Has Tunisia’s March Towards Democracy Been Halted in Its Tracks?

Farhat Rajhi(Pictured: Farhat Rajhi, briefly Tunisia’s minister of the interior.)

Four months after Zine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi were forced by angry protests to flee Tunisia on January 14, a complex struggle is unfolding over the country’s future, a focus of which is the upcoming election. The election is to vote for a constituent assembly which will be charged with writing a new constitution and deciding the parameters of the political system that will replace the decades of Ben Ali’s single party rule.

Some are asking: Has Tunisia’s march towards democracy ‘gone sour’? Is there, as some youth protesters claim, ‘a counter revolution’ taking place in the run up to the country’s July 24 elections with a ‘shadow government’ made up of members of Ben Ali’s old guard, ‘the clique of Sahelians’, stage managing the process in a bid to retain power? That there is a power struggle shaping up over the country’s future and the extent to which the old system might be dismantled is clear enough.

Add to that mounting economic and social challenges. The economy is still in the doldrums; it hasn’t recovered from the civil unrest with tourism, a sector that employs nearly half a million people, having been particularly hard hit. The sluggish recovery in Europe continues to hurt Tunisian exports. Unlike Algeria, Tunisia cannot expect income from oil and natural gas. It will have to borrow heavily from international institutions and the global financial sector – with the usual strings attached – to avoid complete financial collapse While it is too much to expect that the interim government could reverse the high levels of unemployment and low wage jobs, very little has been accomplished on this front to date.

To that must be added the growing refugee crisis in the south of the country. Since the civil war in Libya nearly 700,000 people have fled into the neighboring countries. As of May 4, the lion’s share of that number – more than 325,000 – have made their way into Tunisia adding dramatically to the country’s economic woes. Some of the Libyan armed conflict has also spilled over into Tunisia’s southern interior in the areas around Foum Tataouine and Dhibat Remeda. Khadaffi opposed the toppling of Ben Ali – probably because as much as anything he well understood he could be next. His forces’ cross boarder raids into Tunisia is both a punishment and a warning to the Tunisians that Khadaffi still has the ability to influence the outcome of the Tunisian events.

True enough, the political map has dramatically changed. There are now at least 64 political parties (some say 70) that span a wide spectrum that come into being since the Ben Alis were forced from power. As one would expect after decades of political repression, few of them have broad constituencies or much political experience in organizing elections.

While the former ruling party, the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Demcratique) was dissolved, many of its former members that include much of the old economic and political old guard are re-organizing under new banners. There are already widespread rumors of certain parties with ties to different Western countries ‘buying votes’, with large cash infusions coming from unknown sources coming into the country. Comparisons are being made with recent elections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Ukraine, Georgia) where under the veil of democracy, foreign agendas are being played out.

Rajhi’s bombshell

The signs of increased activity by the old guard are multiplying, confirming in the minds of Tunisian democrats, that while Ben Ali and Trabelsi have left, the system that they put in place is still fighting to maintain its privileges and power. This should be no great surprise. Ben Ali had a security force of some 200,000 – and that did not include all of his paid agents. Many of these elements were active in the days just after Ben Ali’s flight, sowing violence and terror from 4-by-4 Toyota pickup trucks throughout the country. More recently, the signs of a concerted destabilization campaign are popping up everywhere.

  • Last week there were major fires set in five prisons leading to the escape of more than 800 prisoners. Very suspicious
  • Of late, the police and army have abstained from protecting demonstrators throughout the country. In the absence of the state’s security, more and more demonstrations are being attacked by provocateurs in civilian clothing, using the same disruptive tactics that Ben Ali’s (and Mubarek’s) thugs employed earlier
  • In a number of Tunisian cities, Beja for one, people have been identified providing funds to provocateurs who are willing to disrupt meetings and protests ‘pour cash crouttes et ashrah dinars’ (for a few crumbs of bread and 10 dinars)
  • During the recent four days of demonstrations in Tunis, a lot of damage to property and cars took place. The demonstrators insist it is not they who turned violent, but provocateurs.

A 20 minute interview on May 4 loaded on to Facebook, triggered angry denials from two leaders of Tunisia’s transitional government and four days of angry demonstrations in Tunis and elsewhere in the country. The demonstrators, mostly the same Tunisian youth that helped topple Ben Ali in the first place, had slogans calling for the transitional government to resign. The demonstrations are met with ‘Ben Ali-era like’ repression from the authorities that include many arrests and at least one death. While demonstrators appear (from various press reports) small in number, their impact created a political crisis for the interim government, whose grip on power remains tentative.

