A rocky transition but Tunisia turned away from violence

A rocky transition but Tunisia turned away from violence
5 min read
13 Jan, 2015
The Ben Ali regime never succeeded in eliminating the Tunisian trade union movement or movements articulating popular protest over human rights and abuse of power. It was these very organisations that organised the demonstrations which destroyed the regime.
Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution marked the end of authoritarian rule [Getty Images]

On January 14, four years ago, Tunisia’s autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, abruptly fled into exile in Saudi Arabia after month-long demonstrations calling for an end to the repressive regime that he led since November 7, 1987.

His fall marked the beginning of widespread demonstrations and protests throughout the Arab world, dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ in Europe and the ‘Arab Awakening’ throughout the Middle East and North Africa. At the time, it seemed as if repressive, autocratic government, typical of the Arab

     Tunisia’s political culture has not placed a premium on violence as has been the case elsewhere.

world, would be replaced by democracy. Sadly, only Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan survived without major trauma and only in Tunisia has democracy bloomed.

Yet, even in Tunisia it has taken far longer and been much more difficult than was expected. In part, this was due to the sheer difficulty of transitioning from autocratic governance to democracy but the process was rendered much more complicated by the crisis in Europe and the civil war in Libya as that country disposed of its own dictatorship. There were moments, too, when it seemed as if Tunisia itself might become embroiled in violent domestic conflict and political tensions were particularly high.

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Success has been, in large part, the consequence of a political culture of moderation; however bitter the political disputes, Tunisians generally eschewed violence to resolve them. This is not to suggest that violence has not played a role, particularly in the last two years. However, Tunisia’s political culture has not placed a premium on violence as has been the case elsewhere. The result has been that violence has played a marginal role even recently, despite considerable provocation.

A difficult transition?

Thus, the murders of two leftwing political leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, in 2013 by Salafi-jihadi extremists did not result in the much-feared secularist-Islamist confrontation that occurred elsewhere. The ongoing violence in Jabal Chaambi and Jendouba is driven by spill-overs from extremism in Libya, Algeria and the Sahel, rather than by a home-grown movement, although it does exist and young Tunisians have joined the struggle in Syria and Iraq.

Tunisia’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy has also been due to the restraint of its political parties. Despite the deep distrust between secularists and Islamists, both sides have been willing to compromise and to abide by the decisions of the ballot-box.

The Islamist Ennahdha party had long ago decided, during its two decades-long exile in Britain and France, that it would respect democratic choice and understood, unlike its counterpart in Egypt, that power can only be effectively exercised through compromise and restraint.

Secularist parties, too, despite their profound suspicions of Islamist intentions, in the end cooperated over both the process of transitional governance and the drafting of a new constitution.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, has been the role of civil society. It is a profound irony that, despite all its efforts, the Ben Ali regime never succeeded in eliminating the Tunisian trade union movement or movements articulating popular protest over human rights and abuse of power. Nor did it eliminate a political culture rooted in a belief in the contractual nature of governance, as exemplified by constitutionalism, a concept that even informed the national liberation movements during the French colonial period from 1881 to 1956.

It was civil society organisations, led by local branches of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens, that organised the demonstrations which destroyed the Ben Ali regime. They also created the committees which led to the elected assembly which, in turn, drew up the constitution adopted by referendum a year ago.

It was the trade union leadership that mediated a national dialogue which led to the Troika coalition government dominated by Ennahdha stepping down, to be replaced by a technocratic government last January in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections which took place in October and November, with run-offs in December.

The new government

Concerns remain about the future, nonetheless. Although the core of the old regime was removed four years ago and its hegemonic political party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnelle Démocratique, was dissolved, those who had been involved have suffered no discrimination.

They have found their own political voice under the moderate octogenarian, Baji Caid Essebsi, who was elected president last month and who founded the political party that now dominates the national assembly, Nidaa Tounes. It won 86 of the 217 seats, pushing Ennahdha into second place with only 69 seats. In other words, not only are secularists now the largest players in the formal political arena, but a party thought to represent the interests of supporters of the previous regime dominates it.

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Yet, despite fears that the autocratic, corrupt habits of the Ben Ali era could now creep back into Tunisian politics, it should be remembered that the president led the government that guided Tunisia to its first post-regime democratic elections in October 2011.

Beyond that, Nidaa Tounes represents far more than just the old regime and, although it is leery of collaborating too closely with its Islamist opponents, it has insisted on appointing an independent premier and making it clear that parliament, not the president, will have to approve the government he chooses.

Habib Essid, who comes from Sousse and is an agricultural economist, also served as interior minister under Caid Essebsi and has been welcomed by Ennahdha which expects to provide some of his ministers – the evidence, perhaps, that moderation and compromise work.