Two years after the Revolution that toppled former President Ben Ali, where does the Tunisian transition stand? Which direction is the transformation process of Tunisian institutions taking? Do Tunisian people see real changes?
I think one needs to remember the major demands of the Tunisian revolution in order to assess the transitional course and evaluate its success so far. In fact, Tunisians claimed for equal and balanced development policies, effective solutions to unemployment, an equal access to the services and equality of chances, they also asked for freedom i.e. to put an end to censorship, enforce the freedom of speech. To sum up, Tunisians called for dignity and true citizenship.
After two years, and to start with the bright side of this transition, nobody could deny that freedom of speech is a fact. Though we could state some explicit exceptions, freedom of speech is a right generally practiced on a daily basis now. Regarding the other demands, which are basically economic, improvements are very rare to see. The process have unfortunately reached a deadlock due to the lack of a clear political roadmap and economic strategy and the popular anger that burst in almost all the regions is the most evident symptom of this situation.
Regarding the institutions, the same practices are still going on due to the delay of the transitional justice law which is supposed to launch a total institutional reform. In fact, security and justice are considered as the most urgent institutions to reform. But if we consider, for example, the fact that the law for a momentary independent judiciary commission has been blocked in the national constituent assembly and that the judiciary is still under the executive supervision, we are obviously not to confirm that a real institutional transformation is taking place. Let us not speak about the sclerotic and stagnant sectors of education, health care and public transportation which are deeply suffering from years of marginalization and archaic procedures and bureaucracy. Do Tunisian people see real changes? I guess the answer should be yes but in a negative way. The time has come for the disillusionment and disappointment; people expected a lot in such a short period and are now obliged to lower those expectations and cope with the new factors. Costs and prices have risen over the past two years; daily fundamental products are sometimes missing; the country faces some new security issues, etc.
Tunisia has been always seen as one of the most secularized countries in the MENA region. Therefore the European public opinion has been deeply surprised and concerned by the rise of the Salafi and extremist Islamist movements among the Tunisian society in the last two years. What are the reasons at the base of such a sudden rise? How has the political discourse changed because of it?
You said it, secularized not secular itself. The movement never came from a deep social need to confine the religion to the private sphere by expressing it in legal terms. Tunisia knew a reversed process where the people had to cope with a new set of “modern” rules. In one hand, secularism was never completely assumed in Tunisia, and even in the times of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, you could never hear state officials speaking about secularism, only modernity and tolerance, etc. Somehow, the word is still offensive and unaccepted by a majority of people for whom Islam is not only a religion, but also a culture, a whole set of traditions and a way of life and who have been told that secularism is a threat to all of that. Also, the allegedly secular laws never crossed the line of the religious reference such as the personal status code which is deeply inspired by the Islamic law even if it is contested by the most radical ones. In the other hand, the Islamist movements always existed in the Tunisian society, but the political climate never allowed them to appear as they could in the past two years. Somehow, the salafi question was a taboo that has been unveiled since the revolution took place and especially since a party with an explicit Islamic reference took the power. Regarding Enahdha party, they accessed to the power by using the popular sympathy to their suffering during the Ben Ali rule but especially the people’s attachment to the religious reference. By monopolising the divine argument and stigmatising the disunited democratic forces, they became unbeatable. The whole political scene was changed by the introduction of the religious factor which became an easy mean to invalidate political opponents. Enahdha has set the rules and every political actor had to justify not only his party’s actions but even his lifestyle by referring to those rules. This unhealthy political atmosphere has created a dichotomy in the Tunisian society dividing the people between unbelievers and believers, rich and poor, etc. Nevertheless, the ruling experience allowed to this party, as to all the political opponents, to realise that there is a difference between opposing a dictator by sticking to a precise ideology and accessing to the power through the democratic ways, dealing with an unnatural alliance and realising a list of electoral promises. This party is now obliged to answer to the population demands and expectations and could not continue to brandish the card of electoral legitimacy. Ennahdha party is also forced to recognise that the religious argument could attract the people but in order to rule they need a sustainable program and ideas to solve the urgent problems.
Till now, the unhealthy political atmosphere prevents the different actors from having a rational dialogue on the national priorities and the polarisation between Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes which is identified as a centrist party and the leftist popular front undermines this possibility.
The focus of the Western – and not only Western – media is concentrated on the dispute between secularists and Islamists on the political scene. Do you think that this is the major topic that the country has to face or the challenges the country has to go through go beyond this simple dichotomy?
I think it is a very simplistic and reductive way to present the country’s problems. This Manichean division is also an easier way that helps to identify the bad and the good guys without going into the roots of a serious question. The main problem in Tunisia is about its economy and there are so many urgent questions to solve on so many levels. The issues behind the uprisings in the most marginalised regions in the country are still on the table. The people in Tunisia don’t have the same quality of education, health care, basic services like water and electricity and of course the unemployment rates keep rising. The huge gap between the coastal cities and the rest of the country is due to the centralisation of the decision making process and to the absence of fair, balanced and sustainable development programs.Tunisia is may be one of the most secularized countries in the MENA region but it has also one of the most critical and complex economies.
In the capital Tunis, the poorest neighbourhoods are the most famous niches for religious radicalism, in these neighbourhoods the misled youth is an easy target. We should start to think that may be radicalism is sometimes a symptom of marginalisation not just an inherent attribute to these individuals.
*Myriam Guetat is a PhD candidate at the Institut du Droit de la Paix et du Développement at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis where she also earned her master’s degree in International and European Private and Public Law. Myriam is involved in many civil society actions in Tunisia. Since October 2012, she has been assisting a program on training relevant actors of transitional justice in Tunisia launched by the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.