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Letter from Tunisia

January 25, 2014 at 5:38 am

As the Tunisian Constituent Assembly holds its first meeting to start the process of handing over authority to the civilian revolutionary forces, the people of Tunisia can claim success where the Egyptian revolution has failed to-date.

I am talking about a meeting in which the election of a President for the Assembly is to take place, as well as an agreement on preparations for the election of the national President and the appointment of the Prime Minister. Procedures are also due to emerge to produce a new constitution, all within the next 18 months.

Tunisia has succeeded where we Egyptians have failed, not only because they have started to build their new government – a process which is still troubled in Egypt – but also because they have started with consensus and understanding; the end-product should be a government of national unity. The people of Tunisia agreed that the presidents of the country and the Constituent Assembly will be secularists, while the government will be led by the Secretary-General of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Al-Nahda, which won the largest share of parliamentary seats.

The political consensus in Tunisian did not spring from the revolution of January 14; it’s already several years old. Tunisian national forces decided to challenge the old regime in 2005 with a forum called “18 October for Rights and Freedoms”. That was the date on which eight national figures went on hunger strike in protest against the loss of public freedoms. These activists intended to announce their strike, which lasted more than a month, just before the World Summit on the Information Society which was to be held on 17 November 2005; they wanted to expose the Tunisian regime and embarrass it in front of delegates from around the world. At that time, a national strike committee was formed including some of the political parties, among them Al-Nahda. When the Committee received broad support from across the community, it was decided to establish the October 18 Forum, for which parties were invited to discuss their differences; the formal establishment of the Forum was announced on 25 January 2006.

The Forum continued its discussions for four years, seeking to identify common ground, with the result that three papers were published which formed the basis of the national consensus: the first looked at gender equality; the second considered private freedom of belief and conscience; and the third dealt with the relationship of religion to the state in Muslim and democratic societies.

Those documents were published collectively in 2010 in a booklet called, “Our road to democracy”. As a result, when the Revolution began, the way was already prepared for joint efforts between the moderate Islamists and secularists.

It was no surprise that the hard-line liberals and secularists who had controlled the public domain since Tunisian independence in 1956 were shocked by the Renaissance movement’s electoral victory. The process of intimidation and attempts to trick the party were some of the most important tools used in the electoral confrontation.

The chairman of the committee formed to preserve the revolution, Ayaz Bin Ashour, was one of those who called for removing Islam from the state’s official identity (the requirement has been in the Constitution since independence). In addition, a group called “Democratic Women” demanded gender equality in inheritance; one woman at a seminar held by French television called for French intervention to save Tunisian women from the negative effects of Al-Nahda. Another concern raised has come about because one of the deputies of Al-Nahda rejected a project to legalise the status of single mothers who gave birth outside marriage. A TV channel showed “images of God”, while another showed a programme before the election in which the heroine announced that she’s a “disbeliever”.

When Hamadi Jebali, Al-Nahda’s Secretary-General, called for his party to represent the sixth Islamic caliphate, there was a furore in the country. Although Jebali meant that the party should promote justice in Tunisia, emulating Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz, he faced the wrath of ultra-secularists who were angered by the use of the term “caliphate”.

Since the return from exile of Al-Nahda’s leaders, especially Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, they have faced questions about the fate of bars, non-veiled women, swimsuits and bikinis, cinemas, interest-bearing banks, and suchlike. Last week some artists met with Al-Nahda’s cultural spokesman to discuss the fate of belly dancing under the new government.

Such questions are being asked by the intellectuals and political rivals but they don’t figure prominently in discussions among the general public in Tunisia. They are more concerned about the problems of unemployment and the recession due to the drop in tourists following the revolution. The number of unemployed Tunisians has risen from 500,000 to 700,000 post-revolution, and that figure is expected to reach a million if the current situation continues; this is out of a total population in Tunisia of ten million.

The people have stopped talking about the scandals of the previous regime, which revolved around the former president and his wealth and greed, as well his wife and her “Tripoli” family. What has been said about the former president is beyond ratification, but his relationship with Israel’s Mossad and his role in the killing of some Palestinian leaders are under investigation.

The ex-president’s corruption extended beyond money and greed; he is accused of drug dealing through his brother, who Ben Ali is accused of killing. Everyone was surprised that some of the presidential palaces had stores full of stoves, refrigerators, televisions and washing machines, but this is nothing compared to his wholesale looting of land, forests and major economic projects. The real owners were either scared off or forced to emigrate; others committed suicide when they discovered that their efforts had been confiscated.

