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Fear and resistance in Tunisia

Voting in Tunis

Two women voting at a polling station in Tunis. © Isabelle Merminod

On 14 January, neither the current caretaker government, nor the victors of Tunisia’s recent legislative and presidential elections, the neoliberal party Nidaa Tounes, came out on the streets to celebrate the anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.

Others, however, do want to remember the values and hopes of the revolution: the marginalized Tunisians from the poor central area who triggered the events of 2011; the unionized workers demanding secure jobs and a reasonable salary; the victims of human rights violations who cry out for justice and the protection of the rights won in 2011.

Over the past four months, Tunisia has had only its second free elections since 2011. The first elections, in October 2011, led to a political Islamist government which was forced to hand over power to an independent government of technocrats in early 2014. This independent government will step down when a new government is formed.

The legislative elections on 26 October saw Nidaa Tounes victorious – but not with an overall majority. Nidaa Tounes was formed in 2012 by people united only in their opposition to Ennahda, the party of political Islam.

The secular Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats. The political Islamists, Ennahda, got 69 seats. Entrepreneur Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union (UPL) won 16 seats, the left coalition Popular Front, 15; Afex Tounes, a liberal party, won 8 seats and the rest of the 217 seats of Tunisia’s parliament were held by small parties and independents.

Tunisians managed to grab hold of liberty of expression in the 2011 revolution, but justice, dignity and work seem to have slipped from their grasp

Two months later, on 21 December, 88-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi, who founded Nidaa Tounes, won the second round of the increasingly bitter presidential elections.

So Nidaa Tounes rules in the legislative and the president’s palace. Its power is only weakened by the need to form a coalition in Tunisia’s parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People.

The loser, Tunisia’s former president Moncef Marzouki, was supported, according to the Crisis Group, by mostly young men who are pro-political Islam. They fear the arrival in power of Nidaa Tounes, which shelters ex-members of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), the banned party of Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali.

Presidential winner Beji Caid Essebsi.

Isabelle Merminod

Just after the results of the presidential election campaign were announced, on 25 December, a conflict erupted around the reconciliation process.

Sihem Ben Sedrine, the chief of the Truth and Dignity Commission – set up to investigate and act on human rights violations prior to the revolution – tried to remove files from the presidential palace and was rebuffed by security forces. She claimed that a 2013 law on transitional justice allowed her actions, but opponents accused her of attempting to highjack state archives. Few voices from the two main political parties supported her.

Since the Truth and Dignity Commission started its work on 15 December, some 3,750 victims of human rights violations have presented their cases. Their spokesperson says they are receiving around 200 cases per day.

Unofficial pact

Since the elections, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda seem to have an unofficial pact. Although the president of the parliament is from the Nidaa Tounes party, Abdelfattah Mourou, who is one of the founders of Ennahda, has been elected first vice-president. He received 157 votes against 33 for Mbarka Brahmi, a Popular Front deputy and wife of Mohamed Brahmi, the leftwing deputy assassinated in 2013.

On 5 January 2015, Habib Essid was nominated as the new prime minister by Nidaa Tounes, the winning party. Essid had held government posts for dictator Ben Ali from 1993 to 2003. He had also served under the government of Ennahda since the revolution. Viewed by some as someone from the ancient regime, others are more hopeful that he is a figure of consensus.

A day later, it was reported that a police station at Redeyef, in the poor central mining area, had been burnt down by miners striking against a private company that transports phosphate. They were demanding to be employed by the main, state-owned Phosphate Company of Gafsa. Strike-breaking lorries – guarded by security forces – were brought to transport the phosphate at night. Redeyef is one of the towns in the poor, central part of Tunisia which was part of an uprising in 2008 – the precursor of the 2011 revolution.

On 15 January, the transport system in Tunis and other major towns was shut down due to a continuing strike over an annual productivity payment which was not paid by the government. The leader of the strikers, Moncef Ben Romdhane, said that this was only the second strike since the revolution in 2011.

Tunisians managed to grab hold of liberty of expression in the 2011 revolution, but justice, dignity and work seem to have slipped from their grasp.

Another world is possible, but it has to be fought for on this side of the Mediterranean as well as the other.


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