Day: October 3, 2017

Tunisia needs to keep trying

Since the overthrow of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been on a long journey of reform and change. However, as panelists at the Atlantic Council’s “Tunisia’s Road to Reform” last Thursday pointed out, the destination does not always appear to be democratization and economic improvement, two of the revolution’s goals. The event included former Tunisian communications minister Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Fadil Aliriza, an independent journalist based in Tunis. The discussion was moderated by Karim Mezran introduced by Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council.

Tunisia’s path to democratization began with a national dialogue and the election of a new president, and according to Romdhani will continue with the upcoming municipal elections of 2018 and the general elections of 2019. There are several obstacles to democratization, including lack of participation in elections and failure of political parties to gain respect and credibility. Tunisia’s political parties, the most significant of which are Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, are largely disconnected from the reality faced by their constituents and are inefficient due to the continuous feuding that occurs between them. Aliriza criticized the current parties saying that they are based on personality rather than politics and that their categorization (liberal, secular, Islamist, etc) and ideologies are outdated and based on the old, pre-revolution model.

Romdhani also referred to social unrest, which he considered to be in part a result of the desire for “instant gratification” by Tunisia’s youth. This has put pressure on a government that, in his view, does not have the means to provide reform in a short period of time. Economic pressures, the instability in neighboring Libya, and lack of support from the West are all additional obstacles to democratization and reform listed.

Yerkes and Aliriza both went a step further to say that Tunisia has actually taken steps towards authoritarianism, a claim that they supported using several recent events, including a cabinet reshuffle, the postponement of municipal elections, and the adoption of a reconciliation law. It was the reconciliation law that seemed to be the most worrying to Aliriza, because it pardons civil servants accused of contributing to corruption under the old regime. This he said is a violation of the constitution and an effort to create a separate justice system for those associated with the old regime. The law is only beneficial to a minority of the population and has caused protests and unrest in the country.

Most importantly, the debate around the law is distracting the government as well as civil society organizations from focusing on reform. The government does have the means, Aliriza argued, but is misusing them. The law threatens the country’s stability, the disconnect between the regime and the people is growing, and the government’s legitimacy is under question. The government seems to be engaging in revolution-denial by repeating “old regime practices.”

Aliriza’s focus on the government’s shortcomings led Mezran to inquire what the panelists thought should be done about the flawed operations of the parliament and political parties. Aliriza responded by emphasizing the importance of employing staff for parliament in order to allow parliamentarians to connect with their constituencies, bridging the existing divide. He also proposed the creation of new parties and the greater inclusion of youth in formal politics. Yerkes agreed on the need for parliamentary staff to allow parliamentarians to travel and meet with the population.

She also thinks the time has come to move past Tunisia’s consensus model. The requirement that political parties agree with each other on policy issues may have previously provided stability, Yerkes admitted, but is currently undermining the legitimacy of each party in the eyes of its followers. The lack of debate has led to stagnation.

More defensively, Romdhani called for a change in perspective when viewing Tunisia’s government. Credibility, for example, should not be viewed as an isolated issue, but should rather in a regional context: the Tunisian people, in comparison with other countries that witnessed revolutions as part of the Arab spring, are still committed to freedom and democracy, making the Tunisian case “less worrisome” than others. Furthermore, in what can be interpreted as a response to Aliriza’s firm opposition to the reconciliation law, Romdhani said that those opposed to the law must pursue an already existing legal process and better explain their concerns instead of resorting to protests and filibusters.

While the panel revolved mostly around challenges and obstacles to reform in Tunisia, Yerkes took some time to remind the audience of promising aspects of the country’s development. These include the potential that the 2019 election brings and the role that civil society plays in holding the government accountable. Despite a large number of challenges, Tunisia remains, in the eyes of many, an example of a successful Arab revolution. As long is it continues to take steps towards fulfilling such a vision, that image will persist.

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