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Tunisia: New Beginnings

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jan 20, 2011 (110120)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

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 echoing widely.

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 change."

For ongoing coverage of Tunisia, see particularly and

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 Materi.

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 elections.

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 unprecedented opportunity.

Tunisia needs real freedom

Instead of the leftovers of a repressive regime, Tunisians deserve a genuinely democratic unity government

Intissar Kherigi

The Guardian

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 pseudo-legitimacy.

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 one.

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 future.

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 regime.

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 demand.

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

Soumaya Ghannoushi

The Guardian

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 Jeddah.

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 propagated.

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 best.

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 their revolution.

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 generations.

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

Mona Eltahawy

The Guardian

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 people.

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 Ali's loyalists.

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.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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