The Amilcar Notes (Part 2): Tunisia — Emerging Democracy or Just a Facade?

Beja, in west Tunisia.

Beja, in west Tunisia.

Also read The Amilcar Notes (Part 1): Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy .

Have “les jours de gloire” arrived in Tunisia and we just didn’t know it?

From the point of view of public relations, Rachid Ghannouchi’s unofficial trip to the United States appears to have been modestly successful. Ghannouchi opposed putting criticisms of Israel in the Tunisian constitution which appeared on some of the legislative drafts. Both Congress and AIPAC – it’s hard to distinguish between the two these days – breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever his inner thoughts on the subject, good relations with the United States trumped pushing Tunisian support for the Palestinians (which is pervasive) too far at the moment. Call it principle or a tactical decision, or simply the fact that Ghannouchi has too much on his plate back home, he moved on to other subjects quite quickly.

Ghannouchi promised a Tunisian coalition government in which the two secular parties with whom his Ennahda Party is in coalition would be respected, again calming the waters. Sounded good to Washington ears. This reassurance came after one of his spokespeople called Ennahda’s October 23 election victory the beginning of “the 6th caliphate” – suggesting that Tunisia is heading in a much more religious fundamentalist direction. That gem came from Hamadi Jbeli, Ennadha Party chair and a possible choice to become Tunisia’s prime minister during a speech in Sousse just after the October 23 national elections here for a constituent assembly.

How much money he was able to raise in Washington, if any, I don’t know, but if Tunisia hopes to continue to play the United States off against France, as it has with considerable acumen since the 1940s – with the possible exception of the Ben Ali years – Ghannouchi’s performance was both necessary and within the traditional framework of U.S.-Tunisian relations. If he and his party don’t make too many dumb mistakes, it is pretty clear that the Obama Administration is willing to work with them.

Both Hillary Clinton and the current U.S Ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, have said as much. This support will give Ghannouchi important diplomatic legitimacy and room to maneuver both in Tunisia and the Arab World at large. But he’s got to keep a lid on his less moderate elements within his party. It is becoming evident that while Ghannouchi’s statements are generally moderate that Ennahda includes some elements that are less moderate. There seems to be something of a divide between a number of Ennahda’s more cosmopolitan and moderate Islamic intellectuals that can talk inclusion, women’s rights and respect for freedom of speech on the one hand, and the more fundamentalist elements at the party’s base who talk Shar’ia on the other. This seeming dichotomy is nothing new by the way; it has marked Ennahda’s style of work for the past thirty years.

Ghannouchi talked a good game in Washington. Does he and Ennahda have the moxy and the political acumen to finesse what is already a difficult transition from the Ben Ali years to…whatever. Will he be able to use his political capital to bring the Tunisian people together, or will he divide them further? To build unity and keep his foreign allies happy Ennahda will need to show more flexibility. This is not just to please investors and his own business class, which is waiting and watching, but to keep the country moving together in one direction without reverting to the methods of the old system.

True, some of the news reports of the some of the proposed themes for the new constitution are encouraging. There are commitments on paper at least to write eliminating the death penalty into the new document, to preserving existing woman’s rights in the country – and even of extending them, enshrining free speech rights, etc. In a bid to stop the continued collapse of tourism, Ennahda is committed to let European tourists continue to have their nude beaches (to which Tunisians, however will be prohibited).

Combine that with a new openness towards demonstrations – including a big one shaping up today at the Tunisian Parliament in Bardo – and Tunisia certainly appears a different place than it was a year ago when Mohammed Bouazizi lit the match that ended his and ignited the Arab Spring.

What has changed?

Doubtless some things have changed…

A tyrant – (actually two, gotta throw in the “Mrs.” here) – “un salaud” as the Tunisians now refer to Ben Ali, having both outlived his usefulness to foreign interests and oppressed his own people, was deposed. The Tunisian social movement that unseated Ben Ali gave birth to a regional uprising, the Arab Spring, the Second Arab Revolt, what have you. The Tunisian people are proud of both as well they should be. The big prize that has been won, and now is cherished, is freedom of speech. Yes, freedom is in the air. “Sweet Freedom” as the song goes.

