to be premature, to end this potentially volatile period of change.

These divided aims complicate the coexistence of the only political institutions currently functioning in the country: the provisional government and a newly formed Tunisian-style committee of public salvation, a higher authority intended to effect the revolution’s aims, political reform and democratic transition. The committee has members of 12 political parties, 19 unions or other associations, and 72 national figures. The number of its members (whose appointment procedure is not clear) rose from 71 to 155 in three weeks, and it has set itself up in Bardo in place of the former upper chamber, which was unceremoniously dismissed. This new institution is trying to become the main legislative power since the provisional government is made up of technocrats unknown to the general public, mostly appointed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, prime minster under the ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. While one body is steering through political reform, the other is trying to maintain order despite economic meltdown, exacerbated by the flight of tourists and investors, while there is war in neighboring Libya.

Beji Caid-Essebsi, prime minister since February 27, is the only heavyweight in the cabinet. His unexpected return at the age of 84 is a result of the vacuum left in the political class by 23 years of authoritarianism under Ben Ali. He is also the beneficiary of an old alliance with the only national organization in Tunisia to survive under the dictatorship: the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union), which has been “a strange organization in the Arab world since it was founded in 1946”, according to Abdeljalil Bedoui, an economics professor and president of the Tunisian forum for economic and social rights. “Ever since, it has played a central role in every historic event in the country.”

In 1952, as a barrister, Essebsi successfully defended the union’s then secretary general, Ahmed Tlili, who faced the death penalty in a colonial court. That created links which were all the more useful as the union ? the only organized mass movement in the country, with 500,000 members ? is, along with Tunisia’s bar association, the National Order of Lawyers, one of the twin pillars of the committee of national salvation and of Tunisian political life.

Guardians of the revolution

There are 8,000 lawyers in Tunisia and as many trainees, often living hand to mouth. This creates a natural affinity with the desperate young people of Sidi Bouzid, whose cry of despair the lawyers took up, giving it a political meaning with which all Tunisian youth could identify. Held in contempt by the former regime and too many for the needs of the country’s 155 courts, the lawyers are out to reclaim their place in society. In the street and on television they have been campaigning, exercising their skills with such zeal and panache that their opponents have called them rabble-rousers. Their leader is the dynamic and influential Abderrazack Kilani, from an important southern family, the first person the new prime minister received on coming to office. “Our responsibility,” he explained in his office in Tunis’s Palais de Justice, “is to avoid being taken in as we were by Ben Ali in 1987. We want to be the guardians of the revolution and defend democracy, not seek political office.”

On April 11, just 11 days later than timetabled, the committee for national salvation passed an electoral law among the most democratic in the world: it provides for an independent electoral commission, parity between the sexes and an entirely proportional voting system. It is the result of consensus among the political forces on the committee: Islamists, socialists, centrists, Ba’athists, Marxists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Arab unionists, all convinced that the future constitution will only function if it is a joint effort.

Everyone has made concessions. The Ennadha movement, which represents the majority among the Islamists, voted by a show of hands for parity between men and women, in spite of attempts by Ettahrir, a radical Salafist minority, to deter the Islamist base. The prime minister, who supports a uninominal voting system as used in the Third Republic in France before 1914, which would have been likely to send to the chamber a majority of local candidates, resigned himself to a proportional system that will favor small parties ? Tunisia officially has 51 parties already ? and makes the return of a moderate majority government that excludes extremists unlikely.

The only exceptions to this unanimity are the old guard from Ben Ali’s now dissolved party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel D?mocratique (RCD), who have been declared ineligible to stand although it is unclear to what level of the party hierarchy the ban extends. This marks a major break with history: the RCD was the successor to Neo-Destour, which from 1934 led the struggle for independence under Habib Bourguiba’s leadership. The 11th anniversary of Bourguiba’s death on April  6  prompted an impressive popular mobilization in his birthplace, Monastir, and around the country. For the moment, this resurgence of feeling has nowhere to go, even if the prime minster, an old comrade of Bourguiba’s, basks in the man’s former glory every time he makes a public statement and promises to restore the nation’s prestige.

’Democracy is a mindset’

It seems certain that Tunisia’s future constitution will not be written in secret by an expert commission nominated by those in power, as in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, but by a democratically elected constituent assembly. This has been a demand of opposition groups in the Arab world for generations. Professor Yadh Ben Achour, president of the committee and architect of this first stage, is under no illusions about the scale of the task: “We need a culture change. Democracy is a mindset and in particular a set of unwritten principles: respect for the opposition, knowing how to handle victory, accepting that power will alternate and that you may be beaten at every election.”

Other promises, concerning the main causes of popular discontent, will be harder to keep: regional divisions and unemployment. “The economic problem is the problem of regional poverty, and those regions don’t see anything coming to them,” said former minister and Bourguiba loyalist Tahar Belkhodja. An emergency package of 200m dinar ($148m) has been allocated to the 14 poorest regions (of 24), all in the interior: foremost are Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa, a triangle that was the epicentre of the revolution. The prime minister would like to achieve the first results before the elections in the regions along the mountainous spine of bare peaks that divides the country. He hopes to launch before July 24  an ambitious regional development program from Jenduba to Medenine. The program already has a name if not funds: the Bouazizi plan, named after Mohamed Bouazizi whose suicide triggered the uprising last December. The plan will represent an important effort to open up the west, raise standards in education, modernise the health system and develop local resources.

The other challenge, unemployment, is national. There are half a million unemployed in Tunisia, a quarter of them graduates: 20,000 jobs have been lost this year because of political upheavals and the fallout ? lockouts, looting, destruction of factories, vandalism; 50,000 workers have returned home from Libya; and 70,000 more graduates will flood the job market this July. That’s 140,000 more people seeking work in six months. Optimistically, the government is hoping that 60,000 new posts can be created, split equally between the civil service, the security forces and the private sector. It is a sign of how tense things are that the publication of the results of the first round of the Capes, an annual competitive exam for entering the upper echelons of the teaching profession, has been delayed by several weeks. There were 100,000 candidates for just 3,000 jobs, and fears of riots.

Thousands of young people make the dangerous voyage to the Italian island of Lampedusa to get into Europe, many others hawk contraband on the streets, and a minority are taking advantage of the weakened state to turn to crime, which has exploded in poor neighborhoods. At the same time there has been a renewal of social and political mobilization, and it is now common for groups of up to 30 to hire a coach and go to Tunis to sort out business ? even in ministerial offices ? buried by central bureaucracy. Permanent sit-ins in places with symbolic significance ? a motorway or railway line, a large hotel or government office, a gas pipeline ? have become regular. The sacking of bosses, governors and company directors has become commonplace and several rebellious regions in the hinterland have seen off government officials appointed by Tunis. The sans-culottes from inland who came down to the capital secured the departure of eight RCD ministers in January. They returned in force in February and saw off the then prime minister, also ex-RCD. Who will be next?

Translated by George Miller

Jean-Pierre S?r?ni is a journalist.

This article appears in the May edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

A D Hemming is a pseudonym this writer uses on a regular basis.