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Tunisia: New Beginnings
Jan 20, 2011 (110120)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
The head of the Arab League has told the region's leaders that the
recent upheaval in Tunisia is linked to deteriorating economic
conditions throughout the Arab world, warning them that their
people's anger has reached unprecedented heights.
Amr Moussa told an Arab economic summit in Egypt that "the Arab
soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession."
"This is in the mind of all of us," Moussa said in his opening
address to the 20 Arab leaders and other representatives of Arab
League members gathered in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
- Al Jazeera, January 19, 2011
How the unexpected popular revolution in Tunisia will play out is
far from certain, as attempts to form a unity government that can
organize elections are still stumbling over how fast
representatives of the old order can be replaced. Nor can the
lessons of Tunisia be applied easily to other North African and
Middle Eastern countries with very different political and economic
profiles. But there is no doubt that the events in Tunisia are
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several short reflections by
North African commentators, which have appeared over the last week
in English-language publications.
Leila Ouardani projects the optimistic hope of an alliance of left
and moderate Islamic opposition forces. Intissar Kherigi calls for
more consistent measures to oust the "dictatorship" as well as the
dictator. Soumaya Ghannoushi calls for a genuine opposition
alliance. And Egyptian Mona Eltahawy explains why she, along with
millions of other Arabs, will "forever cherish 14 January 2011 -
the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule
toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a
For ongoing coverage of Tunisia, see particularly
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Tunisia, and related
background links, visit
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note++++++++++++++++++++
Tunisia: the alliance of progressive and moderate Islamist forces
points to an optimistic outcome
Leila Ouardani, 17th January 2011
[is a historian and defense analyst. She holds joint
British/Tunisian nationality and has worked as a Research Assistant
at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels, and as a Research
Associate at the UK Defence Forum.]
With the constitutional authority declaring that Tunisia should
hold elections within the next sixty days, the future of the
country's political system remains uncertain.
Less than a month ago, the vast majority of Tunisians and the world
expected President Ben Ali to pave the way for hereditary rule,
either through his wife, Leila, or his son-in-law Mohamed Sakhr
But the dramatic events on the streets of Tunis last week have
raised hopes that in the near future Tunisia could host the
region's first democratic government. The country possesses
favourable social and economic conditions for democratic
transition. The near total Sunni population means that Tunisia will
not suffer from the religious sectarianism that currently plagues
other Middle Eastern countries. Religious extremism is also
markedly absent. This cannot simply be attributed to the previous
regime's religious crack down. While the last ten years has seen a
greater desire for religious observance and participation in
Tunisian daily life, this does not extend to the political sphere.
The chances of effective and meaningful mass political
participation in Tunisia are boosted by the country's large middle
class, university-educated population and its high literacy rates.
The sizeable Tunisian migrant population that currently lives in
Europe serves as a conduit for liberal ideas and has cultivated an
appreciation for Western institutions. The country's proximity to
Europe also means that every Tunisian knows the important role that
the millions of tourists, which flock to its shore every year, play
in sustaining livelihoods. A shared experience of oppression has,
until now, resulted in Tunisia's opposition groups forming an
unusual solidarity. For instance, the struggle for political
freedom dissipated the hostility that once marred relations between
Tunisia's Leftist forces and Islamist movement.
Notably, Islamists supported the hunger strikes undertaken by
Leftist leaders during the UN World Summit in Tunis in 2005. And
the leader of the Tunisian communist party, Hamma Hammami, in his
open letter declared his party's acceptance of the Tunisian
Islamist movement as partners in the political struggle for
democracy. Yet the Islamists have been in exile for two decades and
were notably absent from the streets over the last few weeks.
Instead, it was the students, secular intellectuals, lawyers and
trade unionists that have been at the forefront of this movement.
