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Middle East and Africa

Tunisia: three years later the flame of Sidi Bouzid has not gone out

Barriers to separate opposing protesters; different groups demonstrating no longer so numerous and with opposing slogans: on January 14th, 2014, the third anniversary since Ben Ali left the scene, Avenue Bourghiba has once again faithfully respected the actual situation in the country: divided between the supporters of an-Nahda and the government after the 2011 elections on one side and the opposition on the other.



In the palace even if the rhythm of work of the Constituent Assembly has been accelerated in the last weeks (every day the Constituent Bulletin talks of a series of approved articles with some difficulties regarding the most controversial such as 103 on the judiciary power), and has not yet entered a new awaited phase: the date for new election with a new constitution in power.



The society is divided just like politics. People are deluded, almost disenchanted with respect to the season of the post-revolutionary great promises. Because there is no work and the country continues to be paralyzed by continuous strikes and chronic instability.



33,000: this is the amazing number circulating concerning the manifestations held in the last two years. The fact that some see this as prove of the great freedom obtained by society, and by others as an expression of the reigning chaos says a lot about the anxiety Tunisia is experiencing. Bitterness for the revolution ‘confiscated’ is one of the most diffused sentiments that can be felt in the capital. It has been confiscated by the parties which didn’t lead it and which then imposed themselves on the scene even taking on the role of the only players. But this cannot be controlled. The unemployment rate is between 16 and 18%.



To understand what is actually happening today it is necessary to go back a little. After the elections on October 23, 2011, The work for the Constituency started which should have produced the new constitution and moved the country to new election within a year at the most. But it has taken a lot more time to the point that some talk of the existence of ‘a regime of October 23’. Two governments of the Troika (An Nahda, Ettakol, Congrès pour la Republique) followed one another: to that led by Jebali after the assassination of Chokri Belaid on February the 6th, 2012, that of Laârayedh (previous minister for Internal Affairs of Jebali) followed. But also this government goes through dramatic period. On July 25, Mohammed Brahmi a leader of the opposition was assassinated. A new particularly disturbing phase opened with enormous manifestations and pressure by the civil society who asked the An Nahda government to leave. A series of exhausting negotiations started. The party which obtained the most votes in the elections now had to decide whether to leave power or to keep it against all. In either case a defeat.



In the autumn 2013 there was a development. The quartet (composed of the UGTT Union, the organizations of industrialists, retailers and artisans UTICA, the league for the rights of men and the category of lawyers) which dealt with the mediation between the Troika on one side and the Front de Salut National on the other presented a ‘Feuille de route’ signed by all parties participating in the national dialogue and which set the principle rules the country must follow to come out of the impasse: to conclude the work of the Constituent Assembly, choose members of ISIE, adopt a new electoral law, set the date for the elections, form a caretaker government. Around mid December the new Prime Minister was named, the independent Medhi Jomaa, already minister for Industrial affairs, a ‘soft’ Islamist for some. And on the 9th of January Laârayedh resigned.



The new government is warned: the program is ambitious, among the Tunisians some still believe, others see this as a way out of the stagnation, and others would prefer to pre-revolution days. “We are in a transition phase, which is not yet a democratic transition - prof. Habib Kaddaghi claims, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, at the university of Manouba. The election opened a season of unrest and those in power are not reassuring in this sense. We elected an assembly to make a constitution which has not yet been made. The Troika has not respected the agreement. Fortunately, the civil society has reacted once again. New political subjects start which are re-equilibrating the existing powers: Nida Tunis for example, born in 2012, is forcing those in power to make new moves to aggregate the fragmented opposition parties, keeping together members of the left and Dusturians”.



For the Dean what was a social protest has now become a political contest: “in 2011 in order to vote my wife and I queued for five hours. This must mean something If 50% then did not vote. The young contesters did not vote. They do not recognize any party. And today we still haven’t got a constitution because everyone has their own personal ideas and which is not the same as others”. Kazdaghli, who has been accompanied by a bodyguard for the last five months because of the threats received from the extreme Islamic groups who placed him on the black list of infidels to be eliminated, thinks that the time of truth has come for Tunisia: “the state is weak and the main point is to guarantee respect for the law, not for Islam”.



For the director of Realité, Taïeb Zahar, the absolute priorities for Tunisia are to guarantee security and reassure investors, therefore to immediately reactivate the economy. The political parties must commit themselves to this even if it is much lower than citizens expectations. Zahar wishes that Jomaa can put together a team of competent people, even those of Ben Ali. All that is necessary is that they become capable of getting the country out of the crisis in which it has ended. In such a situation of ‘weak power’ anything can happen. “The real risk we face” the director says, “is that of a second uprising which would be much more devastating than that of 2011, anarchic, which starts in the outskirts where people feel emarginated and betrayed by those they voted into power”. You can’t govern thinking only of Tunis. Outside the capital there are 9 million people who want work and food. These are the three factors that can cause the second crisis: the radicalization of the opposition which wants reforms but also the fall of the present regime, the internal division of the elites in power and the role of the army. It is certainly not like that of Egypt but however they have the arms and they have remained silent up to now. “If Tunisia succeeds in this undertaking, Zahar concludes, then other Arab countries can hope to form true democracy. For this reason we have a lot of enemies opposing us. Not Western foreign pressure, who fight against our success”.



