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Middle East and Africa

“We are starting to get concerned. But the revolution is alive”

Interview with Yadh Ben Achour, a Tunisian jurist, former president of the Higher Authority  for  Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, by Maria Laura Conte and Meriem Senous

On the occasion of our scientific Committee in Tunis last June, you tackled the question of freedom of expression and the respect of holy symbols. Recent facts, (the exhibition at La Marsa, the film against Mohammed) have shown to what extent the question remains a sensitive one.How do you judge the bill that aims at punishing the outrages against ‘the holy symbols’? How can the respect for the freedom of expression and the respect for Islamic religious values be conciliated?



We are starting to be concerned. If the draft constitution criminalising insults to the holy is approved or the proposed criminal law bill, it will be the death of freedom of expression. In fact, in the hands of a judge or any government, these bills could kill freedom of expression, conscience and in particular artistic freedom, literary and philosophical. I therefore judge these laws as being threats against freedom, like anti-revolutionary laws. It is thanks to the revolution that we have won our freedom and similar laws are no other than robbery with respect to the conquests of revolution. Since this bill was presented, there have been so many reactions by civil society, opposition political parties, democratic public opinion, that they have had to present the bill and change the reference to holy in the draft constitution. It is still nonetheless an appreciable victory for democracy.



With regard to the incident of the young woman attacked by the police and accused of indecent behaviour, what does this say about the Tunisian society today? What was the standpoint of the various parties on this issue?



As always there have been extremely respectful reactions on the part of the conservative parties and an-Nahda. They admitted the attack on the dignity and integrity of the person, and also that rape was committed, that it was a criminal act, but they also added that the young woman was not completely innocent and that she had been caught in a situation of indecent behaviour. While the democratic clan immediately sided in support of the conviction of the policemen, without considering the girl’s predicament. I would nonetheless like to recall the fact that the President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki received the victim to express his support and to apologise on behalf of the state. The issue has been reversed: it is no longer the girl that is under trial but the police. And the girl is now heard as a witness. The judge who began the proceedings against her has been removed. At the moment the democratic area is defending itself very well, helped by gross mistakes and false moves made by the party in office, and in particular by Rashid Ghannoushi’s video broadcast at the beginning of October. This video [a confidential conversation recorded secretly and then put on the web,] showed the true face of the chief of an-Nahda, which is a totalitarian party, and it is this that has caused some degree of unrest in the party. They make a number of concessions at various levels, at a political one, on the constitution, this question of rape, and on the complementarity between man and woman, which they are renouncing in order to speak of equality. They have done everything necessary on all these issues as they have, that is, abandoned their radical positions to retreat into much more acceptable and more democratic stances. But one must always be wary.



Going back to Ghannoushi’s ‘secret’ video, according to you does it throw light on the true nature of the relationship between an-Nahda and the Salafite wing?



Most certainly. It was known that there was a relationship between the Salafites and an-Nahda. The video shows this very clearly. After all, this explains the government policy of two weights and two measures and the reason why the government has a soft hand with the Salafites. But they had understood that this policy could turn against them just as what happened with the attack against the United States Embassy and the American school on 14 October. I think that now we must expect a real clash between the two. The clash that will be seen from now on and in the future is on the one hand among the laical and the Islamists and on the other a clash within Islamism between moderates and radicals.



The drafting of the new constitution is going slowly. The foreseen deadlines have long expired. How can this delay be explained? Who is to blame for it? An-Nahda or the opposition?



It is the Constituent Assembly’s fault as from the beginning it has made a big mistake. They claimed legislative power while the essential task was the drafting of the constitution. By dedicating themselves to legislative activity and other secondary work they neglected the essential and wasted a great deal of time. The Assembly has become a parliamentary Assembly and no longer a constituent one.



At this stage it is hardly probable that the election date will be kept to…



The final date on which the troika has agreed is 23 June 2013. Personally I do not believe that it is possible to respect this deadline as nothing has been done until now. The constitution has not been adopted, nor has any work been done on the law on independent electoral instance and the elections themselves. It will take a long time. The ISIE (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections) has not yet begun its work, which will take 6-8 months preparation and the creation of institutions. Things have to be prepared, the registration of the electors has to be taken care of, the polling stations organised...All this will take time and I do not think that from now until June these problems can be resolved and then proceed with the elections. I believe that it will be postponed to the end of 2013.



Are the coalitions or alliances already being formed?



Yes, there are alliances. I think that we will move towards the creation of three poles. An-Nahda’s religious pole and his allies, the liberal pole represented by Nina Tounes and allies and a nationalist left pole which will side with neither one nor the other. We are moving in the direction of a simplification of the electors’ choice, contrary to what happened in October 2011.



Do you foresee a winner?



No. The only thing that perhaps can be said is on an-Nahda’s position. In my opinion, in the best of hypotheses, the party will not be able to improve on the result of the last elections. It could lose some votes and is doing everything to avoid disaster. It has made many mistakes and is losing a part of its electorate. At the present moment I think that its popularity is waning. Having said this, it all depends on the count.



What is President Marzouki’s actual power?



According to the ‘small constitution’ he does not have lot. But he has great visibility and takes symbolically very important decisions thus constituting a real counter-power. He met and honoured the young student who opposed the Islamists who had taken down the Tunisian flag from the entrance of Manouba University, putting a black one in its place. And then he received the girl attacked by the police, and whose case he follows closely. In his public declarations he has criticised an-Nahda, particularly in a letter sent to the congress of the party of which he is honorary president. It is true that he has no juridical power but he makes up for this with his huge visibility.



What do you think about the journalists’ strike?



The strikes are a very positive expression of the fact that the revolution is always present and alive. The journalists’ strike is a reaction against the attempts of the party and the government authorities to control the press and the media. The national television is in an extremely serious situation and there have been organised attacks by the Islamists against the television journalists. There have been the Nessma and the al-Sabah newspaper affairs, and then the systematic refusal to enforce decrees 115 and 116 on the freedom of the press and the media, approved last year by the Instance for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, but then blocked by the government led by an-Nahda. There are very forceful attempts to tamper with the freedom of the press. The situation has calmed down for the moment. An-Nahda has promised to have decrees 115 and 116 enforced. They will set up a press management committee. It appears that they agreed to sack the director of Al-Sabah who had been imposed and who the journalists had refused. This is confirmation of the fact that the democratic area is nonetheless strong in Tunisia. It has managed to force the government to review many positions on which it had not intended to give in at the beginning.



What is the general climate in Tunisia, in particular as far as concerns security and the economic situation?



Undoubtedly there is a real security problem. There is great insecurity owing to delinquency. There are repeated attacks, assaults, acute instability. Violent Salafism and jihadism has developed. Some days ago the mausoleum of Sayda Manoubia was sacked following various assaults ascribable to the radical Islamists. There is therefore a serious security problem, as well as a political and social one. On the one hand, the fresh outbreak of common criminality such as thefts and robberies and on the other the insecurity owing to the political violence of the jihadists.



Is the Tunisian society going towards radicalisation?



The Tunisian society is experiencing its own contradictions. Under the dictatorship everything was concealed and fake, it was all one big lie. The real problems were hidden. Today it is true that the situation is painful but at least we are experiencing our contradictions in the light of day. We know who we are, the Tunisian society is in front of a real mirror with no more lies. If this continues without violence and anarchy it is beneficial. Even though with some degree of anguish, we see the problems that we will resolve in a democratic way. In any case thanks to the revolution Tunisia has finally conquered something fundamental, despite the hardships and Islamist violence: it has conquered freedom, freedom of expression, the freedom of words, the openness of the public debate and public exchange of views. And this is something positive.