While Islamists would be assured parliamentary representation in
free elections, it is unlikely that they would achieve broad based
support. Before forced into exile in 1991, the Islamist party,
An-Nahda, only gained 15 percent of the vote in municipal
Within Tunisia it is a widely believed that secular politics is
here to stay and it unlikely that any movement seeking to reverse
this will attract support. However, the Tunisian Islamic opposition
movement is regarded as the most liberal and democratic of Islamic
parties in the world. As it stands today, with the continuing
uncertainty and sporadic violence, it remains to be seen how
Tunisia's political landscape will evolve. Without experience of
holding fair and open elections and an absence of strong
independent institutions to oversee the transition--it will not be
straightforward process. It is also too early to predict whether
the Tunisian opposition groups can continue to agree to put aside
any political differences that may arise in order to work together.
But what is certain is that the ingredients for genuine democratic
transformation do exist in Tunisia, and that we are witnessing an
Tunisia needs real freedom
Instead of the leftovers of a repressive regime, Tunisians deserve
a genuinely democratic unity government
19 January 2011
No matter how long in the making, the end of dictatorial regimes
always manage to catch us by surprise. In Tunisia last week, the
brutal 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ended in one fell
swoop, surprising even the protesters who had braved bullets, tear
gas and water cannons and yet had hardly dared to hope that their
dreams of freedom would be so swiftly answered.
As news of Ben Ali's departure reached the streets, the young
protesters who had driven this movement for change looked around
them and glimpsed another Tunisia, one free from the only president
they had ever known.
This cataclysmic shift is nothing short of a second independence
for the country, long under the boot of the hegemonic
Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).
But, only a few days after those dizzying heights, it seems that
while the dictator has fallen, the dictatorship remains. Tunisians
felt a dreaded sense of deja vu as they switched on their
televisions to be greeted by the same familiar faces, engaged in a
sickening game of musical chairs. Mohamed Ghannouchi, their
not-so-new prime minister, was Ben Ali's right-hand man. He was, in
the words of a US official, "indispensable" to Ben Ali and, ever
the loyalist, he recently revealed that he is still in touch with
the deposed dictator.
Indeed, continuity appears to be the dish of the day for the RCD.
While throwing some measly crumbs to the official opposition
parties - which had been handpicked by Ben Ali - it has shamelessly
clung on to every significant ministry, including the interior
ministry, which is responsible for organising elections.
The public was outraged to see the same inner cabal, deeply mired
in decades of torture, arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, murder,
rape and embezzlement. Even some of the acquiescent opposition
parties who initially accepted to join the unity government have
now withdrawn, gauging from countrywide protests yesterday that
Tunisians would not accept this masquerade of a government.
The regime has so far not addressed the crucial issue of reforming
the constitution and electoral laws. The constitution, adopted in
1959, has been deftly chopped and changed over the decades to
tighten the RCD's grip on the nation.
Article 57 sets in motion an election procedure carefully designed
to maintain one-party rule. Only the existing parliament and a few
officials can nominate presidential candidates. Given that Ben Ali
distributed parliamentary seats to official opposition parties in
proportionate to their loyalty to his rule, it does nothing but
perpetuate the status quo, while lending it a veneer of
The constitution also dictates that no constitutional amendments
may be made during this transitional period - effectively a lock-in
mechanism to block any possibility of change. Rules on freedom of
association are also draconian, imposing bans on the most credible
opposition parties and preventing the organisation of public
meetings. Political opponents abroad have also been warned against
returning on the pretext of criminal convictions against them,
obtained from kangaroo courts and based on trumped-up charges.
What is evident from the RCD's statements is that they remain stuck
in the same one-party mindset. At a press conference on Monday, the
interior minister Ahmed Fria, rather than asking to be pardoned for
the decades of misery and repression his ministry visited upon
Tunisians, set about berating the public for causing trouble and
lamented the loss of "respect for authority", noting that a pupil
cannot ask to change his teacher.
This is typical of the RCD's mentality - the RCD alone can think
and decide for the people. This same attitude can be seen in
Ghannouchi's patronising promises to "forgive" protesters and not
prosecute them, betraying a failure to grasp any concept of
separation of powers. All indications are that the RCD is far too
accustomed to being the repository of all state power -
legislature, executive, judiciary, military, police - to be able to
adapt to a new democratic landscape, let alone be trusted to build
Meanwhile, those movements that drove the uprising - trade unions,
association of lawyers, representatives of unemployed graduates,
human rights groups - are demanding to be consulted.
