Tunisia's democracy: Freedom is disappointingly messy, but there's hope

Seven years after the Arab Spring, the revolution is being seen as the easy part. Freedoms and democracy are failing to heal old wounds, as old social and economic grievances and corruption persist. But Tunisians are also learning to disagree civilly, and to make themselves heard.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
A boy waves a Tunisian flag during demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia on Jan. 14, 2018.

Tarek Dziri cannot forget Tunisia’s revolution for a single minute.

Mr. Dziri was 26 years old and a new father, working as a chef in the town of Al Fahs, 40 miles south of the capital, when riots broke out in central Tunisia in December 2010 against the country’s dictatorial then-president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

On Jan. 12, 2011, Dziri and his friends decided to join the protest movement and demonstrate in front of the Al Fahs police station to denounce the killing of innocent civilians. Police officers fired on the young men; one bullet hit Dziri’s shoulder, and a second lodged in his lung.

When police came to the local hospital that night, ostensibly to arrest him but most likely to “finish the job,” Dziri says, a quick-thinking nurse smuggled him out in an ambulance and transferred him to Ben Arous hospital near the capital, an hour’s ride away. The ordeal left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Seven years since the revolution felled Mr. Ben Ali, things have changed for both Tunisia and Dziri, not all for the good.

Now in a wheelchair, Dziri has been unable to secure work. Government funding for him to complete medical treatment in France has stopped; so, too, has the $175 monthly stipend to pay for medical supplies and painkillers. A bullet from the Ben Ali regime still sits next to his heart.

But even more painful, he says, is watching his country descend into polarized politics and name-calling, old regime figures slowly returning to power, and the government ignoring the pleas of the working class, all in the name of the revolution.

Among the Ben Ali-era officials who have been restored to positions of authority: current President Beji Caid Essebsi, Finance Minister Ridha Chalghoum, and Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zebidi. Senior members of the security services who carried out Ben Ali’s shoot-first tactics remain in their posts to this day.

Meanwhile, coastal elites who benefited from Ben Ali’s system of corruption have been granted amnesty under a reconciliation law passed by a parliament that included many former Ben Ali partners and allies.

Also, parliament dealt a blow to the Truth and Dignity Commission for reconciliation, refusing to extend its mandate in March, which effectively ended its ability to refer cases to the courts.

“We went to the streets giving our lives for a dignified life, freedom, and social justice,” Dziri says from Tunis, the capital, “and now politicians who were never with us in the first place are profiting.

“Is this what we really revolted for?”

Taylor Luck
Tarek Dziri, a pro-democracy activist who was paralyzed after being shot by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime forces during the 2011 protests that eventually brought down the Tunisian strongman, at a Tunis apartment on February 6, 2018.

To be sure, democracy is faring far better in Tunisia than elsewhere in the post-Arab Spring world. Tens of thousands of Tunisians have declared their candidacy for municipal elections in early May.

That contrasts sharply with Egypt, where democracy is in retreat: In late March, authoritarian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term with 97 percent of the vote amid turnout of just 41 percent.

Nevertheless, freedoms and democracy are failing to heal old wounds in Tunisia, as decades-old social and economic grievances, inequality, and corruption persist.

The transition from a dictatorship has been sobering. Tunisians are learning that democracy is messy and divisive and that in politics progress is slow, compromise hard, and social and economic justice a long-term battle rather than a protest slogan.

Revolution, they say, was the easy part.

Consider Tunisian Amel Dhaffouli. Now in her 30s, she was one of the first to protest in her hometown of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution was ignited after a young fruit vendor set himself alight in protest against police humiliation in late 2010.

In the years since, Ms. Dhaffouli and her friends and relatives have yet to find work in Sidi Bouzid, which, like most communities in Tunisia’s interior and southern regions, was deprived of investment and development in the five-decade rule of Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Unemployment there hovers around 30 percent, twice the national average.

Suicide is on the rise in the town of 50,000. In January, 33 residents attempted suicide, the highest number of any area in Tunisia and nearly equaling the 39 suicide attempts in the rest of the country collectively, according to the independent Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

In a bid to bring attention to their plight, Dhaffouli and fellow Sidi Bouzid residents decided to launch a hunger strike in the capital in February. It was one display of many. The government reports 13,000 protests ranging from work stoppages to hunger strikes, most economic-based, in 2017 alone.

Passersby stepped over the Sidi Bouzid protesters’ sleeping bags in downtown Tunis, barely noticing the five fasting young Tunisians who once led their revolution.

“We had hoped for social justice and economic equality,” Dhaffouli says, “not for corrupt political parties and a government that works in the interest of lobbies and wealthy businessmen and -women.

“Things are worse off now than the days of Ben Ali.”

Partisan scramble

Governing Tunisia these days is a coalition of the Islamist Ennahda party, which was outlawed and repressed during Ben Ali’s era, and the secular Nidaa Tounes, a grouping of liberals and leftovers from the Ben Ali regime. A power-sharing arrangement was struck in 2015 after polls gave them the two largest blocks in parliament.

Yet, while the Ennahda-Nidaa coalition maintains stability at the top of Tunisia’s government, insiders and analysts say beneath the surface is a partisan scramble for control over independent institutions.

Tunisia’s electoral commission, judicial appointments, and anti-corruption commission – all nominally independent – have reportedly been stacked with political appointees, and wielded as tools to settle old scores and intimidate rivals, insiders say.

“This government is more interested in personal gains than improving the lives of marginalized Tunisians who led the revolution,” says Hamma Hammami, secretary-general of the opposition Popular Front, which led nationwide protests against rising prices in January.

