When Ben Ali became the first dictator to fall in the Arab Spring, Tunisia was hailed for its bravery, resilience and setting an example eloquently summarised by the legendary Tunisian poet, Abu al-Qassim al-Chaabi ‘If one day the people desire freedom, then fate is obliged to comply’.
However, the story since has been anything but a fairy-tale. After three disastrous years under the Nahda party administration, voters swiftly voted for remnants of the former regime, seeking stability and some sort of security in the form of Beji Caid Al-Sibsi, leading his re-branded Nidaa Tunis party.
Since then, Sibsi has embarked on a subtle but efficient re-alignment of the state, proposing key measures to grant immunity to businessmen accused of embezzling millions under Ben Ali in the form of a ‘National Economic Reconciliation Bill’. The Bill in essence applies a statute of limitations on any ‘financial crimes’ prior to the revolution in 2011. In other words, a businessman who corruptly enriched him or herself prior to 2011 cannot be brought to court for any crimes committed under the Ben Ali regime.
This has been compounded by the announcement of prominent Judge Leila Abeid that she requested to be transferred from her post as the judge overseeing the discharging of property
confiscated from Ben Ali’s entourage after the revolution claiming that influential people, including the President himself, had placed significant obstacles to the point that she felt unable to carry out her role. She went on to describe the judiciary as an incompetent institution operating in name only.
Moreover, and perhaps of significantly greater danger, is Sibsi’s gradual re-alignment of the state towards family rule, setting up his son Hafidh as the de facto number two, and his in-law Youcef al-Shahid as the new Prime Minister, moves reminiscent of the Trabelsi family under Ben Ali.
So where did it all go wrong?
The signs of Tunisia’s deformed democracy were clear from the very first free and fair elections over the transitional parliament when Hammadi Jabali, the secretary general of the winning Nahda party bluntly declared on Aljazeera that he would not recognise the Popular Petition which had defied the odds, secured third place in seats and second in number of votes, and also won the birthplace of the revolution; Sidi Bouzid. Nahda would then embark on a politics that completely disregarded the grassroot movement led by Dr Mohamed El-Hechmi Hamdi.
The flagrant disregard of such a large section of Tunisian society was democratically destructive, none more so than when businessmen including Bahri Jlassi began to ‘purchase’ members of Parliament, resulting in an annihilation of the Popular Petition’s 28 seats, reducing them to just 10. When the Popular Petition put forward a motion seeking to ban ‘political tourism’, a phenomenon by which Sibsi himself managed to snatch three members of parliament from the Popular Petition, Nahda stood against the bill for the sole purpose of crushing the movement. Nahda then propped up a powerless Moncef Marzouki as President, reserving executive powers for the Prime Minister and then ruled unopposed for three years.
At this time, news outlets around the world were ready to turn a blind eye. As one Western journalist told the International Interest, “the world was not ready to hear about these realities. [We] needed Tunisia to be a model to the world no matter what”.
Such an argument carries significant weight in a region that has since witnessed a military coup and brutal crackdown in Egypt, complete disintegration of any resemblance of a nation in Libya, and civil war in Syria.
However, ignoring these early signs and encouraging a bubble in which Tunisia was somehow a model to be proud of alienated the majority of the population who continue to live in difficult conditions. Unemployment increased as did the development gap between the coastal cities and inner cities, fuelling rabid regionalism and leading to over 500 suicides as well as significant unrest in areas including Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, the two cities that initially fanned the flames of the original revolution.
The Nahda party put on extravagant conferences, the latest reportedly costing over 9 million dinars ($4.5 million), in stark contrast to the plight of the country. Five Nida ministers and the President’s son and Chief of Staff, attended the opening of a café in Tunis owned by a businessman who happens to be President of the department of youth in the Nida party and the brother of a female member of Parliament recently nominated for minister of tourism. The narrative of being a successful democracy simply did not wash with the poor, unemployed youth who would often exclaim that ‘the revolution brought back those who were already living in comfort abroad and Ben Ali’s people. We, the ones who did the revolution, have gained nothing from it’.
Even an extensive media campaign by the leading television stations seeking to convey the message of ‘we are all in this together’, and ‘this is our Tunisia’, were met with dismay as the run-down cities in the inner regions gawked at the lights, wealth and modernisation that was being displayed on TV in complete contrast to their own surroundings of power cuts, lack of water suitable for drinking, and the cafes swamped with the unemployed borrowing money from one another to buy a coffee.
Moreover, the Nahda government and the subsequent Nida government began to criticise the youth themselves, claiming that there were jobs but that Tunisians were turning their noses up at the opportunities. This evoked significant anger, particularly after the leader of the re-branded Popular Petition, which became Tayyar al-Mahabba, Dr Mohamed al-Hashimi al-Hamdi, televised his visit to the job centre with three unemployed youths in which he was told there were no jobs available.
The failures of Nahda are many. But having been forced out of power by the people, the group have since pursued a policy of damage limitation, believed to be influenced by Lotfi Zitoun, seeking to appease Sibsi by supporting his government and appointments and remaining silent on flagrant abuse of power including the empowerment of Hafidh Caid Sibsi and the appointment of Youcef al-Shahid as Prime Minister. Nahda were even silent on Sibsi’s decision to restore Bourguiba’s statue, a sign of Sibsi’s ideal regime, that of the supreme leader for whom songs of praise are sung on national television.
Nahda is, to this day, Sibsi’s most important partner in government.
Marzouki, who to this day believes he was betrayed by Nahda in the second round of the presidential election, has sought to re-emerge as a prominent opposition figure. However, his choice of causes has been tarnished by his time in power. His call for transparency in the oil sector following the ‘Winou al-petrol?’ (where is the oil?) campaign on social media, were met with sarcasm with people asking how a man who did nothing about the subject as president is suddenly committed to the cause.
With Nahda in a state of fear, and Marzouki discredited, the only viable and active opposition appears to be that of Dr Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, leader of the Tayyar al-Mahabba who launched a staunch campaign against the restoration of Bourguiba’s statue before calling for widespread protests against the appointment of Sibsi’s in law as Prime Minister, calling on Sibsi to step down and announce early Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Hamdi argues that Sibsi and Ghannouchi partnership has plunged Tunisia into an abyss.
Initially dismissed as a populist and a maverick, Hamdi has demonstrated time and again an uncanny ability for mobilising the street. Sidi Bouzid rioted when the electoral commission sought to remove his party’s seats in 2011, and thousands responded to his call for a mass protest over unemployment on October 31st in Tunis in 2015. The government, usually adopting a hands-off approach post-revolution, have recently begun to adopt more aggressive measures against Hamdi’s supporters, detaining party activists at demonstrations, restricting people’s ability to attend the protests by blocking off points of access, and spreading fear in areas including Kasserine by claiming that those attending the protests would be subject to beatings.
The 4th placed Presidential candidate has long campaigned to emulate the former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in the establishment of a national welfare system, creating a National Health Service, a work benefits system and free transport for over 65s. With mass support in the key areas where the revolution began (Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Gafsa, Kairouan), the government have consistently sought to keep the leader of the grassroots movement silent by pressuring media outlets to limit his appearances and his ability to communicate to the people.
With his local dialect that resonates with the working class and poorer sections of society, Hamdi has used his television station to bypass the media blockade, remaining a key player on the political scene. As his calls for protests and for Sibsi to step down and announce early presidential and parliamentary elections become louder, it remains to be seen what the conclusion of the showdown will be for both parties.