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A decade on, Tunisia's shaky democratic success could inspire the region.
A decade on, Tunisia's shaky democratic success could inspire the region.

Tunisia has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its revolution on January 14 that marked the end of 23 years of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime and the beginning of a firm commitment to a process of democratization. The 2011 popular uprising was not doomed to stay as an isolated event as it sparked a series of wide range protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. While these countries undergone a different process and outcomes, it is undeniable that the act of a young Tunisian vendor of fruits who lit himself aflame as a protest to repression and marginalization had an irreversible impact on the whole regional geopolitical dynamics. 

Being the epicenter of the Arab spring, The Tunisian experience has been hailed internationally thanks to the democratic steps it has taken throughout this decade that made of it a regional exception. Freedom House’s annual report, assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world indicates in its 2020 report that Tunisia is the only “free” country in the Arab world[1].  Several elections at the national and local level were marked by a peaceful transfer of power and judged free and fair at the national and international level. The rise of a vibrant and functioning civil society has played a significantly positive role in influencing the strength, transparency and functionality of nascent political institutions and process. These efforts were crowned by Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet’s winning the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The Quartet made of a group of civil society groups had a decisive contribution in establishing a roadmap for peaceful political transition at the time when the country was on the brink of civil war[2].

The transitional justice process launched with the hope to deal with a past of political repression, human rights violations and abuse of public funds constitutes another brighter spot. The Truth and Dignity Commission has completed its work: with 62 thousand complaints for reparation and national reconciliation, it documented and archived numerous cases, and according to the Commission’s own reports, has secured TND 700 million for the state budget and referred 72 cases to the judiciary. While this marks a milestone in Tunisia’s transition, the country still needs to find the best approach to implement a comprehensive national reconciliation strategy while ensuring accountability[3].

Certainly the steps that been undertaken in the direction of protection and promotion of women’s rights over the last decade were embraced with an equally if not more enthusiasm by international actors. Tunisia has always been way ahead of the other Arab countries when it comes to progressive laws in favor of women rights and the 2014 Constitution came only to maintain the country’s regional status in that regard[4]. The electoral law that has been framing legislative elections ensured the vertical parity on candidates lists. The 2018 Local elections was framed by an even more progressive election law that included a provision for horizontal party added to the vertical one to ensure equal representation of men and women as head of lists. This led to nearly half of elected local officials being women[5]. The holistic law on the eradication of all forms of violence against women adopted in 2017 came also to reflect the constitution’s progressive spirit. For the first time, moral, psychological, economic and even political gender-based violence has been criminalized. The proper implementation of all mechanisms presented by the law especially providing state support to violence survivals remains a challenge[6].

The notable progress achieved for democracy building and human rights over a decade is nevertheless neither a source of content nor optimism among most Tunisians. According to the International Republican Institute’s national wide survey conducted in the last 2020 trimester, 87 percent believe that Tunisia is heading in the wrong direction[7].  The negative outlook Tunisians seem to have when it comes to the present and the future is fueled mostly by economic woes as Growth faltered after 2011.  A combination of high youth unemployment rate, regional socio economic disparities, the erosion of the welfare state and rampant corruption draws a bleak economic reality. Persisting labor strikes and terrorist attacks have affected the production and export of gas, oil and phosphates[8]. It has also damaged the tourism sector, and have led to the rise of military and security spending. Libya’s crisis have also largely contributed to the slowing of the economic activity being the number two trading partner after the European Union.

While there is broad agreement on the need for reforms to surpass stagnation and instability that have prevented progress, political fragmentation has left the parliaments almost deadlocked and have led to more than 12 cabinet reshuffles making the adoption and the proper implementation of reforms a real challenge[9]. Consensus built on “Islamist-secularist rapprochement” has been a defining feature of Tunisia’s post revolution political dynamics and many would consider it as the main reason behind the country’s success to remain on a democratic path while its neighbors fell into military dictatorship or civil war. Yet the formation of coalition and national unity governments was at the detriment of structural and bold social and economic reforms and the rise of a strong opposition. The consensus displayed on the proportional list electoral system that favors small parties has prevented the emergence of a consistent and harmonious majority able to support the government in its reforms and easily pass its bills[10]. The Constitutional Court, a pillar of a healthy functioning democratic system, which was supposed to be created in 2015 according to the constitution, has still not been set up as the four Court members to be appointed by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) being still blocked.