Oh yes, and the election held here for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution unfolded without violence, bringing into power a block of three parties. The biggest winner was Ennahda, which portrays itself as the bearer of a moderate Islamic approach, willing to find common ground with secularists compatible with Western values. It takes much inspiration from Turkish Islamic politics which talks democracy while arresting dissident journalists. In the past, Ennahda has made efforts to separate itself and its image from the more fundamentalist Salafist elements. Ennahda’s two coalition partners are the more secular Congress pour la Republique, or CPR, and Ettakotal. But without a doubt Ennahda is the stronger of the three and able to exert its will over them, which it does.

Warning signs…Is it all frosting with no cake?

Still, it all sounds a bit too rosy. Maybe not yet Nirvana, but Nirvana is just a few steps away, around the corner perhaps? (My mother’s wisdom comes to mind; most things that sound too good to be true…are just that.)

Are Tunisians experiencing only “the frills” of social change or “the real thing”? Is this Tunisia’s version of France 1789, Eastern Europe 1989 now being repeated in Tunisia in 2011? Did the revolution end when Zine Ben Ali and his dear and tender wife Leila stepped on the airplane to Saudi Arabia on Jan 17, 2011? Is the revolution still in an early stage, hardly off the ground and quite fragile all in all? Or is it, as some already fear, a kind of political spring cleaning in which the house remains essentially the same minus a few cobwebs and bad odors? Is it too early to tell?

Well, there’s a lot of frosting on this Tunisian cake…but the cake itself needs some work, a lot of work. Tunisians might have their hard-earned freedom of speech, but little else.

The biggest problem that Ennahda – and all of Tunisia – faces, is its slowness to address the country’s socio-economic crisis which has only deepened in the past year despite Ben Ali’s welcomed departure. It was this crisis – the high unemployment, especially among youth, decades of repressed wages and of course the pervasive repression that triggered the national uprising that deposed Ben Ali. How much patience will the Tunisian people show the current government before they explode once again?

Nero might have fiddled while Rome burned. Tunisians are arguing over the relevance of the niqab (full veil) and whether male and female university students should be separated (come on now!) while the economy bleeds jobs. While Ennahda dithers over pressure from more Islamic fundamentalists to its right on cultural questions, Tunisia is unraveling on several fronts:

The economy is in trouble, the legitimacy of the new government fragile and once outside of Tunis, the security of the state quite unstable. Rather than addressing these more pressing issues, the country has been side-tracked into magnifying the country’s religious-secular divide.

Truth is there is no economic program at the moment.

The seriousness of the economic crisis was addressed today (December 6, 2011) head on in a major article in the lemagreb.tn (business newspaper written in Arabic) by none other than the head of Tunisia’s Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli. Concerned with the deteriorating political situation and political tensions developing in parliament, he paints a dire picture of Tunisia’s economy.

Among the more disturbing aspects:

  • Some 120 foreign companies have left Tunisia since the beginning of the year, many moving to Morocco where the political climate is more stable.
  • It is expected that this year the Tunisian economy will shrink by 3.3%.
  • The number of unemployed has grown by more than 50% since the beginning of the year (from approximately 500,000 to 800,000; every month the numbers of those joining the unemployed jumps by more than 10,000 with no end in sight).
  • The poverty rate has jumped in the same period from 13-18.6%.
  • While Tunisia’s private health clinics do a booming business doing cosmetic surgery on the boobs, faces, buttocks and who knows! how many other body parts of French women for rock bottom prices, Tunisia’s public health system is in shambles.
  • Doctors report spikes in patients who are victims of crime and violence of all kinds – against women, against the elderly.
  • In the worst hit areas of the country, the interior (west) and the south, literally nothing has changed. No private or public investment. Nada. Youth unemployment in these parts of the country is still going through the roof; that white anger which stared down Ben Ali’s security police and burnt down rural police stations has not cooled.

Ca commence mal…mais ce n’est pas encore trop tard

During the election campaign anger was enflamed in Islamic circles over a cartoon movie that portrayed God as an old man. The movie had actually played in Tunisia prior to that and while perhaps Moslem fundamentalists were not happy and criticized the film in their media, this time it was something different. Virtually the whole election campaign fixated around the film. The goal posts shifted dramatically from how the country might emerge from its socio-economic crisis to the question of defending or defaming the film.

Shifting the dialogue to these religious questions probably benefited Ennahda’s election possibilities as it shifted the emphasis on the basic qualities of Tunisian citizenship to a more religious basis (on which it has not up until now been based). In so doing the “new dialogue” mostly over religion and religiosity discredited the less religious Moslems, vilified the more secular elements and created a more fearful environment that continues up until the present. Ennahda bears some of responsibility for widening the secular-religious gap in Tunisia.

