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Tunisia and Democratic Transition

GB Geo-Blog

Tunisia and Democratic Transition

Protests in TunisiaAs the ripple effects of the Tunisian revolution continue to be felt in the region, it is important to zero in on the main challenges and pitfalls limning the path to true democratic transition – a transition that will impact the democratic prospects of the entire Middle East and the Arab world.

The Tunisian revolution not only toppled the tyrannical, highly kleptocratic and Orwellian system of Ben-Ali, but also contributed to the dispelling of long-held myths about the population of the Middle East and the Arab world, as well as certain old paradigms that are deeply entrenched in the history of relations between the West and the region – relations in which a past record of colonialism and foreign tampering continue to permeate regional political thinking and formations. To be sure, the Tunisian revolution destabilizes the classical fault lines of the ‘clash of civilizations.’ The overly simplistic ‘Orientalist’ lens, which sees the Arab and Middle Easterner as apolitical and unengaged, has been shattered. The thrust for justice and dignity is universal, and cannot be easily quashed by the double discourse of authoritarian, repressive rule and complicit, self-serving external agendas.

The success of the said transition from authoritarian rule to nascent democracy depends on whether the political elites will be able to correctly translate – in institutional and programmatic terms – the demands for freedom and dignity at the heart of the uprising. The challenges are many, and past precedents have demonstrated how quickly a mass popular movement for change, if not properly channelled, can be hijacked and manipulated, issuing in abysmal failure, and leaving the aspirations of the people unrealized.

Toppling a well-entrenched regime is only half of the battle. A more difficult and complex task is to take apart the system on which dictatorship thrived. Such systems are usually characterized by their sprawling grip on society, and by widespread webs of control – not only through the state apparatus, but also through the creation of overt and covert cells deeply entrenched in the social net.

The experiences of past revolutions and transitions demonstrate that countries move forward in one of two ways. Some make a progressive transition toward democracy by preserving certain technocrats from the old regime in order to ensure continuity of the state. This was seen, for instance, in post-Franco Spain, when Adolfo Suarez – ex-minister under Franco – successfully led the transition toward democracy as prime minister. Some Latin American countries have also witnessed a power-sharing framework between the opposition and representatives of the ex-regime during the transitional period. Other transitions have been characterized by a more radical break with the past; that is, the sidelining and purging of all of the symbols of the old regime – sometimes at the risk of plunging the country into chaos.

The Jasmine Revolution seems to lie betwixt these two scenarios. The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) – although just ordered dissolved by the judiciary (a decision to be appealed by the RCD) – still exercises a sizeable grip on the Tunisian state. Throughout the 23 years of Ben-Ali’s reign, the RCD created parallel public structures that were central in promoting and protecting the authoritarian system. The RCD has hundreds of committees, has presence throughout the country, and enjoys thousands of supporters. The power of Ben-Ali was built on a system of allegiance to this single party – rallying some two million Tunisians behind the regime – in a country with a population of just over 10 million. The permanence of the party – even after the fall of Ben-Ali – was obvious to Tunisians and external observers alike when the first transitional government was announced. The population discovered with dismay and resentment that 14 ministers from the RCD were still ‘in office’ – indeed, four of them provocative symbols of the old regime.

While some time has already passed since the fall of Ben-Ali, Tunisians are still uncertain about the strength of the RCD and its capacity to resist the imperatives of revolution. Indeed, there are many worrying signs that the party and its representatives inside the state are activating their ‘Plan B’ in order to sabotage any attempts aimed at democratic transition. They have tried different scenarios in order to destabilize the country, and to create insecurity and a general sense of fear. Soon after Ben-Ali fled the country, militias aligned with him – and apparently under the orders of his director of presidential guards, Ali Seriati (now in detention) – activated a widespread campaign to terrorize the civilian population by pillaging, burning public property, and even resorting to murder. This initial plan failed as the population organized itself into committees to defend their neighbourhoods. The army also stepped in to successfully repel the militias.

