Like the rest of North Africa and West Asia, Tunisia is going through a period of drastic change. Many Tunisians hope that the current government will only be temporary and are struggling to change the state of affairs in the lead-up to the elections in 2013.
Tunisia is considered a success story for having launched the Arab protests in December 2010 that culminated shortly thereafter in the overthrow of the nepotistic dictator Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali on January 14, 2011, during which time some 300 Tunisians lost their lives. Compared to neighbouring Libya and the massacres in Syria, this number of casualties is low.
But besides replacing the dates for the November 7, 1987, square in downtown Tunis (that commemorated Bin Ali’s rise to power) to January 14, 2011, there have been few changes to the wallowing economy that was so much part of initial popular discontent. Tourism has picked up slightly but not enough to ameliorate the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians.
In the first national elections after independence in 1956 and the first elections in the region during the Arab protests, the Islamist party Ennahda (“Renaissance” in Arabic) won a majority of seats in October 2011. Gaza’s Hamas was the first national party to visit the new Tunisian government, which lacked as much experience in governing as the Palestinian Islamists.
What emerged over the subsequent months was what Tunisians refer to as the troika including Al Nahda, the Congrès de la République (CPR) led by Munsif Marzouqi and Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties) led by Mustafa Bin Jaafar. Al Nahda maintains most decision-making power; Marzouqi is considered a puppet president; and Bin Jaafar is trying to introduce change.
This is where the process becomes most interesting: Tunisia is in a transitional phase in which myriad groups are striving to assert their agendas. These groups include more Leftist-leaning environmental organisations to more conservative Salafist religious organisations. The governing troika is meant to be provisional, but its current decisions will obviously affect the results.
All demonstrations for example must obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior but not all forms of protest are treated the same way. Marches in favour of human rights or better wages are often monitored by the police and quickly dispersed. The take-over of public buildings by Salafists in Ezzahra, a town 6km from Tunis capital, is disregarded by local authorities. The Salafists intend to use the buildings to teach the Quran.
There is also the example of Manouba University in Tunis where Salafist students have been staging sit-ins to convert classrooms into prayer rooms and demand that women wear veils.
The dean of the university has received no assistance from the authorities but maintains that there is a place for religion and a place for education.
More women do wear veils now than during the Bin Ali era, partially because of the ban on wearing veils under Bin Ali’s regime, and partially because of the new-found liberties to express oneself as one sees fit. This can be a healthy process of competing forces that may find a balance for coexistence — if the provisional government intervenes in an impartial manner.
However, this is not what the Al Nahda-led government has been doing. A television executive of the pan-Maghreb TV station, Nessma, was fined for airing a series of Marjane Satrapi’s much-lauded “Persepolis” because at some point it depicts God. The executive also received a Molotov cocktail outside his house, while Turkish soap operas continue to dominate channels across the Arab world.
Business or politics?
Perhaps most indicative of government penchants is where external investments come from. Despite Tunisia having the most advanced EU Association Agreement across North Africa, the Ennahda government — much like Hamas in Gaza — is allowing Qatar to make deep forays into the economy.
In Gaza, Qatar is most involved in reconstruction projects from schools to fishing huts to hospitals; whereas in Tunisia there is talk of Qatar National Bank (QNB) buying out the Tunisia-Qatar Bank. The QNB Group already has shares in many national banks across the Arab world. Business or politics? Most probably both.
This competition is positive but there must be an arena for civil society to make their voices heard, especially in this rapidly changing region of the southern Mediterranean. Algeria is moving to recognise Amazigh (Berber) as a national language within constitutional amendments this July; Morocco already has established the first Ministry for Civil Society Affairs in the Arab world; Libya is in a precarious limbo; and Egypt is being hijacked by the military, again.
In this unstable regional context, Tunisia must not revert to repression and needs to encourage further civil liberties and political plurality to remain at the avant-garde of positive socio-political changes across the Arab world.
Stuart Reigeluth is editor of Revolve Magazine and works at the Council for European Palestinian Relations in Brussels.