At London University’s SOAS last Friday, the Middle East Monitor and the Jasmine Foundation had the honour of welcoming three MPs from post-revolutionary Tunisia, who brought with them a sense of the excitement and inspiration of the new politics and democracy in the post-Ben Ali era that the Arab Spring has ushered into their country. Tunisia being the birth-place of the Arab Spring with the tragic loss of young life in Sidi Bouzid, it was perhaps inevitable that the victors of the revolution would have much to share about life in politics in Tunisia, in a country free of repression. Perhaps the most inspiring factor of the evening was the all-female panel; all three of the Al-Nahda Party MPs are women, and included the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Mehrezia Labidi, who has managed to attain the highest political office of any woman across the Arab world.
In the recent election, Al-Nahda gained 41 per cent of the overall vote and went on to form a coalition government with Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic. Jawhara Ettees, the youngest member of the panel at 26 and one of the youngest MPs to be elected, opened the discussion on one of the most pertinent issues of the Jasmine Revolution – the role of the youth in Tunisia. She noted that the youth had played an important and inspirational role; while the former dictator Ben Ali had tried to present an image of harmony and peace to the outside world Tunisian youth were suppressed by the ruling autocracy.
During her 6 years of university education, recalled Ettees, political activity by students was forbidden. She remarked that this was an attempt by Ben Ali to create a generation without political or social consciousness. She described how, in 2010, this very generation rebelled and toppled the dictator. Despite the ‘iron grip’ Ben Ali had on the nation, a small minority managed to mobilise the majority in the struggle to bring freedom.
Amel Azzouz, MP followed Ettees with an analysis of women and women’s rights in Tunisia. Beginning by addressing the pre-revolution era, Azzouz described women’s roles and the advancement of their rights as merely ‘décor’, a façade for the outside world so that Tunisia appeared progressive while, in fact, women had little access to decision making and power. Whilst women’s rights had been enshrined in law under Bourghiba, the founder of independent Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime brought much distress to Tunisian women. Women had been instrumental in the beginning, but by Ben Ali’s time no women dared to express their political thoughts and opinions. With the oppression came thousands of men imprisoned by the regime, leaving their women to pick up the slack and run the homes and families, go to work and support their community.
Azzouz then described the revolution as the testing ground for the advancement of women’s rights in Tunisia. She acknowledged the role of the youth, but noted that women had been forced to take on such great responsibilities and sacrifice during the Ben Ali era that this was their chance to participate fully in society. Post-revolution, women were able to participate in politics and other aspects of society and took advantage of this. During the election campaign, Al-Nahda instituted a 50/50 ratio of female to male candidates. Although there had been a number of achievements, said Azzouz, the highlight was the election of 60 women out of 217 MPs; of the 90 Al-Nahda MPs, 42 are female. Nine women have been appointed to head new government commissions. Despite this, she acknowledged that the Tunisian authorities still face some challenges in relation to women; in the government there are only 3 female ministers, for example, and the trade unions have not one woman elected to any position. Thus, while numerous gains have been made there is still work to do, Azzouz concluded. The challenge, she said, was to change the mentality of the Tunisian people, so that they gain the confidence to believe that women have the ability to lead and rule their country.
The Deputy Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament, Mehrezia Labidi, ended the evening with her reflections on the achievements and challenges of Tunisia. Beginning with a description of her exile in France for over 20 years, she explained that she now represented the Tunisian diaspora community living in France. She described the moment of swearing an oath on the Qu’ran as the moment of swearing to “save Tunisia”. She went on to explain that she had made many sacrifices to serve Tunisia, and even the sacrifice of her family life was justified because Tunisia “is worth it” after so many years of turmoil.
Labidi suggested that one of the greatest achievements of Tunisia was in setting an example for its neighbours in the Arab world, and said that a new tradition had been created by inviting a woman to become a deputy speaker, holding the highest position of any woman in the Arab. The work of the new government is widespread and varied but the small interim constitution was the first social contract ever voted on in Tunisia. She paid tribute to the dignity and humanity of the Tunisia people and the country’s army, noting that it was the military’s support and actions which ensured Tunisia’s successful transition towards a stable democracy.
Much has been achieved, said Labidi, but many challenges lie ahead. The employment and economic frustrations borne by the Tunisian people are a priority for the government and parliament. There is also the question of security matters brought about by the instability in neighbouring Libya and the role of Salafist Jihadists, and yet the biggest challenge is to develop a constitution which reflects the consensus of the Tunisian people, “so that they might never forget that they are all citizens of the same society”. The government, she stated, has been elected to serve the people.
The biggest round of applause was reserved for a young British-Tunisian who described the three MPs as her role models; they are example of the possibilities in “the new Tunisia”. Their presence also dispelled some myths about Al-Nahda as an Islamist party designed, it is alleged, to reverse women’s rights and return the country to archaic rules and laws. Al-Nahda was described as a party with Islamic thoughts, but, crucially, a party which is a champion for all Tunisians who had fought years of torture and oppression. The warmth of the reception given to the three MPs was demonstrated by a “celebrity” mobbing on their exit from the venue. Tunisia appears to have achieved its longed-for democracy and freedom from the dictatorship of Ben-Ali under the guidance and participation of all of its citizens.