President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali postponed democracy in Tunisia for 23 years – until he was ousted by peaceful, unexpected popular revolt last January. Post-Ben Ali, the emerging ‘Second Republic’, still in its inception, has just pushed back the country’s planned first democratic test by three months. The postponement of the election of the Constituent Assembly from 24 July to 23 October is judicious.
The ongoing pains of democracy’s long labour are evidence that Ben Ali’s order is no more.
However, Tunisia’s ‘Day of Postponement’ evokes ‘atonement’. Atonement, that is, for ‘sins’ of inertia and indecision by a political class not yet coached in doing politics freely or as the ‘art of the possible’. The political class is still wrapped up in the frenzy of revolution and the chaos of their new-found freedoms. Thus the postponement of the elections is not only understandable, but also necessary. A polity in the throes of revolution, still finding its voice, feet, and sight to navigate its path out of political wilderness or chaos may not yet be ready to meet the challenges of wider and deeper representation, political toleration, power-sharing, free and fair elections, and distributive justice.
A revolution was born in Tunisia on 14 January, contaminating the rest of the ‘sick’ Arab body politic with the virus of popular revolt and empowerment. The ongoing pains of democracy’s long labour are evidence that Ben Ali’s order is no more.
Over five months since the ouster of Ben Ali and the Trabelsi clan, more than 9,000 civic associations are now operating freely, and the number of media outlets has soared to a record level since independence in 1956. Almost 70 political parties have been licensed (and 80 more were refused legalization).
The infants of Tunisia’s democratic labour include the country’s first Islamist political party, a Labour Party with some trade union lineage and endorsement, parties born out of the disbanded former RCD ruling party in addition to liberal, leftist, and pan-Arabist parties. With the exception of very few parties and activists, none of whom is charismatic, Tunisians know not much about the new ‘babies’, the civic bodies and parties of their revolution and future democracy.
Of late, however, they have been drenched in negative ‘politicking’. The new old political polemics pitting hyper secularists against Islamists are back. Unabated radio, TV debates animate all species and colours of the country’s emerging ‘political animalia’, hinting at the birth of a new media scene. There are also the huge rallies organized by the Islamists.
Perhaps it is the political élite’s dizzying cacophony that has politically numbed the real children of the revolution.
Debate is desirable for civic culture and good government – but only when it’s not cacophony. Perhaps it is the political élite’s dizzying cacophony that has politically numbed the real children of the revolution – the bloggers, rappers, women, syndicalists, marginals and students. The revolution is the gift of these voices and struggles that for now populate the cafes, the chat rooms, the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard [the analogue of Egypt’s Tahrir Square], and many a speaker’s corner in the towns and cities that rose up to repudiate and sweep ‘Ben Ali-ism’ off Tunisia’s political stage. Informally, their ongoing mini-protests and ‘parleying’ is for now the real voting of how the publics of the revolution feel and opine.
Formally, had 24 July elections gone ahead, more than two million of the revolution-makers would have been excluded. There is no up-to-date voter register recording them, as if their role is limited to being ‘human fodder’ of the revolution, dozens of whom were killed by Ben Ali’s brutal regime machine.
Today their disillusionment is ubiquitous. According to one poll, more than 60 per cent of Tunisians don’t know how they will vote in the Constituent Assembly elections. The Assembly’s 214 members will be tasked with framing the new constitution. One third said they would give their vote to the Islamist Nahda Party, and about 12 per cent would rally behind the Progressive Democratic Party – the party of Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a presidential hopeful.
The other political parties will need the additional time to recruit followers from the majority of the country’s voting population, who right now prefer presence via protest and the freedom to choose informal politics and shun formal politics. This is a space to be watched over the coming months and years in Tunisia, where the people seem to have invented alternatives to elections in the form of direct people’s power.
Since 14 January, a lot has been achieved: franchise based on gender parity, banning torture, creation of political parties, free press, dissolution of the former ruling party, the creation of the Higher Commission for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, and the Independent Election Commission, behind the postponement of the July Polls. The postponement is right, since there are structural hardships: the cost of the election in a country whose economy has shrunk by about 10 per cent; lack of competent personnel to administer over the elections; technique of vote-casting and counting; and organization of polling booths.
Indeed, the country’s political masters – despite absence of consensus on postponement – are only partly correct on invoking fear for democracy or lack of transparency for their decision. They have been too transfixed for a verdict on whether the elections are held on time or postponed. The rest of the country, especially the millions of Bou’azizis (the man whose self-immolation sparked the revolution), since 14 January have been transfixed by the political élite’s indifference to social justice.
After the departure of Ben Ali, the political class has forgotten about why the revolution happened in the first place.
After the departure of Ben Ali, the political class, by and large, has forgotten about why the revolution happened in the first place. For those still dying in riots in the marginal areas of Tunisia’s south and the centre, downsized by unemployment, disenfranchised by living in the wrong region or suburb, and for Tunisia’s boat people who continue to risk life in search of greener pasture, may not care much for elections or their postponement. For them, it is the postponement of their revolution that the largely ageing and élitist political class whose Tunisia stops in Sousse that matters most.
So it’s their fear for their revolution and postponement, not so much the postponement of one election, which may have shattered the popular illusions raised by their uprising’s appeals to karamah [dignity] and hurriyyah [freedom]. Lured by constitutional trend-setting in the 1850s, women’s liberation in the 1950s, the new political masters’ mantra is about setting Tunisia on track of a more creative future as an Arab trailblazer in democratic learning and building.
Pivotal to the much vaunted democracy must be a realization that elections with democracy must equate with democracy with social justice.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of New Internationalist.