This political deadlock continues to periodically fuel mobilizations of protest against the government[11] and has particularly deepened the confidence gap between citizens and Institutions. IRI’s 2020 national wide survey shows that 85 % believe the government (and 88 percent for the parliament) are doing little or nothing to address the needs of ordinary citizens[12]

The failure of all succeeding governments to respond to the socio-economic demands that were the revolution’s “raison d'être” has fostered nostalgia for the old regime. Political parties who defend the legacy of the past (whether under Ben Ali or Bouguiba ) have been given more political and electoral weight as the expense of parties who were in the opposition in the pre revolution era. The most extreme of these parties is the Destoruian Free Party (PDL) that presents its self as being counter revolution, openly praising the old regime, and proposing to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential system.

The party has successfully secured 17 seats at the parliament and its woman leader and current MP, Abir Moussi, has been on the top of polls[13]. The party’s particular antagonism towards Ennahdha has contributed to the dysfunction of the newly elected Tunisian parliament since it was sworn in on November 2019. As Moussi’s party considers Ennahdha to be last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood and needs to be eradicated, tensions and disputes aired live on National TV between her and Rached Ghannouhi, Ennahdha’s leader and Parliament’s Speaker has fed the negative perception towards the parliament. The state of affairs that has marked the legislative body, the symbol “par excellence” of the Tunisian democratic sovereignty has led to more discreditation of the democratic process.

The aggravating economic situation due to Covid-19 pandemic will certainly make reforms even more challenging, fueling thus more democratic disillusionment, which calls for more national unity and international support. Actually, the fear of Europe on the presence of Islamism in the government even if moderate, and on the other side the fear from the Gulf countries of similar revolutions inside their regimes, made the Tunisian transition being left mostly on its own. 

Transitions can take generations. While Tunisia’s relatively successful model still challenges and defies theories and skepticism around democracy and Islam, its democratic exceptional trajectory is shaky. Still because of its proximity to Libya, the Sahel, and other countries it may well serve as an example to future protests for more Arab Springs and even new African ones.

Chriaz Arbi is a Tunisian political expert and UN consultant on women's affairs. Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium. 

References

[1] Freedom House. Freedom in the world 2020: Tunisia.  Freedom House, 2020.https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2020.

 

[2] Crisis Group. “Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example.” Crisis Group, October 10, 2015.https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/tunisia/tunisia-s-national-dialogue-quartet-set-powerful-example.

 

[3] International Center for Transitional Justice.After the Truth Commission, Tunisia Must Pursue Inclusive Transitional Justice.International Center for Transitional Justice, October 7, 2020. https://www.ictj.org/news/after-truth-commission-tunisia-must-pursue-inclusive-transitional-justice.

 

[4] UN WOMEN. Tunisia’s new Constitution: a breakthrough for women’s rights.UN WOMEN, February 11, 2014.https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/2/tunisias-new-constitution.

 

 

[5] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Results from Tunisia’s 2018 municipal elections. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 15, 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/08/15/results-from-tunisia-s-2018-municipal-elections-pub-77044.

 

[6] Euromed Rights. Situation report on Violence against Women: Tunisia. Euromed Rights, February 2018. https://euromedrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Factsheet-VAW-Tunisia-Feb2018-EN.pdf.

 

[7] International Republican Institute. Tunisia Poll October 2020: “A Decade after the Revolution, Tunisians Worried About the Future”. International Republican Institute, January 7, 2021. https://www.iri.org/resource/decade-after-revolution-tunisians-worried-about-future.

