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Tunisia: Six Years on, the Revolution is Still Underway

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Dr. Lakhdar Ghettas
Author of Algeria and the Cold War: International Relations and the Struggle for Autonomy (London & NY: IB Tauris, 2018)

Six years on the political, social and intellectual dynamics unleashed in Sidi Bouzid, on 17 December 2011, are still underway in Tunisia. This year’s celebrations of the 14 January anniversary of the ousting of former president Ben Ali were marked by a gathering in Tunis of the families of the martyrs and the wounded during the confrontations between the protestors and the Ben Ali regime’s security forces in 2010-11. The rally took place around the statute of Bourguiba, now re-erected on Bourguiba Avenue (meters away from the ministry of interior), and in squares nation-wide after Ben Ali removed them during his rule. The families demanded justice and compensation: justice because many of the snipers are still free and compensation because the coordination of the families of the victims is still awaiting the release of the official list by the government. Coming mostly from Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kessrine, the scene looked as if the marginalised periphery has come to the centre of the establishment to demand answers. Tunisia has started to deal with its past through the public hearings organised by the Truth and Dignity Commission in December, but there is still a long way to go beyond the symbolic gesture of rehabilitating Bourguiba in Tunisia’s collective memory.

Meanwhile, President Beji Caid Essebsi, at 90, chose Gafsa, capital of Tunisia’s underdeveloped south, to mark the anniversary. There, he announced the launch of 100 development projects that would create jobs for the frustrated youth. Essebsi’s charm offensive was an uphill task and patience was running low even by elder southerners who turned out to his rally. In other regions of the geographic and development periphery such as el Kaf, Meknassi, Ben Guerdan, etc. frustrated young protesters engaged in clashes with riot-police. Six years on, the development faultline that Tunisian media commentators now draw between the Sahel and the Sahara, is not only geographic but also political, as far as access to governance mechanisms is concerned. The media landscape itself, although more diverse than six years ago, is now heavily dominated by business circles close to the ruling party Nidaa Tounes or the establishment that has always ruled independent Tunisia.

Politically, the agenda is dominated by three thorny issues. First there is the pressing issue of regional development. This dossier is related to pending legislation in regard to the decentralisation policy, which was enacted by the constitution, but awaits its implementation once the parliament passes its laws and the government executes its public policies.

The second issue related to decentratisation is passing the law on the municipalities’ elections. The bill, proposed by Habib Sid’s government, exactly a year ago, is still pending in the parliament because political parties could not agree on how to ensure the neutrality of armed forces in politics. Ennahdha is opposed to allowing the armed forces to take part in elections, but seems to be open to exploring other mechanism for their participation.

The third political issue that has dominated the political debate in December and the beginning of this year is the fate of Tunisian returnees from conflict zones such as Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The interior ministry revealed that it has a list of 2,929 Tunisians in conflict zones, half of which are in Syria, 500 in Libya, 150 in Iraq, and 400 in other countries, especially Europe. Around 800 (including 30 women) have returned to Tunisia, according to the same source. There is a debate around whether it is not in the national interest of Tunisia to reject its returnees. The leftist Popular Front, some voices in Nida Tounes, and other liberal parties such as the PDL party have called for banning these returnees, and even to strip them of Tunisian nationality. Ennahdha, however, brandishes the constitution’s article 25 of Chapter III (Rights and Freedoms) which stipulates that “no citizen shall be stripped of the Tunisian nationality, nor be sent to exile or extradited, nor banned from returning to his/her country”. Faced by this constitutional safeguard that is defended not only by Ennahdha but also other liberal constitutional scholars, some political parties, including the FP, have called for revision of the constitution. Others proposed to change Tunisian passports to avoid re-opening the debate of the constitution endorsed just two years ago.

While this debate is taking place in the parliament and civil society Tunisia’s labour union UGTT is busy this week (22-25 Jan.) with its 23rd congress to elect a new leadership to succeed Hocine el-Abbassi’s executive committee. The UGTT has played a key role in the political transition in the last six years, especially in the run up and during the national dialogue in 2013-2014. After the adoption of the 2015 constitution the UGTT relatively disengaged from the political transition debates to rather focus on economic and labour issues, during Habib Sid’s government. One marked milestone of this opposition was the union’s opposition to the bill for economic reconciliation proposed by President Essebsi, in July 2015. The UGTT did not give a warm welcome to the nomination of Youssof Chahed as prime minister. When he proposed to postpone the raise in salaries agreed between the UGTT and former prime minister Habib Sid, in Sept. 2015, Abbassi criticised Chahed’s blind submission to the recommendation of the World Bank, and even threatened to call for a general strike on 8 December 2016. The last time the UGGT call for a general strike it cost Ben Ali his rule. But a day before the set date an agreement was reached with the government to implement the workers’ salary raises. Now the union is electing its new leadership at a very difficult time for the Tunisian economy and transition.

Lakhdar Ghettas

Links for more information: (Le Maghreb, original Arabica)


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