Information unearthed in the files of the Foreign Information Agency included details of the ex-president’s $2m per month to buy media outlets in Lebanon, including two well-known television channels. Other payments went to Arab journalists, including Egyptians; one was referred to only by the initials MG. It is noted that reports by that source, which glorified Ben Ali and his regime, were published as “analytical articles” in some independent newspapers in Egypt and other Arab countries.

To get a clearer picture of the situation, I went to see Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi. We met in his house in El Menzah neighbourhood which was returned to him after his 22-year absence in exile. When I asked him about campaigns being waged on a daily basis against Al-Nahda he laughed: “We’re used to that,” he said, “and even more. What concerns us now is to save the nation not to defend the movement.”

I asked him about his claims about non-interference with the freedom of people and tourists. “We have our priorities, and our first concern is to reassure everyone and save the country’s economy from recession.” Freedom, he added, was assured even before the documents published by the October 18 Forum.

Was Al-Nahda, as claimed in Jeune Afrique magazine and by many Western and Arab commentators, influenced by the leadership’s time in exile in France and Britain?

Sheikh Ghannouchi laughed again and told me that if they had read the movement’s literature in the eighties they would have discovered they were reading with dark glasses on. “They started to see who we really are when they took off their dark glasses after the elections. Interestingly, they think that we have changed, while in fact it is they who have started to open their eyes to see who we really are.”

I asked him about the relationship between Al-Nahda and Tunisia’s security services which tortured its members for many years. He replied that the security services have tortured and abused the entire Tunisian people, but he agreed that his members had the lion’s share of such treatment.

“They imprisoned and tortured 45,000 Al-Nahda people,” he said, “More than a hundred were killed during torture. We have named rooms in our headquarters, opened this year, after those who lost their lives in the struggle. We know the names of those who tortured our members and their addresses. The movement will not pursue any of them; we will leave them alone. But if the individuals who were tortured want to sue their tormentors in court, that’s their personal decision.”

Will the police and security services remain the same? Ghannouchi says no emphatically and adds that 45 senior officers have had their contracts terminated and some have been arrested. In addition, thousands of new policemen have been hired and are undergoing training in respect for the law and human rights. Educators for this purpose were brought from Britain, Belgium and the United States.

Rumours were circulating about possible military intervention if Al-Nahda won the elections. The source of the rumour, said Sheikh Ghannouchi, was a person powerful in Ben Ali’s days. “As soon as the Chief of Staff Gen. Rashid bin Ammar heard the rumour, he asked us for a meeting where he denied it. The army, insisted the General, is committed to respecting the popular will.” The same General refused an order from Ben Ali to open fire on demonstrators during the revolution.

Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi is scheduled to visit the United States of America in January 2012 at the invitation of the Journal of Foreign Affairs. Although he has been banned from entering the United States since 1994, he accepted the invitation extended to him after the revolution. He said that there was a similar invitation extended to Hamadi Jebali which he will attend to after his inauguration as prime minister.

What is noticeable is that since the beginning of the Revolution, Washington’s policy has taken a more rational and realistic approach; ex-colonial power France announced that it stood by Ben Ali and said that it would put its capabilities at the disposal of the former president. There has been strong talk about tear gas bombs sent from Paris to Tunis to suppress demonstrations against Ben Ali, who was well-known for entertaining French politicians at his expense. That was at the beginning of the revolution, but now France is looking forward to a positive relationship with the new government. Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, telephoned Sheikh Ghannouchi to dismiss any doubts about improved bilateral relations.

In one of the discussion I had with Ghannouchi, we talked about a comparison between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I said that Tunisia’s coalition between moderate Islamists and secularists is an important difference, and his country is lucky because it is not next to Israel, so democracy in Tunisia can be tolerated. In Egypt’s case, the world appears to fear the results of democracy.

At this point, a Tunisian insider commented that a US delegation came to Tunisia ten days ago and asked about the new regime’s relationship with Israel; some wealthy Israelis want to invest in Tunisia, they claimed. The response was that the new regime is in solidarity with the Palestinians, and is focused on the success of the democratic experiment and overcoming the economic crisis; everything else is being put on hold.
Finally, Tunisia is fortunate because Ben Ali has left the country, while Mubarak is still in Egypt and so are the remnants of his regime. To this, Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi smiled and said, “May God be with you.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.