The boundaries of Tunisia are particularly weak. Along the boundaries of 1600 Km with Libya, enormous quantities of arms are introduced which then end up in the hands of Jihadist non active cells, and no one knows how or when they could decide to attack. In the meantime they are training in the hilly areas around the capital.



This is a serious problem for An Nahda, who for Fayçel Naceur member of the political commission of the party, imprisoned since he was nineteen, and who for ten years chose “responsibly to leave the government proving his faith in the democratic process more than in occupying a place of power. It is not true that the party is no longer politically legitimate just as the accusations against an-Nahda to want to create an Islamic state is simply a hoax of the opposition. The real objective is that of contributing to the building of democracy however slow and difficult this may be”. For the an-Nahda man we cannot but recognize how much the first minister Laârayedh contributed to national reconciliation who, after sixteen years in prison during which he was tortured for six consecutive months, and then became Minister for Internal Affairs, shook hands with those who had tortured him, forgiving them and forgetting it all. “The only intention of those who leave government today is to work for the people”. Different to those coming back on the scene today like Essebsi who at 84 represents the whole system Nida Tunis is only a temporary coalition against us which bring together Gauchists with Mafiosi of the Bourghiba and Ben Ali era and who want to bring back that time”.



And this democratic commitment shows an iron fist against the Salafi: they went onto the streets demonstrating in big numbers every Friday up to a few months ago, until the Troika managed to control them and reduced them to silence. In fact they are no longer seen in public today in Tunis. They seem to have disappeared.



But Hamadi Redissi, professor of Political Science at the university of Tunis, states that after Brahmi was assassinated they had to disappear because of the reaction of the people who could no longer tolerate them. Redissi claims that today the Salafi are split in two. Some have retreated to the mountains to train as guerrilla fighters while others have withdrawn to the mosques. He foresees that they will not return and this demonstrates that only one Islamic ‘modern’ party in power can keep the situation under control. The professor claims that An Nahda has lost the aura of victim through which he had obtained votes at the elections and had demonstrated his real plan.



The extreme unstableness of the present Tunisian political panorama is well represented by the emerging Manar Skandarani, a successful commercial manager of kebab in Europe in the 80’s and 90’s, who is known in a hundred countries and speaks nine languages. He was accused of terrorism and imprisoned in the US, in Brazil and in Germany between 2005-2006 (in the West a Muslim who is economically successful cannot be a terrorist). In 2012 Skandarani returned to Tunis as advisor to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He held this position for eight months. Then, for political disaccord he left An Nahda and started a new center-line party that was to be open ‘a bridge between the old and the new’. It hadn’t yet decided on a name for the party but it was to be conservative and liberal. Skandarani is convinced that it is necessary to create a dialogue between the existing parties which so far have not faced real confrontation. He aims at ‘reconciliation’. Tunisia has many cards to play with the help of Europe, he says, it can develop like Dubai or Singapore. It must simply develop its potential which is based on the fact that it can count on a well formed and clever young population. In spite of the fact that there are still 130 parties in the country, Skandarani is convinced that the country needs to create a new party small but decisive for global balance in this first phase which should last for at least twenty years. Nida Tunis he claims is not, in fact, a real party but simply a club governed by a strong personality. When the day comes when Essebsi, the founder, is no longer there, his political project will expire because it has no political project and gathers people whose sole aim is to go against An Nahda.


But Nida Tunis rejects all attempts to delegitimate this. “ We are not just here for the moment. We are a gathering of vital forces for the country, workers, entrepreneurs, union leaders says Mongi Sahrawi, a long time union leader of the UGTT, imprisoned by Bourghiba and Ben Ali at least on three occasions for his commitment to the defense of the union’s autonomy and today is a member of Nida Tunis’ political committee. “Ours is a new Dusturian party. Just as the first Dustur contributed to the birth of modern Tunisia, we now want to start the new post-revolutionary Tunisia. And it just happened that An Nahda got the majority of seats due to an inadequate electoral law. It is true that we have no ideology to refer to, but we represent the spirit of Tunisia which has nothing to do with Islamic politics”. As a member of the Front de Salut National, Nida Tunis abstained at the election of the new Prime Minister but he believes that the provisional government will manage new elections by 2014. Now there is no longer An Nahda’s attempt to gain time to prolong his power indefinitely.



In the meantime, Freedom House, an American independent organization which oversees world freedom congratulates Tunisia at the dawn of 2014 for its process of a pacific change and writes that as far as liberty in general is concerned and especially the press the country is ‘partly free’.



33,000 demonstrations, 130 political parties plus one. Three years after the revolution, Tunisia remains incomprehensible and famished. But, no matter how exhausted, it does not give up.