 

[8] World Bank. Doing Business 2019: Economy Profile of Tunisia. https://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/t/tunisia/TUN.pdf. 

 

[9]  OECD. OECD Economic Surveys: Tunisia March 2018 Overview. https://www.oecd.org/economy/surveys/Tunisia-2018-OECD-economic-survey-overview.pdf

 

[10] The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Consensus Politics and Democracy in Tunisia: Challenges for Political Reform.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2, 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/consensus-politics-and-democracy-tunisia-challenges-political-reform.

 

[11] Brookings. Report: Tunisian democracy at a crossroads. Brookings, February 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/research/tunisian-democracy-at-a-crossroads/.

 

[12] International Republican Institute. Public Opinion Survey, Residents of Tunisia September 24 – October 11, 2020. https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10_iri_tunisia_report_.

 

[13] La Presse. tn. “The polls are favorable to her: Why does Abir Moussi seduce the voters?” La Presse. tn, November 21, 2020. https://lapresse.tn/79382/les-sondages-lui-sont-favorables-pourquoi-abir-moussi-seduit-elle-les-electeurs/.

Hichem Mechichi, Tunisia’s minister of the interior and advisor to President Kais Saied, has been designated as the new prime minister following the abrupt resignation of Elyes Fakhfakh more than a week ago. The transfer of power was formally conducted on July 25, and the president tasked Mechichi with forming a new government within a month.

Forming a government is one thing; maintaining one will be much more difficult.

In this handout picture provided by the Tunisian Presidency Press Service, Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country's new prime minister, tasked with forming a new unity cabinet, at the Carthage Palace on the eastern outskirts of the capital Tunis on July 25, 2020. (Tunisian Presidency/AFP)
Tunisian president Kais Saied (right) and new prime minister Hichem Mechichi, photographed at the presidential palace in Carthage on July 25, 2020. (Tunisian Presidency/AFP)

The new government will need parliamentary approval, which requires an absolute majority. This means that the kingmaker will once again be the largest party in Tunisia’s legislature: Ennahda, an Islamist political movement that gained significant influence following the 2011 Arab Spring. Should the parliamentary vote of confidence fail, new elections must be held three months later.

During the political tug-of-war between the presidency and Ennahda over Fakhfakh’s appointment, the prospect of holding new elections finally convinced the party to form a coalition government, as their majority was not guaranteed given the months of political crises and economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

 

Elyes Fakhfakh
Elyes Fakhfakh, who resigned as prime minister of Tunisia on Wednesday, July 15. (AFP)

Tunisian prime minister Elyes Fakhfakh abruptly resigned on Wednesday, having served in the office since February 28, once again leaving Tunisia in a political quandary. Fakhfakh’s resignation comes a day after Ennahdha, the largest political party in parliament, tabled a vote of no confidence in the former prime minister’s government over allegations of a conflict of interest involving him. Documents came to light last month showing that Fakhfakh owns shares in companies that previously won contracts worth about US$15 million from the state. Investigations have been opened.

While there has been heightened tensions as a result of these allegations, the last straw for Ennahdha was probably Fakhfakh’s announcement on Monday that he would conduct a cabinet reshuffle within days, which they suspected would lead to him firing Ennahda ministers. Right after he had submitted his resignation, Fakhfakh did indeed dismiss six ministers affiliated with Ennahda. 

 

It now falls to President Saied to designate Fakhfakh’s successor within a month

 

When President Kais Saied appointed Fakhfakh in January to form a new government, it came after weeks of deliberations in parliament had yielded no clear majority vote for the cabinet lineup of the previous nominee, Ennahdha’s candidate Habib al-Jamali.

It now falls to President Saied to designate Fakhfakh’s successor within a month. The prime minister designate will then have to form a new government that would pass a majority vote, failing which, the country would have to hold new legislative elections.

