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Tunisia: A revolution deferred

By Monica Mark in Sidi Bouzid and Tunis
Posted on Tuesday, 5 November 2013 12:34

In Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, defiance is mixed with a growing sense of disillusionment. Immortalised in graffiti and giant posters draped across government buildings, the faces of the men whose deaths helped spark the Arab Spring beam down on the ubiquitous knots of unemployed men drinking coffee on sidewalks. “Arise Tunisia: the battle continues” is emblazoned on one charred wall.

Tunisia is seen as the Arab Spring’s best chance at building a stable democracy

Far from the cosmopolitan coastal areas home to tourism, Tunisia’s southern heartlands have borne the brunt of decades of government neglect. “Regardless of who the dictator is, we will always produce martyrs,” said Tahri Nabril, a resident in the run-down town of Meknassy. He gestured at the blue-gated Jardin des Martyrs, where a monument honours those who have died during the periodic uprisings that convulsed this district of desert and pear cactus. The list stretches back to 1881, but there are plans to add martyrs from this year.

For residents of Sidi Bouzid, the “dictator” now is the ruling Islamist Ennahda, the party which voters chose after President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s 24-year rule came to an abrupt end. Tunisia is seen as the Arab Spring’s best chance at building a stable democracy. But three years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped to topple a wave of autocratic leaders, little has changed.

Buying Time

“Look at our streets!” said Nabril, gesturing at the unpaved roads. “Ennahda didn’t create this mess, but they’ve shown no sign of doing anything about it while the north benefits every day from tourism. Are they trying to separate us into two Tunisias?”

Anger at economic stagnation which has followed initial high hopes is not confined to rural areas. Unemployment has spiked and inflation has risen. Discontent at plummeting economic indicators and repeatedly delayed elections has erupted in recent weeks. Ennahda, with an eye on the fate of their Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, has sought to soothe the anger in the streets.

The first signs of a thaw arrived on 28 September. Capitulating to international and domestic pressure, Ennahda agreed to resume stalled talks with the opposition. In theory, the renewed dialogue would lead to a new electoral law and the approval of a constitution within three weeks, while the Ennahda-led Assemblée Nationale Constituante (ANC) will resign and be replaced by a caretaker cabinet, pending polls within five months.

Since then little progress has been made, despite the creation of the care-taker ‘Quartet’ of theUnion Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the Human Rights League, the Lawyers Union and Ennahda. The to-do list is long: finish the constitution, revise the electoral calendar, and form a temporary technocratic government until elections can be held early next year.

Frustration has created an opening for the powerful leftist Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) labour union, which has been playing the role of political referee and has the power to pressure the government by rallying its 500,000 members who are impatient for change. But buying time has become the name of the game for Ennahda, trapped in a loveless marriage with two junior secular parties, the leftist Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés and the Congrès pour la République.

“The immediate resignation of the government is not an immediate requirement … but a request from the opposition. The government will resign only once an alternative has been finalised, rather than giving way to chaos,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said, hours after the roadmap had been accepted. The ambiguous statement has defined the tempo of discussions from the outset. Months of political squabbling and the assassination of two secular politicians this year had frozen efforts to unveil any timetables.

The latest turn of the screw came with the murder of secular opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi on 25 July. Tunisia has long been a progressive and secular enclave in the Maghreb, and Ennahda faced a renewed backlash amid claims it was partly responsible for the killing, which extremists carried out after months of threats.

Meanwhile, even as members of the ruling troika have peeled away in protest, Ghannouchi has struggled to unify the party’s warring factions. The party leader’s carefully worded statement about the political transition came in marked contrast to that of Ennahda’s hawks. “We suffer from a dictatorship of the minority, and the solution to the political crisis is not to oust Ennahda,” Ajmi Lourimi, a member of Ennahda’s executive bureau, tells The Africa Report.

A defiant Rafik Abdessalem, the foreign minister and Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, brushed off claims of nepotism that have dogged the party and spurred even more protests: “Some opposition groups resort to the streets to put pressure on government. They say it is a civil protest, but it’s not really about civil protest at all.”

Such statements are woefully out of touch with the mood on the streets. “No one can dispute that Ennahda has failed on the economic front. No one can dispute that the country is more insecure. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the worst-case scenario,” says Sassi Ahmed, an unemployed graduate attending a weekly protest on the leafy main avenue. Watched by a phalanx of policemen, the gathered several hundred people – including Brahmi’s widow Mbarka – raised their fists and shouted anti-government slogans.

