Jasmine Revolution Under Threat

If the Arab Spring is to fulfill its promise in any country, that country will be Tunisia, argues Vicken Cheterian. But two sets of problems - both economic and political - now threaten to derail the Jasmine Revolution. The author further warns that the current government coalition lead by the Islamist Ennahda Party could be stalling deliberations over the new constitution, in order to prolong its own mandate.

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Jan 18, 2012

If the Arab Spring is to succeed [anywhere], then it should succeed in Tunisia.  Despite 300 casualties, the Tunisian revolution has been the most peaceful among the wave of revolutions that swept 2011, from North Africa to the Middle East.  The pacific nature [of the Jasmine Revolution] becomes even more pronounced when compared to the catastrophic war in neighboring Libya, with 50,000 casualties, and the killing that is still ongoing in Syria. Additionally, the Tunisian army played a positive role in forcing Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - who ruled for 23 years - to leave power, allowing for the formation of a [new] political authority. By contrast, in Egypt the army is still controlling the situation.

Tunisia also took two successful steps in the ongoing political process. First, the Constituent Assembly was freely and fairly elected. The second, more important accomplishment is the agreement of the two main parties in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the modern secularist party, to form a coalition government to run the country in this transitional phase, despite their deep divisions.

Tunisia enjoys another unique advantage: its small and relatively stable population, hovering around 10.5 million, with a growth of less than 1%. Additionally, the Tunisian people are fairly educated, with a literacy rate of 75% (compared to 52% in Morocco, and 71% in Egypt). Moreover, its infrastructure has been well developed compared with Tunisia’s neighbors, and its economy is well diversified and does not rely on a single resource or sector, which is a further structural source of stability.  

2012 will be a critical year to discover whether the Tunisian Revolution will lead to the establishment of a stable and democratic state with a competitive political scene, enjoying the prominence of the rule of law, where politics serves citizens’ interests. [To accomplish that goal,] the country will need to overcome two sets of problems: one political, and one socio-economic.

Politically, the secular-Islamist divide is still present. Meanwhile, there is an agreement that Ennahda was behind the formation of the current coalition. The pre-election phase showed how political discussion could be hijacked and turned into an argument on “identity.” This was done with violence perpetrated by extremist Salafist groups, like the attack on a private television station following the airing Persepolis, a film about Iran; or the discussion on the right of women to enter universities wearing the niqab. Nowadays, Tunisia does not face any threat from foreign powers. Therefore, any attempt to grab further space on the political arena will be to the detriment of [finding solutions to] the real problems faced by the country.

One of the most dangerous possibilities is the prediction concerning the Constitutional Council. It was elected on October 23, 2011, and was tasked with modernizing the constitution and drafting a new electoral law, in order to prepare for new elections. The coalition formed in the assembly divided executive powers among its members, in the presence of President Moncef Marzouki, and more importantly the Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. Meanwhile, the prime minister announced the formation of his new government on December 19, 2011.

The Constitutional Council was assigned with three tasks: drafting a new constitution; playing a legislative role (which includes enacting a new electoral law that will define the nature of the political system as either presidential or parliamentary); and lastly, playing an executive role. This executive [function] could have been left to the previous transitional government, allowing it to continue its [work] during the transitional period, especially given that this government, formed by technocrats, played a positive role in all aspects. However, the powers that emerged from the Constitutional Council seemed to be in a hurry - not only to define the rules of the future political game in Tunisia, but to immediately implement them.

The main political parties promised, in their electoral campaign, to finalize the draft of the new constitution, in one year at most, in order to pave the way for elections. After the Constitutional Council was elected, however, they refused to put this promise in writing, allowing the council to remain longer than one year. Additionally, Mouna Dridi, an expert in constitutional law, said that it would be very difficult for the council to finalize the new constitution draft within one year. She stated that in 1953, it took three years to write the constitution, even though Tunisia was under the rule of one political force lead by [Former President Habib] Bourguiba. She therefore wondered how [long it would take] in the current political context, with competing political movements and visions.

However, in view of the executive power grab by the ruling coalition in the Constitutional Council, any delay in drafting a new constitution can be understood as a tactic on their part to extend their tenure in power.  After the revolution, Tunisians have become very suspicious of those in power, and now the division between the Islamists and the seculars has been replaced by a split between the ruling coalition and the opposition. So is the country heading towards a pre-programmed crisis in one year’s time? It looks likely!

The more dangerous problem, however, is the economy. According to the official census, 800,000 citizens are jobless, while rumors point to one million job seekers. Previous surveys conducted by the former regime and used by the IMF were embellished or flat-out fabrications. The revolution created many expectations among the youth, who hoped that it would rapidly solve their social problems.

Additionally, the revolution provoked clashes and created a great deal of instability, factors that do not favor economic growth. Additionally, the [French] slogan “Dégage” [“Leave”] became prominent, and unionist and workers have started challenging their bosses and political leaderships after years of oppression. This phenomenon, known as dégagisme, has not only caused social upheavals on the political scene, but also lead to economic stagnation, starting with the production of phosphates (one of the most important industries in Tunisia), and passing through small and medium companies, which are the [enterprises] most susceptible to risk. Since January 2011, 153 foreign companies halted their operations [in Tunisia] as a consequence of this instability.

During the Minister of Tourism’s press conference on December 2011, the minister said that his sector witnessed “only” a 55% contraction compared to last year. The minister considered this as positive, because a 70% drop had been projected. The war in Libya also created an additional problem, which has not only affected industrial exports, as Libya is a major market for Tunisian products; but 200,000 Tunisian workers also left Libya because of the war. The return [of these workers] to the job market will take some time, as will their remittances.

Order is absent in state administrations, and independent research shows that the level of corruption in the bureaucracy did not decline. In the wake of the revolutions in most states, revenues freed from corruption [i.e. recovered stolen wealth] have become the governments’ main source of income. Therefore, it is important for the new government to improve its performance. In other words, the country will face a difficult year before the situation starts to improve.

October elections showed that the current political factions represent cities and coastal areas, sidelining the rural areas that are beset with economic problems. It was these distant regions that suffered the most [under the previous regime], and [their inhabitants] who ignited the revolution - and unintentionally the whole Arab Spring. Today these areas are still moving outside the political arena that is being built in the capital.

Tunisia will face a tough economic year in 2012, which will increase the political challenges faced by the Constitutional Council. It will be necessary to [harness] many governance skills to overcome these problems.  If not, there is a possibility of once more drowning in debates over issues of identity, which will only lead to further divisions in an already-dissatisfied society.

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