 

Tunisia Hospital
Medical staff applaud as a woman greets her mother (center), who recovered from COVID-19 after having spent more than a month in a coma, upon her discharge from the hospital in Ariana on April 24, 2020.

 

Tunisian’s ongoing battle against COVID-19 has produced a separate medical casualty: access to reproductive services for Tunisian women.

A recent study conducted by the Tawhida Ben Cheikh Group and the Tunisian Association of Midwivery found that 10 percent of Tunisian women giving birth did so at home during lockdown, as opposed to the normal rate of 0.1 percent. The reasons included a fear of infection, no means of transport, and a lack of access to personal protective equipment because most of it had been reserved for use by medical personnel.

Some expressed concern that more politically conservative streams of Tunisia’s government are using the pandemic to curtail reproductive rights by closing family planning centers and limiting pre- and postnatal consultations, abortion, and contraceptive services during the lockdown. This has led to an increase in clandestine abortions.

 

Tunisia was the first African country to implement a national family planning program

 

Fortunately, Tunisia’s healthcare system is relatively robust and the country has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates of the Maghreb. In 1963, seven years after gaining independence from France, Tunisia became the first African country to implement a national family planning program, after revoking colonial laws restricting abortions and the sale of contraceptives.

In response to a petition initiated by the Tawhida Ben Cheikh Group urging the authorities to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services, the Ministry of Health included access to contraception and abortion in a list, published on April 24, of essential healthcare services during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

 

 

Migrants Tunisia
Some migrants are rescued, but too many die off the coast of Tunisia as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

This past weekend, Tunisia’s coast guard managed to rescue more than eighty people from two boats in distress carrying migrants hoping to get to Europe as countries start to relax strict lockdown measures.

Coast guard spokesman Lieutenant Houssameddine Jbabli said one person was died during the rescue of eleven migrants just off the coast of the city of Sfax, but the captain and principal trafficker managed to evade the authorities. The coast guard found another boat in poor condition near the Kerkennah Islands, from which they rescued seventy people. Jbabli said in the previous two days Tunisia had prevented ten attempts to smuggle people across the Mediterranean, mostly to Italy.

 

At the height of the migrant crisis, more than a million refugees fled to Europe from North African ports

 

These rescues come not long after the European Union launched Operation Irini, a joint naval mission set up ostensibly to prevent arms smuggling into Libya but which has largely functioned as a replacement for Operation Sophia, a 2015 mission coordinated to address the trafficking of people from North Africa into Europe. At the height of the migrant crisis, more than a million refugees fled to Europe from North African ports, escaping conflict, terrorism, climate-induced poverty, or political persecution.

The number of crossings since has drastically gone down, aided in part by joint efforts between the European Union and African Union, though tensions have mounted over the asymmetric manner in which European concerns regarding migrants and refugees seem to take precedence over African directives.

 

 

African CDC

 

The African Union’s Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has outlined COVID-19 clinical trials currently being done to test both treatments and a vaccine in Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zambia.

 

Hydroxychloroquine is being tested as a potential treatment for COVID-19 in Zambia.

 

Egypt and Nigeria are running trials on potential therapeutic agents, among other trials. The antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine is being tested as a potential treatment for COVID-19 in Zambia. And South Africa is looking into the efficacy of chloroquine, interferon therapy, and Remdesivir.

These developments are encouraging, as Africa continues to lag behind Europe, North America, and Asia when it comes to testing for COVID-19 and genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, which in turn could prolong the continent’s suffering from the pandemic.

 

No Evidence

Notably, Africa CDC made no mention of Covid-Organics, Madagascar’s artemisia-based herbal tea that President Andry Rajoelina claims can both prevent and cure COVID-19. It has not been adequately tested and there is no evidence to back the claims, yet Tanzania, the Comoros, and the Republic of the Congo have decided to import Covid-Organics from Madagascar.

SHAMS, a Tunisia-based LGBTQ+ advocacy group, posted on its Facebook page that Tunisia had recognized a marriage contract between two men, one of Tunisian and one of French nationality, when the Tunisian man was allowed to register the marriage on his birth certificate.