Charging this hyperpartisan atmosphere is the media. Although Ben Ali’s ouster led to an explosion of new news outlets, political parties and donors have since bought up radio stations and newspapers, many of which now serve as nothing more than partisan mouthpieces.

“When election season rolls around, the media suddenly demonize the Islamists, young people will be portrayed as thugs, and terrorism is suddenly an imminent threat,” says Abderrahmen Ben Hassene, a history teacher and former revolutionary. “They use fear each election cycle to distract us from our real priorities: social and economic reform. And it works every time.”

But political parties are not the only groups benefiting from Tunisia’s post-revolution transition. Powerful lobbies have risen from the ashes of the Ben Ali regime to become players and kingmakers, including unions, manufacturers, landowners, and influential businesspeople.

Even unlicensed and unregulated importers and merchants who avoid tax and customs duties – the gray economy – reportedly back politicians and political parties in an effort to block any legislation that would tax them. The underground sector accounts for a staggering 45 to 50 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product, according to Oxford Business Group.

Fear of general strikes by government workers has left Tunisia unable to scale back what economists consider a bloated public sector, saddling the government with struggling state-owned companies churning out items ranging from matches and cigarettes to natural gas and cement.

Tunisia’s 104 public companies, whose labor force has grown 50 percent since the revolution as politicians have doled out jobs as a solution to unemployment, cost the Tunisian government some $1 billion in 2015 and have accumulated losses of $2.72 billion.

Government gridlock

Contributing to government inaction is perhaps the country’s greatest achievement: the 2014 Constitution.

The Arab world’s most progressive constitution, it was drafted and ratified by a 217-member Constituent Assembly of post-revolution lawmakers and leaders. It enshrines the freedom of belief and conscience and ensures human rights, legal and economic equality between men and women, the right to a clean environment, and gender parity in elected bodies.

Yet the political system it created has struggled to put those ideals into practice. Critics say it barely functions at all.

The governmental system was a compromise. On one side were Islamists and leftists who feared a return to a one-man dictatorship, and on the other, unions and businesspeople who preferred a strong executive branch.

The result: a parliamentary government and a partially weakened presidency. As in many semi-presidential systems, the prime minister is head of government and the president head of state. But whereas the presidency in many other parliamentary systems is largely ceremonial, in Tunisia the president is a semi-independent executive with vaguely defined powers who approves laws, handles foreign policy, and appoints judges and national security and diplomatic figures – all on recommendations from the government.

This has led to chaos. It is at times unclear where policy is made and who carries it out. The government, beholden to its fragile coalition in the parliament, does not have the independence or stability to push through badly needed economic, political, and social reforms such as tax reform or an overhaul of the Ben Ali-era police. Tunisia has seen seven governments in seven years.

“We have all the polarization and infighting of a congress, but without the strong, functioning central government like the US or Europe,” says Mohsen Marzouk, a former adviser to Mr. Essebsi, who resigned from Nidaa Tounes to form his own party following government inaction.

“The government is too weak to pass through any reforms or meaningful changes Tunisia needs,” says Mr. Marzouk. “We have gone from the dictatorship of one man to the dictatorship of political parties, and it has been a disaster.”

The nation’s security services are also the target of scrutiny. An alarm was raised in January over the handling of recent economic protests, which resulted in more than 900 arrests and the harassment of journalists, as a “return” to a police state.

But human rights advocates say the concerns resulted more from the actions of individuals than from a systematic policy, the result of an old-school security establishment trying to adapt to a new era, struggling to uphold both law and order as well as new democratic values.

It is a herculean task. Tunisian security forces monitor 700 miles of Mediterranean coastline and defend against Islamic State and Al Qaeda on Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya while also dismantling homegrown terrorist cells and providing security to the 13,000 peaceful protests held last year.

When protests against prices descended into nationwide riots this January, several Al Qaeda militants infiltrated Tunisia. Though they were later killed in a shootout with security services, the lesson was clear.

“Terrorists are just waiting for us to fail, waiting for the second that we are under stress or distracted to take advantage and attack,” says Col. Maj. Khalifa Chibani, Interior Ministry spokesman. “It is something that is always in the back of our minds; the threat is always there.”

‘Manich Msamah’

Between the crises are glimmers of hope.

When the government proposed the administrative reconciliation law granting amnesty for officials and citizens who benefited financially from the Ben Ali regime, young activists, many of them former revolutionaries, returned to the streets in force. The movement unified leftists, nationalists, Islamists, and residents of marginalized outer regions for the first time in years.

Under the slogan Manich Msamah, or “I do not forgive,” thousands of young Tunisians used slang, football chants, rap, drums, and folk songs in protests bordering on festivals of defiance. Peaceful protests rolled on throughout the summer of 2017. Dziri, the injured revolutionary, took part in his first protest since his injury.

The law eventually passed in September, but it was watered down three separate times to encompass, in the case of civil servants, only those who did not gain financially from the corruption. Rather than a defeat, young revolutionaries saw it as a triumph, the shot in the arm the revolution needed.

“In the old days, we would be afraid to speak our mind or about politics in our own home,” says Azza Derbali, a translator and Manich Msamah organizer in her late 20s. “This new generation that grew up with the revolution, they go to the streets and protest immediately to make their voice heard and make change.”

Tunisians say this – being able to disagree civilly, to make one’s voice heard, to peacefully organize, protest, and pressure – is what democracy, and the Tunisian revolution, is all about. It may also be Tunisia’s saving grace.

“If I could go back in time and see those people in the streets in 2010, I would do it all over again,” says Dziri.

“My body may heal or it may not. But our fear has been broken forever.”

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