I have been planning a more substantial post on the revolution in Tunisia these last days but my twitter addiction has temporarily put that notion to rest. You’ll have to do with these few lines instead.
1. Impossible to put words on my admiration for the heroic people of Tunisia – the street vendors, the unemployed, the workers, the housewives, the schoolchildren, the students, the civil servants, the lawyers, the doctors and nurses, the dissidents (in Tunisia and abroad) who collectively rose up and toppled Benali’s hated dictatorship – in fact, they overcame 55 straight years of dictatorship. But the martyrs should be mentioned first, and first of all Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed graduate turned street vendor whose tragic decision to set himself on fire also set the whole country on fire.
2. The speed of Benali’s collapse has been surprising – although I am on record as recognising this as a revolution and not a mere revolt one week ago, I hadn’t envisaged that he would have left power by the week-end. But if his personal rule is well over now, the same cannot be said of the RCD’s (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique) control of the political apparatus. Benali’s totalitarian rule not only didn’t allow for any opposition, it even turned against the mildly critical and even the indifferent. Everything – from politics to religion and including sports and economics – was firmly under wraps.
3. I have been surprised by the stiff armed resistance of RCD dead-enders (to borrow an infamous term) after Benali’s departure. I had expected the security apparatus to fold once Benali left power and the country, but I had apparently seriously underestimated the criminal, mafia-like aspect of Benali’s power. The dead-enders, close to Benali’s infamous family in law (the Trabelsi clan) seem to be motivated less by political motives than by criminal ones – looting and random shooting would not seem the best way to keep a stake in Tunisia’s new political scene. What seems particularly worrying is the embrace apparently given to these lawless militias by colonel Muammar Kadhafi – media reports tell us the benalist militias are tryin to flee to the south of the country in order to cross the border to Libya, where rumor says they could find a safe haven. The new (?) régime in Tunisia could soon have a serious public order issue on its hands – control of the borders with Libya, from which the armed militias could launch armed raids. I hope that this is only the result of the feverish imagination of this blogger – otherwise this could pave the way for foreign intervention in Tunisia, with US/NATO assistance to help Tunisia’s new government repel such a threat.
4. While we’re on the subject of foreign intervention, have you noticed how irrelevant all foreign actors were to this revolution? It took the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, three weeks to react – on Jan. 10 – to a popular uprising in a totalitarian state with which the EU has an association agreement, and as for the US, Hillary Clinton pledged neutrality between the parties in presence a few days before the toppling of Benali – and in order to keep this post free of four-letter words, I will not even mention the French government’s stance. Their support to the revolution would have been appreciated, and might possibly have hastened the outcome and/or limited the bloodshed. More likely, had Europe and the US intervened earlier on, they might have pressured Benali into accepting much earlier the cosmetic reforms – scrapping Internet censorship nad letting a few independent or opposition personalities into his government – he himself decided on in his speech the day before his fall. This would likely have postponed or even aborted the demise of Benali.
As for their role now, the Tunisians would be well advised to be circumspect. The uprising was caused initially by the social problems facing Tunisia’s youth, unemployment being the main one – to which we should add the inequal repartition of income aggravated by 25 years of adherence to the Washington consensus. While all realistic economic alternatives for Tunisia will include some degree of openess to world economy and to Tunisia’s major – European and Arab – trade and investment partners, the new government might want to chart a more independent course to economic development.
Tunisia basically has a choice ahead: whether to continue as the IMF’s, the World Bank’s and Europe’s alleged best pupil in the Arab classroom, with the mixed resultsthat are plain for everyone to see, or to decide for itself, according to its own interests and sovereign decisions, what path and what policies to adopt, whether it be in the foreign policy, domestic policy or economic policy fields. Tunisia can chose to be like Turkey, Brazil, India or Malaysia, or it can pursue in its post-colonial striving for acceptance and the occasional pat on the head by its Western partners, a path followed by Jordan or Morocco with limited success.
I’m not particularly interested at this stage of how the US and Europe’s irrelevance reflects on these two actors – suffice it to say that the US influence in the MENA region seems to have peaked in 2003/2005, and has since then slided in a dramatic fashion – Bashar el Assad now squarely back on the Middle East scene and with régime change in Syria a long-forgotten fantasy, Iraq turned back to a nationalist government with shia leader Moqtada Sadr poised to be the coming man of the next few years, Hezbollah stronger than ever on the Lebanese scene – and even Hamas hanging on to power in Gaza – none of the US strategic objectives have been achieved, and its ability to reach them seems weakened, not strenghtened. As for Europe’s relevance to political developments in the MENA, the least said the better, and don’t even get me started on France.
