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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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The Tunisian Revolution Revisited

Filed under: Jerusalem

Democracy does not seem to be closer in Tunisia today than it was four months ago, since the beginning of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution.” Instead it seems that Tunisia is in a stalemate, caught in moving sands, unable to stabilize and consolidate the domestic political scene.

Rather than advancing, it looks as if Tunisia has made a great leap backwards: Democracy has not eased the economic situation. The majority of the 350,000 employees in the tourism sector are unemployed, 25% of the main hotels are in a state of bankruptcy, while 80% of them are still closed. TunisAir, whose flights were cancelled, is being paid by the government for the lost seats in order to survive the absence of tourists. Supermarkets are still attacked and looted. Anarchy is such that the transitional government has reinstalled the notorious night curfew in Tunis as if former President Ben-Ali was still in power. Tanks and armored cars are still on the streets of Tunis.  Moreover,Tunisia is in an open conflict with Libya, which has tried several times to attack Tunisian units deployed on their common borders. Last but not least,Tunisia has had three transitional governments since the Jasmine revolution and instability still prevails.

Tunisia has become a country where rumors create events and where the word “conspiracy” is prevalent. Most recently, former Minister of Interior Farhat Rajhi expressed in an interview on Facebook and in the Tunisian media that “counter-revolutionary forces are present inside the government, and Ben Ali’s closest confidant would be the one who is leading a conspiracy against the revolution.”

Indeed, according to the former judge and Minister of Interior Rajhi, 84 year- old Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi is a liar. General Ammar, Chief of Staff who disobeyed  Ben Ali and refused to order his troops to open fire on the protesters, is interested only in protecting the interests of his fellow residents of the Sahel ( South Tunisia) who dwell in an area traditionally associated with the former ruling party ,the “Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique” ( RCD). Meanwhile, Kamel Eltaief, the closest confidant to ousted president Ben Ali, would be the man behind the scenes preparing the counter-coup against the revolution.

Although denied the next day, these declarations were enough to provoke violent protests in Sfax and Kairouan, while the government declared its readiness to sue Farhet Rajhi for defamation and libel.

Essesbi has declared his intention to re-establish the legal structures of the country, with the first objective being to choose the next provisory president during the elections to the Assembly (Assemblee Constituante) on July 24. It would be the president’s responsibility to appeal to one of the elected legislators to form a provisional government. Following this process this elected Assembly would devote its time to rewriting the constitution, a task that will have a six month deadline following a submission to a referendum. Only then will Tunisia be able to recover the “democratic process” and run its political life according to a new Constitution with legislative and presidential elections. Parallel to this process the Government needs to create a National committee whose main task is to introduce reforms in the political structure of Tunisia.

In the meantime, Essesbi and his government had to make decisions that suited the spirit of the Revolution: dissolving the ruling party RCD and the Political Police. Some of the officials involved in the decision to open fire on the protesters are being tried, so are those who are found to have been involved in corruption and illegal enrichment.

One of the first political decisions that had to be made was to allow freedom of speech, as well as to allow the formation of new political structures and parties. Till now more than 60 parties have declared their intention to participate in the upcoming July elections. However, the decision to legalize all forbidden parties under the previous regime and to allow them to operate and function has raised many eyebrows. This cause of action applied particularly to the Islamic Party “ElNahda” (the Renaissance) whose leader Rached Ghannouchi, aged 70, has been living in exile inLondonfor over two decades, and is known to have maintained close ties with Iran.

No doubt the issue of the Islamists is at the core of the political debate in Tunisia. Rached Ghannouchi wisely retreated to a position of Spiritual Leader/Supreme Guide of the “Nahda Party” while delegating his powers to Dr. Hamadi Jebali, aged 63, who is next in line of command of the party he joined almost 30 years ago. Jebali is an engineer who is recognized as a pioneer in his hometown of Sousse for his work on renewable energy technologies. He is also the father of two daughters, and married to journalist Wahida. He became the director of the party organ El-Fajr (the Dawn) for three years before being shut down by Ben Ali in 1992. Since his release from a 15 year prison sentence, he has been the party’s spokesman, and has headed all its activities. Jebali is known for his pragmatic approach and his moderate rhetoric, which is definitely closer to the Democratic credo rather than to traditional Islamic literature. Together with his guide AlNahda, they have declared they have no intention at this time to present a candidate for the presidential elections. Rather AlNahda will run in the elections for the Assembly in July, working up the ladder to power and decision-making from there. In this context, it is worthwhile noting that in the 1989 elections, AlNahda won over 30% of the votes, which was the reason for the downfall of Ben Ali and the incarceration of more than 30,000 party members. Understandably, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the upcoming elections as far as ElNahda is concerned. Judging by the way Tunisians greeted Ghannouchi on his return to Tunisia on January 30 and by the encroaching Islamization on Tunisian society over the last decade, it would be fair to assume that ElNahda will definitely make his mark on political life in Tunisia.

During an interview regarding his opinion on the upcoming elections, Jebali stated that it was his party’s intention to build a political and democratic movement (Jebali did not use the Arabic word for democratic, rather the Islamic translation “Shouri”, coming from Shura- Islamic consultative committee) in order “to build a democratic society based on pluralism and respect of individual and collective liberties.” Ghannouchi himself mentioned several times that his party was closer to the conservative Turkish AKP party concept of government, than to the Western concept of democracy. Ghannouchi said, “we will achieve our goals in successive stages, but first of all we are the defenders of Islam.”

While ElNahda is well-known in the political realm in Tunisia, there are more extreme Islamist groups that have gained popularity among the youth, despite being marginal, such as the Salafists (pure interpreters of the Qur’an), and the Hizb el Tahrir (Liberation Party), an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The secular Tunisian political strata has expressed its deep concern regarding the rise of Islamist parties, and has expressed fears that such parties “will steal” the revolution from its legitimate generators. It would seem that this is the reason that has motivated the secular political parties to have attached such an importance to the work of the Superior Committee for political reform. By doing so, it is their hope that this body will put a halt to the Islamists growth, in addition will consolidate Tunisia’s fragile equilibrium since the split between Islam and secularism.

Tunisia is clearly undergoing a power crisis. There is a danger of mob rule and as a result, the intervention of forces unleashed by the ousting of Ben Ali. First and foremost the Islamists established order in a country where a police presence vanished long ago from the streets and where the army, once welcomed as liberators, is now being attacked by stones. Under the umbrella of the night curfew, the next confrontation is being prepared between the Islamists and the secular entities of the Tunisian body-politic. The big question remains as it was in the very first days of the Revolution: what will the army do? Will it intervene in favor of one of the contenders or will it remain neutral?

No doubt, Tunisia is in a state of anticipation for the crucial July 24 elections. Postponing the elections or delaying them for any reason could be just the fuel that is needed to bring on a second round of the “Jasmine Revolution.”

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.