Disentangling the state from the grip of the RCD will require time, skill and strategy. And while separation between the state and the party is necessary, it must be undertaken in a structured way. In the last few months, there were many poorly organized and spontaneous purges by groups of public administration workers, leading to the overthrow of directors believed to be aligned with Ben-Ali. If this movement continues, there is a high risk of eventual anarchy and instability, which will doubtless impact the national economy and national security. In the end, however, purging the structures of the state of RCD members most aligned with the old regime will be complex – possibly conducing to an escalation of violence, as these apparatchiks and their followers may try to tighten their grip on the informal and parallel structures of the party and the police.

In the short-term, the state needs to reorganize its security and law enforcement forces in order to dismantle the structures that are fomenting challenges to a smooth transition. In the longer-term, the state will need to: undertake reform of the security apparatus; train Tunisia’s police forces according to international standards, such as the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials; and establish of some form of vetting of state agents or officials responsible for past violations and abuses. However, proportionality in determining the scope and effect of vetting policies is essential, as is the provision of reasonable due process protections for individuals who become subject to vetting.

The Jasmine uprising is a revolution without a leader or control by political parties. Civil society was present, but more to accompany the movement rather than to direct it. Political parties from the opposition were indeed quite slow in realizing the potential of the uprising. Yet this absence of leadership is not necessarily fatal for a potential democratic transition, as it avoids the potential risk of the movement being taken over by a charismatic leader who is unable to deliver – avoiding an ‘emperor has no clothes’ scenario – and creates the opportunity for a total reshaping of the old presidential model. Still, the fragmentation of the political elite may also lead to discord and ultimately to the failure of the democratic project. The opposition movement is now facing a crucial moment: after 23 years under the oppressive rule of Ben-Ali, the parties are scattered and lack representation in Tunisian society.

Since the fall of the regime, there has been an ongoing power struggle among Tunisia’s leftist parties. Some, such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Party Attajdid (‘The Renewal’ – formerly communist), have joined the transitional government; others have stepped down from the first unity government (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties or FDTL); and two main opposition parties were left out of the negotiations (the Tunisian Community Workers’ Party, or POCT, and the Islamist party, Al-Nahdha).

All of these parties have yet to devise a clear political, economic and outreach programme for future elections. They are on a tight-rope, as time is ticking and other actors in the Tunisian political landscape are also preparing to enter the battlefield. These other actors include the said Al-Nahdha, as well as those figures from the RCD who are not totally discredited by their participation in the old regime. For instance, Kamel Morjane, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs under Ben-Ali – who was forced to resign under popular pressure – has already announced his intention run as a candidate in the elections. The democratic and secular parties face the risk of losing at the ballot box should they fail to organize and prepare a disciplined and successful bid in the elections. The months to come will be crucial in testing their ability to find a common platform for discussing the democratic project, and ultimately to present a single candidate for future elections.

One unknown in the new Tunisian political chessboard will be the true weight of the Islamist movement – especially Al-Nahdha. After decades of harsh repression, exile and the dismantlement of its political structures, it is very difficult to gauge its real power or appeal in society. It is true that Islamic discourse is present in the public sphere; however, the phenomenon is different from the ideological drive of the 1980s and 1990s, and reflects more the need to anchor the society in Islamic values than a popular will to vote for Islamic parties in future elections.

Al-Nahdha is still a political force to reckon with. On March 1st, it was announced that it had successfully won its bid to officially form a political party, allowing it to vie for power in the country. The true test for pluralism in Tunisia will therefore be the place of this movement in the future political order, and the way in which democratic parties will negotiate with it. Since the fall of the regime, the public declarations of the leader of the party, Rached Ghannouchi, have sent a strong, reassuring message to democratic forces in the country. Ghannouchi has pledged to respect women’s rights and pluralism; announced that he will not be a candidate for the presidential elections; and also that Al-Nahdha will participate only in the legislative elections. The leaders of Al-Nahdha have adopted a low profile, watching the events unfold from the sidelines. This cautious stance may very well be a tactical move to first reconstitute their popular base, and to later join the political game.

