Tunisia and the 'Arab Spring' Reversal

Jul 27 2013 | by Fadil Aliriza

[Tunisians rally in Tunis on 9 April to demand justice for victims of the 2011 revolution. Image by Magharebia/Flickr.]

Two years ago, hope was not only palpable in the streets of Tunis; it was infectious. Young Arabs had risen up and triumphed against a Western-supported dictator whose police state ran on fear. Similar uprisings across the region seemed to have confirmed that Tunisia had led the way towards a new, more democratic order. And Tunisia was about to lead the way again by holding a clean election, almost unprecedented in the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, hope is in rare supply across the region. Egypt’s elections yielded new leaders that blindly and illiberally ran the country along strict partisan lines until a military coup publicly reasserted old-regime institutions. Libya’s timid leaders and bold militias have hampered democracy, security and institution building. Syria’s revolution turned into a bloody war and a hellish game for external actors, while Lebanon desperately tries to quarantine itself from the neighboring chaos. Western observers use increasingly desperate euphemisms for Iraq’s escalating civil war. No one dares talk about Bahrain, or perhaps no one cares. Other Gulf countries quietly quarrel amongst themselves through political and economic maneuvering in neighboring proxy countries.

While numerous pundits bemoan “Arab Spring” fatigue, many still believed that tiny Tunisia alone might overcome its challenges to create a new inclusive, civic, stable, free, and prosperous political order. But what started in Tunisia may soon end in Tunisia as the gains of the “Arab Spring” are systematically rolled back with the help of old regime forces, ascendant ideological zealots, domestic lassitude, and powerful outside players that are uncomfortable with independent, populist politics in the region.

Direct Culprits?

According to the Interior Ministry, the actual culprit behind the political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi is Boubaker El Hakim. There are vague reports that he has links to al-Qaeda, that he is a French-born religious extremist who might have fought in Iraq, and the Interior Ministry announced that he had ties to Ansar Al-Sharia Tunisia, although nothing is clear yet. If El Hakim is indeed responsible for the murder, then in this direct sense, violent and extreme Islamists represent one of the culprit groups behind Tunisia’s current political turmoil. These groups include jihadis who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. They present a radical vision of politics that denies human agency in favor of the divine and stands opposed to modernity, nationalism, and globalization. They are a direct threat to the success of democracy in Tunisia.

However, if Brahmi’s killing does indeed prove to be a terrorist assassination, this does not explain why the event sparked immediate calls from the opposition to disband the government or the popularly elected assembly. Nor does it fully explain the deep political divisions in Tunisia. Several other groups have helped Tunisia reach its current precipice, sometimes unwittingly.

Politicians Share Some Blame

In the background of Tunisia’s political scene, there is a steady hum of anger and frustration. Any big event risks tapping into that well of anger. Tunisians are angry that there has been little progress since the revolution. The economy has not improved and has, in some sectors, weakened. Unemployment refuses to decrease. Corruption is still integral to every facet of Tunisian life. Government and municipal services remain inaccessible and unresponsive to most of the population. Police brutality continues. Stark economic inequalities between people of different economic classes, and between developed coastal regions and underdeveloped interior regions, persist. Political divisions tend to fall along sharp ideological lines, and, despite Tunisia’s woes, assembly members take regular breaks from their task of drafting the constitution.

In this tinderbox, the second political assassination in six months has acted like a spark, and people are looking for someone to blame. Given the depressingly slow pace of progress, the government and the assembly make for easy targets. Both have been far from perfect.

The governing Ennahda party has proved itself inept at managing the country’s problems. Instead, ideological zealots from within its own ranks have sidetracked the party. These zealots have sparked fierce public debates on values, thus diminishing the party’s political capital. Although fault does not lie solely at their feet, the governing party has failed to bring justice to the martyrs, failed to find and implement economic solutions, and failed to root out corruption. Perhaps most damning in this current phase is the party’s reticence and failure to crack down on Islamist extremists. Radicals within their own ranks have also ratcheted up political tensions on occasion.

The constituent assembly, too, deserves some blame for Tunisia’s current predicament. The body as a whole has exceeded its time-proscribed mandate to draft and pass a new constitution. After two years, the assembly is working on their fifth draft of the document, despite the fact that it only differs significantly from the 1959 constitution in a couple key areas. The assembly voted twice to increase its members’ salaries, considered voting on their own pensions, and consistently starts sessions late with less than full participation due to absent members (See watchdog organization Al-Bawsala’s website for brave, consistent coverage of this problem).

Dark Forces at Work?

Yet despite the shortcomings of both of these post-revolutionary bodies, something more sinister seems to be at work in the case of Brahmi. Protestors did not just vent their anger at the government because they had failed to secure the safety of an elected official. Hours after Brahmi was reportedly killed, angry crowds gathered outside the hospital where his body and family were located. According to journalist Asma Ghribi, who was on the ground, the crowds chanted that Rached Ghannouchi (Ennahda leader) is an “assassin.” They screamed that “Islamists are vampires,” and “We want to overthrow the government of terrorists.” Protestors used similarly extremist rhetoric across downtown Tunis. The vitriol is even more surprising given that Brahmi comes from a small nationalist party that only has two out of 216 seats in the assembly.