So are the "unofficial opposition" - those political parties that
posed a credible challenge to Ben Ali's regime, which were banned,
persecuted, decimated and exiled, from communists and nationalists
to Islamists and liberals. These parties have developed a common
set of fundamental principles for political reform in the country,
and have already begun to put forward their proposals for the
Drawn together by their shared persecution, these groups used their
time in exile to develop dialogue. Through the October 18 movement
of eight major opposition parties set up in 2005, they developed
common positions on key principles of political participation,
pluralism and human rights, and worked closely with civil society
groups to campaign against the human rights abuses of the old
A truly credible unity government must involve all these parties to
initiate a national process of dialogue and reform that draws upon
these traditions. Tunisians have waited 60 years for real
independence - the opportunity to engage in and shape their
political system. Their demands echo those that drove the fall of
Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Suharto in Indonesia - the
overhaul of the entire apparatus of a repressive regime and the
creation of a genuinely democratic alternative.
This can only be achieved through a truly pluralistic unity
government representing all parties across the spectrum, to begin
the process of building the democratic future the protesters
The unity government's proposals - releasing political prisoners,
opening up the media, removal of restrictions on human rights
groups - have an eery familiarity to many Tunisians. They remember
Ben Ali's promises in 1987 to usher in a new era of democracy and
freedom. Twenty-three years later, the Tunisian people were still
waiting. As yesterday's continuing protests show, they are no
longer willing to wait.
Tunisians must dismantle the monster Ben Ali built
The people have toppled a dictator. Now they have to forge a
coalition of socialists, Islamists and liberals for real change
18 January 2011
Few Tunisians could have imagined that a president who had
repressed and stifled them for more than 23 years could be so
fragile, so vulnerable. As soon as the uprising that raged around
the country for just over four weeks reached its capital, Tunis -
with waves of protesters besieging the interior ministry, the seat
of one of the region's most brutal police machines, chanting "We
are free, get out!" - he fell apart like a paper tiger.
From the threatening tyrant of the early days of the rebellion, he
gradually became a pale, trembling old man begging them in his
televised speeches to keep him in the Carthage Palace for a little
longer, first for three years, then for a mere six months. Each
time Tunisians roared back from their streets "Not a day longer".
Terrified, he fled the country in the dead of night. Then, rejected
by France, which had clung to him until the last moment, his plane
roamed around helplessly before being given permission to land in
The phenomenon called "Ben Ali" was in reality an amalgam of
internal violence, deception and flagrant foreign support. For
years his backers armed him and gave him political cover to
suffocate his people. A good student of the IMF, a guarantor of
"stability" and a brave warrior against "Islamic fundamentalism",
Ben Ali's Tunisia was a shining example of "modernisation" and
success. With his demise, a model of stability which is bought at
the price of a crushed people can no longer be easily defended or
The Tunisian people's revolution, which expelled Ben Ali from their
land, did not stop at their borders. It has swept over the Arab
world, reverberating in every town and village. The sense of
despair and profound humiliation Arabs felt with the toppling of
Saddam's tyrannical regime by the US contrasts sharply with their
euphoria at the ousting of Tunisia's dictator. This is the first
time an Arab nation has succeeded in uprooting a ruthless despot by
popular protest and civil disobedience, and without foreign
intervention, coup d'etats or natural death. If Iraq offered the
Arab world the ugliest face of regime change, Tunisia shows its
But by toppling their dictator, Tunisians are only halfway to
realising their aspirations for genuine reform. The despot is gone,
but the gigantic police state that has grown since the country's
independence from French occupation in 1956 is still very much
alive. The apparatus of repression laid down by Habib Bourguiba,
Tunisia's charismatic "founding father", was fine-tuned by the
general who inherited it. Dismantling such a monster will not be
easy. That is the challenge Tunisians have to meet to complete
While Arabs have been celebrating in the streets, chanting the poet
Abul-Qasim al-Shabbi's words "If, one day, a people desires to
live, then fate will answer their call", their rulers are stunned
by the chilling news of their toppled fellow dictator. This is
their worst nightmare. They dread nothing more than the Tunisian
infection being passed on to their people, particularly as most
have either inherited power from their fathers, or are preparing to
bequeath it to their sons. Only Muammar Gaddafi of neighbouring
Libya has interrupted their death-like silence to speak for all the
despots, threatening Tunisians that they would live to regret what
they had dared perpetrate.
