Tunisia: The revolution will be televised

By Patrick Smith in Tunis

Posted on June 10, 2011 08:07

Cameras captured each stage of the Tunisian revolution, but young activists do not want to let up as the transitional government gets bogged down in the minutiae of organising new polls.

Cameras captured each stage of the Tunisian revolution, but young activists do not want to let up as the transitional government gets bogged down in the minutiae of organising new polls.

Amid demonstrators’ banners, piles of political manifestos and the tanks guarding the Interior Ministry, the fruits and symbols of Tunisia’s revolution are all on display on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the tree-lined boulevard that bisects the capital. The revolutionary spirit still courses through Tunisia. Yet there are growing worries that the fragile transitional regime under Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi may be stalling in its commitment on elections for a constitution-making body, scheduled for 24 July.

As Tunisians revel in new-found freedoms of the press and political activism, many question the fairness of the electoral competition after decades of repression. Such concerns sparked bitter clashes between activists and police in early May after former interior minister Farhat Rajhi suggested that General Rachid Ammar was plotting a coup d’état to prevent the Islamist Hezb Ennahda from winning the election.

It was on this avenue on 14 January that demonstrators converged from across the city and beyond to demand that President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali “dégage!” – with such determination that the generals of the country’s 40,000-strong army advised him to flee after 24 years of autocratic rule. In fact their movement had started 250km south of Tunis in Sidi Bouzid, where an unemployed graduate, Mohammed Bouzizi, had set himself ablaze after police and state officials had stopped him from selling vegetables in the town square.

Now the people of Sidi Bouzid have founded Karama (‘dignity’ in Arabic), an association that seeks productive investment and celebrates the launching of North Africa’s revolution in their town, from where images were beamed on satellite television channels across the world. They are determined that this year’s political momentum must not weaken.

It is the determination of the disparate but national movement for change that is one of the strongest pressures on the Essebsi government. His establishment of a credible electoral commission, managed by independent lawyers, accountants and academics, on 10 May, looks a positive sign.

Less clear is the nature of Tunisia’s emerging politics. Some claim that the best organised force is Ennahda, the Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia to mixed reactions after two decades in exile. Secularists fear that despite Ghannouchi’s liberal makeover, his party would rigorously enforce sharia law and limit the role of women in politics and the economy.

Others worry about allies of Ben Ali re-entering politics by stealth: Rajhi called them a “Sahelian clique” seeking to buy political influence by quietly sponsoring new parties. For some, uncertainty about what these parties stand for and the task of creating a credible voter register before late July supports Essebsi’s argument to delay elections for several months. However, convincing Tunisia’s sceptical young activists of that could prove to be beyond the 84-year-old prime minister’s skills.

This article was first pubished in the June 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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