Despite the long impasse in Tunisia over the last two years there are signs of hope in the political situation. A year ago Rachid Ghannouchi was castigating Beji Caid Essebsi because he associated him with the previous RCD regime. Last week, as reported by Jeune Afrique they met in Paris for a three hour discussion on the political situation which Mr Essebsi described as useful with agreement on some points but by no means all. There appears to be some progress. As Mr Essebsi remarked earlier, the struggle will probably lead to all sides sitting round a table to resolve the situation.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was also in Paris and met with Mr Ghannouchi and Mr Essebsi separately. Jeune Afrique reported that the President wanted to help resolve Tunisia’s political impasse as the Jebel Chambi insurgency affects both countries. The photograph in Jeune Afrique of Mr Ghannouchi facing a clearly stern and revived President Bouteflika and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, spoke volumes. Algeria has reasons to remember and fear the clash between the Algerian army and the Islamist party the FIS which cost the lives of between 150,000 to 200,000 Algerians in a long civil war. Algeria does not want to see such a conflict arise in its near neighbor or indeed for Islamist fundamentalism to rekindle itself again on Algerian soil, as conceivably might happen. Probably President Bouteflika’s greatest achievement was to start and carry through a reconciliation process between former terrorists who repented and the rest of the population. In villages the children of the repented terrorists had to go to school with the children of the local policeman or victims of a terrorist attack. President Bouteflika faced major opposition to his policy of reconciliation and General Mohamed Lamari the head of the army, amongst others, resigned. The reconciliation policy largely succeeded. This experience may yet benefit Tunisia. It was not an easy process and even in 2000 journalists had to be accompanied by armed guards as the terrorists had taken to killing them a while back, it cramped one’s style a bit but you had to be grateful. A year or so later such precautions were deemed unnecessary.
Tunisia is unlikely to suffer the same trauma as Algeria which also bears the scars of the war of independence against the French which is reckoned to have cost a million Algerian lives. However the appearance of bearded salafists brandishing swords and knives disrupting concerts and art galleries, political meetings and threatening women like Saudi mutawa was not and is not an encouraging sign, because they are still out there somewhere. They are less evident in the press, no doubt because Ennhada finally realized the damage they were doing to Tunisia’s image and not least Ennhada’s image as well. The attack on the US Embassy finally forced the government, including Mr Ghannouchi , to condemn the violence which included attacks on police stations.
The assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed al-Brahmi was the last straw for the law abiding citizens of Tunisia . They demanded the resignation of the Ali Larayedh government and it emerged that the CIA had warned the Tunisian government of an attack on Brahmi and no action was taken to protect him as reported in The Tunis Times. The Quartet led marches demanding the replacement of the government by a team of technocrats which is what the former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali had proposed months ago.
Ennhada has said yes to dialogue but it is still not completely clear whether the government will resign before the completion of the constitution and the appointment of an authority to oversee the elections. Ennhada’s failure to control the illegal Salafist mobs and the infiltration of mosques lost it the confidence of moderate Tunisians. The video purporting to show Rachid Ghannouchi comforting Salafist students and reassuring them that the Islamist extremists would take over society eventually appeared to contradict his more moderate statements to western organizations. President Moncef Marzouki also suffered in Tunisian secular public opinion by seeming to favor the Islamists against the moderate secular population. The issue of women’s rights and his attitude to Tunisian women protesters has also damaged his image, perhaps beyond repair. There is also the question of the Ennhada government’s alleged continued appointments of sympathizers to positions in the administration.
How long ago it seems when President Marzouki and Rachid Ghannouchi shared the Chatham House prize. Tunisia’s progress to democracy was highlighted almost daily in the international press, particularly the American press like the New York Times, but no longer. It has all gone on too long and there is no clear end in sight. despite this the EU, IMF and the United States continue to support the Tunisian democratic process “without conditions” as President Obama reaffirmed last week in New York, which is positive.
Will the Ennhahda government really stand down before the completion of the constitution and the appointment of the election authority? Probably not, unless they are really forced to. The Quartet and Tunisian opposition parties must not let up. Although Beji Caid Essebsi and Nida Tounes ride high in the opinion polls at the moment the election is some way away. Rachid Ghannouchi has said that Ennhada will win the next elections. The Islamists still have a superior and more disciplined political organisation and the secular parties have still not fully united, despite Beji Caid Essebsi’s sterling efforts.
Whilst the opposition may feel that Rachid Ghannouchi may negotiate and be willing to compromise and that may very well be the case, the salafists remain a major challenge because they threaten Tunisia’s secular way of life and it seems impossible to negotiate with them. The law will have to be seen to protect public order and human rights without favor or distinction.
There is also the matter of the dispossessed and unemployed in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Siliana and all the other deprived areas. They started the revolution and the young artists and demonstrators carried it through. Both have been sidelined by the political parties of the Islamists and the secular opposition which are mostly from the middle class. It is unemployment- some 700,000 amongst a population of 11 million which could cause another revolution, as President Marzouki remarked in an Al Jazeera TV interview.
Let’s hope that when the parties do sit down to dialogue that things do actually get better, in the words of the British Labour party song, when Tony Blair was elected in May 1997.
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