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The great Tunisian compromise

Current Affairs

The great Tunisian compromise

Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in October reinforced the tentative progress the country has made since the 2011 revolution. But its efforts to speed up the transition and compromise at the highest political levels have come at a cost. Mohamed-Salah Omri reports from Tunis.

The Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al Azm observed that the main effect of uprisings across the Arab world has been “to return politics to the people and people to politics”.  In Tunisia, the starting point of the so-called Arab Spring, this meant a return of politics as a subject of public concern and the emergence of a vigorous democracy expressed in the street, media and the arts. After decades of repression and monopolised power under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia quickly saw individual and collective political voices being asserted in the form of parties and associations as new possibilities became imaginable. At the same time, Tunisians were also confronted by insecurity, a power vacuum, and a deteriorating economic situation.

In this period, three things took place: the legalisation of public emotion, the loss of innocence, and the rule of the shopping basket.

Over the last three years, Tunisia has made some key and undeniable gains: its media is free and generally fair; the iconography of dictatorship has all but disappeared; a very good constitution has been adopted; and two free and fair elections have been held. Furthermore, attempts to derail the revolution by escalating identity politics have so far failed; an outright return of the old regime has been curtailed; and large-scale violence has been prevented from spreading.

Many are still singing a revolutionary tune in Tunisia but political movement is no longer directed by them.

Tunisia has managed to avoid the fate of Egypt, Syria, Yemen and neighbouring Libya, for a variety of complex reasons such as its well-entrenched state institutions, largely well-educated population, and significant civil society organisations. In particular, the powerful independent union, the UGTT, has been crucial in mediating between political parties in times of acute crisis. The most important of these interventions have included peaceful transfers of power, harmonising views on the constitution, and agreeing a roadmap and timetable for elections.

The process of legalising public imagination started in 2011 when the transition was handed over to a body of non-elected representatives headed by a constitutional lawyer. And it continued under elected lawmakers who maintained the process of taking the reins of politics away from a euphoric people eager to assert their divergent desires freely. There were riots, strikes and street protests, but order returned quickly, even as the hard work of setting legal foundations for the new state took place amidst a fierce contestation over issues of identity, way of life and social justice. 

With the assassination of the popular leftist leader Chokri Belaid on 6 February 2013, however, a major fear entered the nation’s psyche. This was followed by further assassinations and losses, particularly among the army and police, perpetrated by an emerging Islamist militant movement fueled by foreign preachers, reluctant security forces, and porous borders with Algeria and Libya which allowed external fighters to enter almost unimpeded. Tunisia became a base for terrorism, and has reportedly sent around 2,400 fighters to fight in Syria. The political process has managed to curtail violence considerably, but terrorism has not been uprooted.  Meanwhile, fear and suspicion, while not rampant, have become a fact of politics and daily life, and affected the outcome of the latest elections. In the mind of the public, the suggestion that Ennahda, the Islamist party that became the country’s biggest party after the 2011 elections, is linked to or complicit in the Islamist violence haunted its campaign and no doubt contributed to its loss of support. Nidaa Tounes, the liberal party that won the largest number of seats in the 2014 elections, exploited these fears and capitalised on them. 

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