But although Tunisia is a small country with a population of 10
million and scarce natural resources, it is better placed than most
Arab countries to undergo democratisation. Its people are socially
homogenous, largely urbanised, and highly educated compared with
its neighbours. In the aftermath of Ben Ali's era, the Tunisian
scene is divided between two strategies. The first involves a
recycling of the old regime with a few cosmetic amendments. That is
the strategy of the so-called "unity government", announced by
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi today, a man who had served for
years under the fallen dictator. It excludes the real forces on the
ground, which genuinely reflect the Tunisian political landscape:
independent socialists, Islamists and liberals. The unity
government seems intent on turning the clock back, behaving as if
the revolution had never been, reinstalling the loathed ruling
party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), with all the same
faces - bar Ben Ali's, of course - and the same security machine.
That is why protests have erupted again in many cities, with "Ben
Ali out" changed to "RCD out".
The alternative strategy - and the task now facing the Tunisian
people - is to build a wide coalition of the forces that can
dismantle the legacy of the despotic post-colonial state and bring
about the change their people have been yearning for decades. This
has been the driving force for the alliance being forged between
the Communist Workers' Party, led by Hamma al-Hammami, the
charismatic Moncef al-Marzouqi's Congress Party for the Republic,
and Ennahda, led by my father Rachid Ghannouchi, along with trade
unionists, and civil society activists.
Their shared bitter experience of prison and exile has made them
more pragmatic, and thus more capable of standing up to
dictatorship and building a strong alliance around the demand for
real change. This politics of partnership and consensus is what
Tunisians and Arabs need to dismantle the structures of
totalitarianism which have held them in their iron grip for
Tunisia: the first Arab revolution
I will always cherish the day the dictator Ben Ali was toppled: in
a true popular uprising, and not a coup
16 January 2011
Every 23 July for the past 58 years Egypt, my country of birth, has
celebrated its "July revolution" that overthrew King Farouk and
ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was
no revolution: it was a coup staged by young army officers.
And so it has been with a series of "revolutions" around the Arab
world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in
civilian clothes - some kept the olive drabs on - and rob
generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked
at the Iranians with envy - not at the outcome of their 1979
revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism
for a coup.
So you'll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I'll
forever cherish 14 January 2011 - the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular
uprising. A real revolution for a change.
It's the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so
you'll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a
musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I'm still celebrating. Let's
have no whining about how those pesky Tunisians who risked their
lives in their thousands to face down a despot ruined the idyllic
package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.
The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: we have no
idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge but there
is no doubt who's rooting for the failure of this revolution: every
Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear.
You can be sure the region's dictators are on their knees right now
praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.
Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official
statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the
wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders
that they weren't anything like Tunisia: Egypt.
Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world's longest-serving dictator,
to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had
faced down the bullets of Ben Ali's security to protest at
unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime,
Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and
lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.
If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab
citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists - long
used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence - nor foreign
troops that toppled the dictator: it was ordinary and very fed up
Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We're
hearing reports that neighbourhood watch committees have sprung up
to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben
Interestingly, both western observers and Gaddafi have been
crediting WikiLeaks, but for different reasons. By buying into the
idea that leaked US embassy cables about corruption "fuelled" the
revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts
and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up
against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he,
too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people -
and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic
inseparable from a "voluptuous" Ukrainian nurse.
Gaddafi's Libya has had its own protests over the past few days.
Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to
Tunisians could be summarised thus: I am scared witless by what
happened in your country.
That's why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: relish the
revolution that is no longer a euphemism for a coup.
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