Ennahda has emerged as the more powerful political force in the country. It is a party that emanates from an Islamic social movement. It has existed for thirty years and has gone through many trials, tests of fire and has sacrificed much. It is a hardened (in the good sense of the term) political party with a genuine mass base as the recent election demonstrated. The two more secular parties that make up the power triangle, CPR and Ettakotal, are really not political parties in the same sense. Scraped together to participate in the election, they have little experience and a much narrower social base. Their leaders are acknowledged personalities in Tunisian life, but at least up until now they have been rather unimpressive. Marzouki seems glued to becoming Tunisia’s president at all costs and Ben Jaafar, at least so far, has not inspired much confidence even from his supporters, some of whom are already splitting off from the movement. Neither has offered anything substantial to address the socio-economic crisis to date.

As for Ennahda, they are now in power but still acting as if they were still the opposition, agitating for their positions rather than showing a concern for the whole of the country that they govern. Political power requires a certain magnanimity, which at the moment, all Ghannouchi’s good words aside, seems somewhat lacking. Admittedly after thirty years of repression it is difficult to change gears, but that is what appears necessary to hold the country together and move forward to address the problems at hand.

Further, since the elections, while claiming to work in coalition and consensus, there are signs that Ennahda is using the current situation to concentrate as much p0wer as possible in its own hands at the expense of its coalition allies and in so doing undermining Tunisian democracy. In the name of weakening the presidency given Ben Ali’s excesses they are attempting to concentrate similar powers in the position of the prime minister, giving that position something approaching unlimited control over the political process. At the same time, if the current trend continues the position of president of the republic (which Ben Ali and Bourguiba held) become little more than ceremonial posts. A needed balance of power is lost to what appears to be plain and simply a not particularly subtle power grab. Needless to say, the prime minister will be an Ennahda appointee.

There are also fears that the transitional government might seek to extend its mandate beyond its mandate of one year by stalling promised elections. There is a long history of promised but postponed elections in the Middle East that have undermined democratic processes. Such maneuvers were common in the Ben Ali era. Finally some of the key Ennahda appointments do not sit well. The fact that Ennahda has appointed the husband of Ghannouchi’s daughter as foreign minister, a man with no foreign policy experience to speak of, reminds Tunisians of the nepotism in the Ben Ali era. In a country whose political posture has long been based upon a clever, if not shrewd regional and international foreign policy, this rubs many people the wrong way.

It is not too late to close the gap, to build the confidence necessary to pursue a national agenda. These cultural questions need to be laid aside, a change in course that addresses the socio-economic crisis emphasized. And it needs to be done soon, before the gap is too great, the trust is broken and the good will Ennahda has earned through its anti-Ben Ali struggles is dissipated and the coalition collapses which it could.

In the last days, violence has broken out between pro and anti-nijab supporters at the University of Tunis taking tensions to a new level. Today a dean was beaten and an assistant administrator sent to the hospital after being beaten by Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist radicals) elements. As a result of what has been weeks of intimidation and lack of any government intervention the university closed its doors until security could be re-assured. While Ennahda claims uninvolvement, on a day that rocks were thrown at the more secular camp of demonstrators, several of their members of parliament were identified in the Salafist crowd widening the gap that much further. While Ennahda talks unity, most of the signs are that it is engaged in a power grab at which it could win the battle but lose the war, the war being over the future of Tunisia. Ca commence mal. It’s one thing to “talk the talk” of national unity, ah…but walking the walk, that appears to be a bit harder.

Keeping the social movement alive, the same one that overthrew Ben Ali and that said “no” to the first to post Ben Ali governments – and forced the government to concede – is needed now more than ever. And they are still there pushing Tunisia, once again, out of the darkness and towards the light, the nation’s conscience.

All the more important as the country once again seems headed for uncharted and darker waters. It’s not too late, but the clock is ticking and the younger generation in Le Kef, Kasserine, Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid are watching. Their demonstrations have a somewhat different tone than those of Tunis.

Postscript: Just after this was written, Ennahda relented to massive demonstrations and widespread anger to what has been perceived as power grabbing and it re-opened negotiations with other parties concerning the redistribution of power during this transition period. I don’t think in the long run that it will change a thing, but it has reduced tensions here some. these folks (Ennahda) are in it for the long run. The U.S. has made its peace with them for the most part.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.