Past experiences have shown that Islamist political movements are hardly miscible with modernity, and that their underlying premises are not compatible with the project of political pluralism and the democratic rule of law. Despite the reassuring message sent by Ghannouchi, his past position on women’s rights and freedom of conscience is still prominent in the minds of many people in Tunisia. Given this ambiguity, it would be important to find avenues for protecting the gains of the revolution, as well as those acquired through the preceding 60 years of modernization; in particular, with respect to women’s rights.

The Tunisian uprising demonstrated a high level of political maturity, fervent demands for change, and indeed a general fear that the revolution will be jeopardized by dictatorial remnants inside the system. Post-revolution, the Tunisian public is naturally skeptical of its interim government after years of unaccountability and deception. In order to restore confidence, it is necessary for the government to take strong symbolic decisions and substantive measures to institute reform. Reform is particularly necessary in those sectors that were used by the ancien régime as repressive tools. The current government has the daunting task of ensuring that transparent democratic elections are organized. This means not only reform of the Electoral Code or the Constitution, but indeed a comprehensive reform of the laws regulating the public sphere – laws that were used to severely restrict freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

One of the most important sectors to be reformed is the justice sector. Democratic transformation of a country would be seen to have failed if it were to lack a truly independent and active judicial system. The government should endeavour to reform the High Council of Justice – currently only composed of members nominated by the president.

Like all societies that have just emerged from a long period of despotism and dictatorship, Tunisia will also have to deal with the legacy of the past by creating a model of transitional justice adapted to the needs of the society. Although the judiciary in Tunisia is relatively well organized structurally, and while it benefits from an important pool of professional judges, the judicial system was discredited during the Ben-Ali era. According to numerous international reports, the Tunisian judiciary has to date been considered highly corrupt and subservient to the dictates of the autocrat who instrumentalized it to repress political opponents through mock trials – mock trials where fundamental guarantees of due process and respect of the rights of the accused were utterly absent. The executive branch exercised indirect authority over the judiciary through the appointment, assignment, tenure and transfer of judges – rendering the system susceptible to political pressure and manipulation.

There are other potential hurdles for the judiciary in dealing with the widespread violations of human rights committed during the Ben-Ali era. In Tunisia, there are thousands of victims of human rights violations: practices ranging from torture to outrages to human dignity and arbitrary detention survived successive generations. Countless political prisoners have suffered. The number, the nature, as well as the trauma of the victims (and their families) would warrant a transitional justice mechanism.

The interim government in Tunisia ought to adopt a tailored transitional justice mechanism that would combine retributive justice, a truth commission and reparations in order to give victims and Tunisian society as a whole a comprehensive framework for dealing with the crimes of the past. The experience of transitional justice mechanisms implemented for more than 30 years all over the world and in various contexts should guide the birth of the Tunisian equivalent.

The government ought also to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and make a declaration in accordance with Article 12 (3) of the Rome Statute, giving to the ICC jurisdiction retroactively over crimes committed in Tunisia since July 1st, 2002. Additional measures should include incorporating the highest standards of human rights protection into domestic law through the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Optional Protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

Last but certainly not least, the government ought to protect and build on the gains made on women’s rights in the past decades by adopting a safeguard article in the Constitution in respect of the abrogation of polygamy – among other constitutional safeguards for the rights of women. The reservations placed on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women must also be lifted.

Tunisian celebrations must now give way to calibrated and painstaking work toward building a new Tunisia founded on democracy, transparency, accountability and the rule of law. This work has just begun.

biolineA.G. is an expert in international humanitarian law and international criminal law. She was formerly Chief Editor of L’Humanitaire Maghreb, a quarterly magazine of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published out of the regional office of the ICRC in Tunisia.

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of her previous or current employers.


(Photograph: A.G.)

Photo: Young Tunisian protesters at the Government Square in Tunis (March 2011)


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