 

A First for the Arab World

Speaking with the Jerusalem Post, British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said this recognition of a gay marriage was a breakthrough that would give hope to LGBTQ+ people in Tunisia, and across North Africa and the Middle East, even though it was an indirect recognition and not the legalization of same-sex marriage.

 

Achraf, a 26-year-old Tunisian gay artist, arrives to attend the opening of the second edition of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 22, 2019. Cries of joy and the applause of hundreds of people: the second edition of the Mawjoudin Film Festival, which aims to promote stories of sexual minorities and defend their rights, began on March 22 in a festive atmosphere. Mawjoudin (We are present), a Tunisian association defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), organises the festival in the North African country where homosexuality remains illegal. FETHI BELAID / AFP
Achraf, a 26-year-old Tunisian gay artist, arrives to attend the opening of the second edition of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 22, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

 

Defending LGBTQ+ Rights

Led by Mounir Baatour, SHAMS is a non-profit organization focused on the decriminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia, where dozens of citizens are currently imprisoned on “sodomy” charges based on Article 230 of the Penal Code of 1913, imposed by colonial authorities when Tunisia was a French protectorate.

Since its inception in May 2015, SHAMS faced increasing pressure from Tunisian authorities, until a court decision recognized its legal status on March 11, 2019. Even with social and legal pressures, Tunisia’s LGBTQ+ community has managed to persevere since the revolution in 2011, even organizing the annual Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival in Tunis since 2018. The Mawjoudin Film Festival aims to promote stories of sexual minorities and defend their rights. Mawjoudin (We are present), a Tunisian association defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), organises the festival in the North African country.

 

Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s announced during a diplomatic visit with his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied that Algeria will make a security deposit of US$150 million at the Central Bank of Tunisia. It will help Tunisia to obtain loans from the international financial institutions. The decision incited fierce criticism by Algerians, perplexed that the government would make such a significant investment outside of the country at a time when Algeria is struggling to keep its economy afloat.

The former governor of the Bank of Algeria, upon his departure last week, warned that the country’s foreign exchange reserves had decreased drastically since a global drop in the oil price in 2014. Currently at US$62 billion, the reserves are expected to fall even further to US$51.6 billion by year’s end, a massive decrease compared with its national high of US$195 billion in 2014. 

Algerians took to social media to criticize the government’s actions, acknowledging that improving relations with its neighbor Tunisia is important but saying the Algerian people are in greater need of such funds. Algeria’s lack of funds has hindered its ability to fund health and education services; pay civil servants’ salaries; and address its high youth unemployment rate, which stands at 26.4 percent for those under 30, who make up two-thirds of Algeria’s total population.

 

https://www.jeuneafrique.com/892165/politique/algerie-pourquoi-laide-financiere-accordee-a-la-tunisie-suscite-la-polemique/

Hundreds of people in Tunisia demonstrated on Wednesday in the centre of the capital Tunis against a recent Middle East plan by United States president Donald Trump.

According to protesters, “Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan”:https://www.africanews.com/2020/01/29/twitter-uses-apartheid-label-for-trump-s-israeli-palestine-plan/ was at best “The Deal of Shame,” they also calling for the boycott of all American products. The said plan has been firmly rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab League.

According to Brahim Bouderbala, president of the bar association, “I call on all the free peoples of the world to unite to oppose this barbaric decision, which is a violation of all UN resolutions.”

Trump on 28 January unveiled a controversial plan for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict but analysts say ot is favourable to Israel as it allows it to annex occupied Palestinian territories despite international law, and the recognition of Jerusalem as its “indivisible capital.”

For his part, Noureddine Taboubi, a protest leader described the plan as a betrayal and said Arab nations were complicit in what Trump had come up with. “Today, this agreement is a great betrayal. It is a lesson for the treacherous Arab states in this affair.

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