What lay behind this latest flare up and loss in confidence?

Although in Tunisia he’s emerging as the darling of the democratic movement in this complex ‘post-Ben Ali’ era, Americans have hardly heard of him. Farhat Rajhi is his name. But he’s done it again – shaken the country to its core. In so doing, at the very least he’s embarrassed those who would prefer that Tunisia’s ‘transition to democracy’ be held behind closed doors, managed if not smothered. Rajhi’s accusations reinforce the suspicions of reactionary plots afoot.

Rajhi is a highly respected judge who, for one brief shining moment in February and March of this year, was Tunisia’s Minister of Interior. During his short tenure, Rajhi sacked more than 45 former members of Ben Ali’s security police, ordered the dissolution of the former ruling party, the RCD, and was in the process of purging many more when Tunisia’s interim president, Beji Caid Essebsi, sacked him. Rajhi’s ‘mistake’ was failing to inform Essebi of the firings beforehand and that he was ‘ostracising’ Tunisian police officers. Rajhi’s dismissal sent a chill through Tunisia’s democratic movement, suggesting that behind the scenes, Ben Ali’s old security network still was a potent and well connected force of reaction in the country.

More recently, on May 4, Rajhi did it again, suggesting that elements of the former elite were angling to find a way to maintain their grip on power. In a video circulated on Facebook, he accused the current interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and a small ‘clique of Sahelians’ close to him of running a shadow government bent on using whatever means possible to win power in the upcoming July 24 elections. ‘The Sahel’ is the rich coastal region of Sousse and Monastir from where many of the Zine Ben Ali’s old guard originate. According to Rajhi, a former Ben Ali intimate, Kamel Ltaief, credited for helping Ben Ali seize power in a 1987 bloodless coup, is the country’s ‘shadow president’ .

Rajhi also accused Essebsi and Ltaief of maintaining close contact with Tunisia’s deposed president, Ben Ali. He spoke of a recent meeting between Tunisia’s military chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar and Ben Ali in Qatar. Rajhi also warned that should Tunisia’s Islamic Movement, al-Nahda, win the elections that the shadow government would ask the military to seize power in a coup d’etat.

The targets of Rajhi’s accusations, Essebsi and Ltaief, have both angrily denied his allegations mostly by attacking Rajhi personally rather than by dealing with the charges. But he has forced them out into the public. Beyond repeating their mantras of support for the revolution, to date, they have done little to dispel the suspicions Rajhi raised. The fact that these accusations are coming from a former minister of interior with a proven track record of supporting the democratic movement (and losing his job as a result) gives added weight to his claims.

IFES – Promoting democracy or something else?

The day after Rajhi gave his ‘J’accuse!’ speech, the interim government was again embarrassed and found itself on the defensive concerning the new election law. Much of the process leading up to this law has been conducted in secrecy. A sub-committee of the interim government charged with coming up with the process for the July 24th elections in their few public announcements have insisted that they will put together the election law without ‘outside intervention’.

But lately it turns out that a U.S. based NGO – the International Foundation of Election Systems – has been heavily involved behind the scenes. Well known for helping to set up election systems in ‘transitions to democracy’, according to well placed Tunisian sources, the IFES, has been more than marginally involved with Tunisia’s election sub-committee: it is alleged that they wrote the election law in its entirety. A number of inquiries to IFES (from Tunisians in the USA) have gone unanswered.

While internationally respected in some circles, IFES has a history of being involved in electoral campaigns that curiously produce U.S. oriented administrations, as were the cases in Ukraine and Georgia. Despite appearances of bipartisanship, its Board of Directors is heavily tilted to the right. Such figures as William Hybl (chair of the El Pomar Foundation from Colorado Springs), Leon Weil (Reagan era U.S. ambassador to Nepal), Ken Blackwell (former Ohio Secretary of State, implicated in voting irregularities in the 2004 presidential election) and Colorado’s own former U.S. Senator Hank Brown (with close ties to the lobbying firm Brownstein, Farber, Hyatt and Schreck). All hail from the Republican Party’s rightwing. That the name of the most conservative, pro-U.S. Latin American president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, also appears is more than a curiosity.

Funded in large measure with federal moneys, the organization has created a niche for itself along with organizations like the Freedom House, George Soros’ ‘Open Society’, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and National Democratic Institute. A more cynical observer might comment that these foundations today do legally what the C.I.A. used to do under the table and illegally during the Cold War: in the name of ‘democracy’ – buy elections and overthrow governments.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.