5. The so-called « national unity government » has been appointed today – the interior (Ahmed Friaa), defense (Ridha Grira), finance (Mohamed Ridha Chalghoum), planfication & international co-operation (Mohamed Nouiri Jouini) and foreign (Kamel Morjane, an in-law relative of Benali’s) ministers of Benali’s last government keep their jobs, and a motley crew of independent personalities (among them film director Moufida Tlatli and blogger Slim Amamou), technocrats, trade-union leaders (including 3 leaders of the UGTT) as well as leaders of three legal opposition parties – Nejib Chebbi of the PDP, Ahmed Brahim of post-communist Ettajdid and Mustapha ben Jaafar of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés (FDTL) - have be given portfolios. The trade minister, Afif Chelbi, would be given the energy portfolio. It’s worth to point out that the interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, former speaker of Parliament, is a long-standing RCD MP, minister under Bourguiba and Benali, member of the RCD politburo and he was fully trusted by Benali, while the prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has had a long ministerial career under Benali and was in fact his last prime minister as well as the vice-president of the RCD. For all practical purposes, this is the kind of government that Benali could have appointed himself had he had more brains – his last speech actually outlined exactly this sort of government, and he actually met with some opposition members before being deposed.
Most noteworthy of all is the fact that no leaders of opposition parties banned under Benali’s rule – the marxist-leninist Parti communiste des ouvriers de Tunisie (PCOT), led by Hamma Hammami, the Congrès pour la république led by reformist intellectual Moncef Marzouki and more importantly islamist Ennahda, led by exiled islamist thinker Rachid Ghannouchi – have apparently been invited to either the talks on the transition government or the government itself. This is a worrying signal, on top of being counter-productive: while Tunisia has never held free and fair elections, the least tainted ones were held in 1989, and Ennahda candidates standing as independents garnered between a quarter and a third of the votes in the constituencies where they stood. Ennahda is in that sense the largest opposition party that Tunisia has ever had (the UGTT trade-union was a de facto opposition under the leadership of Habib Achour under much of the 70’s and 80’s, but it never set itself up as a political party).
Now, things have changed in Tunisia since 1989: there’s absolutely no way of of saying whether Ennahda would be as popular today, as its leadership has been either imprisoned or exiled. Ennahda has even stated it doesn’t want to field a candidate in the coming presidential elections, in a move akin to the prudent and progressive approach that its Moroccan sister-party the PJD took to electoral participation in order not to frighten the francophone and secular élite, less well-entrenched in Morocco than it is in Tunisia. It is however futile to deny that it forms a part of Tunisia’s political and ideological landscape – any ostracism of Ennahda or the non-violent islamist movement would be benalism without Benali.
6. While the protests in Tunisia really have taken a revolutionary turn, the aftermath of Benali’s demise is strangely stuck in the constitutional and institutional tracks of Benali’s dictatorship. The first interim president was designated as the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi on Friday evening, on the basis of article 56 of the Tunisian constitution providing for temporary replacement of the president – the day after, the Conseil constitutionnel decided that the president was permanently unable to exercise his official functions, and appointed the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies as interim president in accordance with article 57 of the Constitution. According to that article, fresh presidential elections need to be held within 45 and 60 days from that day.
This poses quite some problems. Firstly, the Tunisian Constitution has not been adopted democratically – the 1959 Constitution was adopted by a constitutional assembly that wasn’t freely elected, and the 2002 constitutional referendum wasn’t free either. Secondly, many of its provisions would hinder rather than facilitate constitutional change. The 60-days deadline to hold presidential elections would render very difficult the holding of truly democratic and pluralistic elections: article 66 of the electoral code states that presidential candidates need 30 signatures from members of the Chamber of Deputies or of presidents of city councils – only the RCD has more than 30 deputies in the current Chamber…
Article 66 of the electoral code is furthermore strenghtened by article 40 of Tunisia’s Constitution, which states that candidates to the presidential election have to get the signatures of a number of deputies as per electoral law – meaning that this legal requirement may only be lowered, but not scrapped altogether as the Constitution requires this. A referendum would be necessary to delete this constitutional requirement (see articles 76 to 78 of the Constitution) – an unlikely prospect.
Furthermore, such a short time-span would advantage the RCD or what’s left of it, still in possession of cadres and logistics. The parties that were banned under Benali will find it impossible to organise for an electoral campaign on such short notice – supposing of course they would get the 30 signatures. Would a government where key functions are held by RCD stalwarts and a Parliament still overwhelmingly RCD play it fair and scrap article 66 of the electoral code – and legalise the banned parties?
The Tunisian people have ousted the dictator, but they haven’t yet got rid of his institutional and political legacy. This is just the beginning, if democracy is to take hold.