One culprit behind the immediate and vocal politicization of the assassination is the media. Many local news outlets still have staff that operated during the old regime, when the press’s main role was to prop up the dictatorship. Today’s inflammatory anti-Ennahda headlines make little attempt to inform the public of actual news, often inventing facts instead. Tunisia Live has recently restarted its project of compiling and translating local newspaper headlines. Several from the week before Brahmi’s assassination stand out. Assabah’s from 22 July reads: “Ennahda and the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood: The Mysterious Relationship and the Mystery Behind it.” Assarih’s from the same day reads: Politicians and Analysts Answer Question: Are we on the brink of the Egyptian scenario or not?”

While there are several excellent French reporters based in Tunis, many French press outlets have been equally bombastic in criticizing Ennahda on ideological grounds. Some of this amounts to fear mongering. One example is a January, 2013 documentary that appeared on France 2. The documentary, by Karim Baïla and Stéphan Villeneuve, entitled “Tunisia under the Salafist threat,” angered many Tunisians with its biased and selective reporting.

While it is encouraging to see that the press can now criticize the government so freely, it has had several negative effects. It fails to inform the public. It has fueled tensions between Islamists and the press, and Islamists now regularly attack journalists at their political rallies. It has pushed Islamists to create their own news networks; this reinforces divisions between secularists and Islamists as they are exposed almost solely to their own information streams. Additionally, when it comes to French language press, inflammatory yellow journalism has likely contributed to keeping French tourists from coming to Tunisia and spending their Euros.

Another culprit behind the politicization of the assassination is the security forces. It is clear that politicians have little control over the police and the Interior Ministry as an institution. Prime Minister Ali Laareyedh was the first interior minister appointed after the revolution. During his years in the opposition, Laareyedh had been subjected to some of the worst forms of torture in the basement of the Interior Ministry. Yet after taking charge of the ministry, Laareyedh was unable or unwilling to fire the men who tortured him. Some of them continued to work on the same floor of the building as Laareyedh.

As journalist Mischa Benoit-Lavelle documented, the Interior Ministry may be outside the control of the government. Benoit-Lavelle reported that thousands of police officers passionately rallied against their titular chief, Laareyedh, only two weeks before politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated. Belaid received numerous death threats prior to his assassination that he presented to the Interior Ministry, yet nothing was done. The Human Rights Watch representative in Tunisia has called the ministry a “black box” that no one really understands.

More than this, the police across the country use brutal tactics to suppress peaceful demonstrations. There have been reports of torture continuing even after the revolution. Their use of brutality changes depending on which political group happens to be holding a demonstration or rally. These tactics only add to violence and instability in the country. When anger does spill into the streets, almost every group makes its way at some point to the Interior Ministry. Protests outside of the capital often target police stations. After the assassination of Brahmi, protestors in front of the ministry chanted that it was in fact the “Ministry of Terror.” They may be onto something.

Confusion, Political Games

Mabrouka Mbarek is one assembly member who admits confusion at what is going in Tunisia at the moment.

“It is very confusing because yesterday, the Ministry of Interior did a press conference and they declared that the investigation around the assassination of Chokri Belaid led to a tangible conclusion and they were able to identify his murderers, and that identification of his murderers would be published very, very soon. A couple of hours after this, another MP [sic] is assassinated,” says Mbarek, a member of the minor governing coalition party Congress for the Republic (CPR).

Mbarek also comments on the speed with which opposition parties called for the dissolution of the government and the assembly.

“They want to abort the transition. They would want to have the same scenario that is happening in Egypt,” she says. “Ahmed Nejib Chebbi and the party Al-Massar have called to dissolve the assembly. I found it very strange because [Chebbi], from the Jumhouri party, was satisfied with the final draft of the constitution. They were happy about it.”

Others have merely expressed dismay at what looks like a break down in Tunisia’s national political dialogue and democratic process. Asked about her recently assassinated colleague in the assembly, Hela Hammi, an Ennahda member, gave an emotional response.

“We had good relations, even though we had contradicting political positions. I respected him because he was very frank, very clear. He had his own position. That’s democracy,” she said, before breaking into tears.

Whether what happened in Egypt will occur in Tunisia remains to be seen. Avoiding an Egypt-style scenario will depend largely on Tunisians resisting easy and comforting narratives that vilify their political opponents. It will also depend on Tunisians keeping their faith in the weak and often inept, but legitimate and growing political institutions that they created after the revolution. It will depend on Tunisians, particularly those in power, taking greater responsibility for their citizens and country. In this way, perhaps hope can still triumph.

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