“The way Ennahda is running the country, it’s safe to say the ghost of Ben Ali is alive and kicking,” says Mohamed Jmour, the deputy secretary-general of the Parti Unifié des Patriotes Démocrates and one of a growing number of ANC members who have started attending the weekly rallies.

A Tunis-based European diplomat says there are signs things may move forward this time, chivvied along by international donors who have contrib- uted $2.5bn in budget support. “It’s a different situation to Egypt where [the government] can always turn to the Gulf states’ largesse,” he says.

Crisis Between Politicians

There are still risks. A united Ennahda could try to push through unpopular constitutional provisions. “In this context, with the risk of a coup or second revolution increasing, the Islamists would most probably be unable to win the referendum on the new constitution, effectively taking the transition back to square one,” argues Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group consultancy. He adds that Ennahda would now struggle to repeat the 37% it polled in 2011 with its current track record.

Inexperienced and burdened with political appointees, the government has been unable to rein in burgeoning unemployment, which has now reached 16.7%, well above pre-revolution levels of 12%. Smuggling is booming on the country’s borders, with the results visible through the activity of traders who fill Tunis’s elegant 19th century streets. “I wouldn’t want to go back to low-paying [mining] when I can make much more money from this,” said Mido, who sells plasticware on a crammed street.

Blame has also fallen on the UGTT, whose members have voiced growing dissatisfaction at the leadership’s inability to draw the crisis to a close. “It’s a crisis between politicians, not a political crisis. The honest feeling is that things are going from bad to worse, and this is linked to the immaturity of the political class, nothing else,” explains Moez Bouraoui of the Association Tunisienne pour l’Intégrité et la Démocratie des Elections.

Growing religious authoritarianism has exacerbated the political crisis. With many Islamists repressed or imprisoned under Ben Ali, the country’s first free polls brought in a wave of local radicals and foreign imams inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.

According to the cluster of men gathered in Sidi Bouzid, it was a dark day when officials broke up a protest outside the blue-shuttered colonial-era train station. The men had gathered to discuss lobbying for more government investment in the mining and agricultural heartlands. Six locals were beaten. “They told us we were planning to destabilise the country and that we were against God because the government is for God,” says Hatem, 31, both eyes still slits in pulpy purple flesh.

Religious Overtones

Attempts to modernise the constitution have been delayed amid wrangling between hardline Islamists and more liberal secularists. Ennahda ANC members have put forward controversial articles that would allow sharia to be enshrined in law, roll back gender equality legislation and drop references to international human rights conventions.

Others, including Ennahda ANC representative Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou, the ex-party president imprisoned for almost two decades during Ben Ali’s crackdown, have openly brought religious overtones to the political debate, sometimes quoting the Qur’an to back up their legal arguments.

Nevertheless, there have been some concessions. The government has tried, albeit half-heartedly, to ban former officials from participating in politics, while Taoufik Bouderbala’s commission has tentatively investigated crimes during the run-up to Ben Ali’s overthrow.

Alongside the rise of the Salafists, and despite some serious set- backs, freedom of speech is growing. “It would have been impossible to start a media house like this under Ben Ali. The government is still trying, but they can’t repress everything the way they used to,” says the owner of a private media house, one of several that have sprung up since 2011.

Unlike in Egypt, the threat of violence does not come from the army nor the more powerful police, but from Salafist groups exploiting the political infighting. Radicals have taken over at least 1,200 of Tunisia’s roughly 5,000 mosques, says a source in the religious affairs ministry, turning them into platforms to call for jihad and sharia.

Violent Salafist groups also rioted over an art show they deemed blasphemous, and have held demonstrations demanding female university students wear face veils. Hardline Islamist groups, in particular Ansar al-Charia, had operated, preached and recruited freely and openly in post-revolution Tunisia. On 27 August, the government belatedly banned the group and labelled it a terrorist organisation.

“The problem with the banning of Ansar al-Charia is that they then become a group operating underground. What do these kind of groups do? They eventually attack the state,” said a senior security official in Tunis. Analysts also point to a failure to take seriously alleged links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, particularly through the shadowy military group Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi.

Yards away from the still-charred government buildings where Bouazizi set himself on fire, radio presenter Anis Chouaibi is dubious about a resolution to these tensions anytime soon. After his show’s audience skyrocketed, he was variously approached by members of each party who offered him bribes as large as his annual salary in exchange for parroting the party line. “That is all they had the imagination to do. People are just so disillusioned now. That’s why there aren’t as many protests as before. There’s a strange silence in Sidi Bouzid,” he says. ●

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