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Hard Transition Imperils Tunisia's Arab Spring

by Jamie Dettmer May 29, 2015

Tunisia remains the one hopeful story to come out of the Arab Spring, the only country in the region that overthrew a dictator and emerged a democracy.

The often-bumpy transition, however, appears fragile, and optimism here is mixed with concern about the obstacles the country faces in establishing a thriving and pluralistic society.

For European tourists sunning themselves on the country's Mediterranean beaches, appearances can be deceptive.

At first glance, coastal Tunisia seems to be comfortable with itself. Tunisia indeed feels lighter and more relaxed than in the immediate months after the ouster of strongman Zine Abidine Ben Ali. Then, there was fear of an Islamist hijacking of the revolution: women, especially in working-class areas, felt pressured to wear the hijab; art galleries exhibiting paintings deemed un-Islamic, were raided.


That Islamist pressure has now diminished, but from jihadist fighters returning from Syria to overcoming the challenge of parties that don't believe in democracy to persuading secularists and religious conservatives to co-exist peacefully in the long term, Tunisia has a mountain to climb.

Or, as President Beji Caid Essebsi recently said while in Washington, the country has "a long way ahead."

Rights activists don't believe the unity government, made up of the secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda parties, is helping itself with new security and anti-terrorism laws proposed by the Cabinet in the wake of the Bardo museum massacre that left 22 people, mainly tourists, dead earlier this year.

The new measures stirring controversy make it a criminal offense to denigrate the security services and extend the period police are allowed to detain terrorism suspects before a court appearance.

Critics of the legislation draw comparisons with Ben Ali and his efforts to silence political dissent. They argue the measures are a serious misstep and can all too easily be misused.

While the army commands the respect of ordinary Tunisians, the country's police force, burdened with a poor human-rights record, remains mistrusted, activists said.

Human Rights Watch has warned the proposed terrorism law provides a "broad and ambiguous definition of terrorist activity" that could be used to criminalize "political dissent and minor acts of violence during social protests."

And defense lawyers argue terror suspects are tortured while in police custody and that extending pre-trial detention from six days to 15 will merely give the police more time to abuse detainees.

Police custody

It isn't only terror suspects who fear being placed in police custody.

In early May, Abdelmajid Ejday died while being held at the National Guard barracks in Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia. A month earlier, the 52-year-old had filed a torture complaint against police officers from the same area who arrested him in February for petty theft.

Police officers said he hanged himself, but the family of the dead man say there were torture marks on his body and accuse the police of arresting him again in revenge for his previous complaints against them.

The uprising against Ben Ali was sparked in Sidi Bouzid when a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death to protest the heavy-handedness of the police.

"When I see what happened to my brother and my family, I no longer have hope for Tunisia's future," said the dead man's brother, Ryiadh Ejday.

Others, however, remain hopeful about Tunisia's future, placing their faith in the country's vibrant civil society organizations and strong women's movement.

Women were at the forefront of protests following the 2013 jihadist assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi. The street protests eventually persuaded Ennahda to hand over power to a caretaker administration.

In elections last October, the secular Nidaa Tounes party secured the lion's share of seats but subsequently invited the Islamists to join a coalition government.

Some believe the secularists may regret doing that, fearing the Islamists will benefit more from the arrangement.

"I call Nidaa Tounes a by default party," said university professor Jelel Ezzine, president of the Tunisian Association for the Advancement of Science, Technology and Innovation, a research institution. "It doesn't have real ideological coherence or a political program and Ennahda is the most disciplined and shrewd of our political parties."

He predicted the Islamists will sweep next year's local elections, a springboard for them to win later parliamentary elections.

"Ennahda's quitting government after Brahmi's assassination was a change of tactics, they are playing a longer term game," he said.

Economic tensions

Under the surface, there is growing disaffection and economic tensions are testing the stability of the country. Working class Tunisians who hoped the revolution would bring jobs are seeing little economic benefit from Ben Ali's ouster.

The government has failed to outline a plausible program to develop the country economically, especially distressed rural areas, and there is a sense of drift and frustration.

Nearly 35 percent of young Tunisians are unemployed and jobless graduates have been joining the labor movement in increasing numbers of protests and sit-ins.

Strikes by public sector workers have soared by 400 percent this year and the government is pushing back with a threat to cut the salaries of public employees who strike.

The trip earlier this month by President Essebsi to Washington and the Obama administration's re-focusing on a country that holds out the best chance of a successful transition to democracy are sources of reassurance for many Tunisians.

The U.S. president promised more assistance to help Tunisia's fledgling democracy and designated the country a major non-NATO ally, clearing the way for it to receive more military aid; but, unless the government delivers soon when it comes to the economy, the road ahead for Tunisia could become a lot rockier.

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