In efforts to end a political stalemate, Tunisia's governing Islamist Ennahda party and the opposition have agreed on the appointment of a caretaker government composed of independent figures to be in power until fresh elections. But that is no guarantee that the crisis is over
It has threatened to disrupt a democratic transition that began after Tunisians threw out their decades-old authoritarian government at the beginning of the 2011 uprisings, widely referred to as the Arab Spring.
The talks between the Islamist-led Troika government in Tunis and the opposition were occasioned by a political crisis that has been prevailing recently following the overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011 ‘Arab Spring’. The opposition came up with a road map proposing the resignation of the current government and the formation of an impartial technocrat-led government instead, that would oversee the elections and finish the writing of the constitution.
The crisis, probably Tunisia’s worst since the political change two years ago, started in July when Mohammed Brahmi - a secular political figure and an elected member of the National Constitutional Assembly - was assassinated, barely six months after the assassination of Chokri Belaid - the outspoken lawyer and opposition figure.
Soon after, thousands took to the streets demanding the departure of the government and the closure of the National Constitutional Assembly. They blamed the first for failure to protect its citizens and the second for failure to accomplish the mission it was elected for: writing a new constitution.
The government blamed extremist groups for the killings. Soon after, nine soldiers were killed (three of them slaughtered like sheep) in the mountainous border with Algeria. Tunisians have been told that Alqeada has been active in this area and shown daily TV pictures of army operations to find the militants.
While in Tunisia in August, I found that Tunisians were on edge because they didn’t feel safe anymore. They mostly agreed that life was extremely hard before 2011 under former President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali. Political activism was not allowed and dissent severely punished, but their security was never compromised as Ben Ali held the country’s security with an iron fist and no one questioned that.
Now, though, most Tunisians aren’t sure where threats are coming from. They are being told that terrorism is real in their country but they are not sure how it got there and whether it is being dealt with properly. Outspoken opposition figures, independent journalists , artists, lawyers and judges are receiving death threats daily. Recently, there has been an attempt to assassinate a well-known independent journalist and another was jailed for a few days for accusing the public prosecutor of fabricating evidence implicating a cameraman in an egg-throwing attack on a minister, prompting a union call to strike.
Economically, there are fears that political instability is fast damaging the economy. Unemployment, which was at 13 percent before 2011, is currently at about 17 percent. Inflation is high, food prices are soaring and poverty is more widespread than ever before. The government says it is doing what it could to address these issues, but most people believe that their country has become more corrupt and that the current government only cares about enriching itself. They say it’s been receiving billions in aid from various countries and bodies including the European Union, but it’s not clear where the money is going.
Tourism, which is a main earner for the country’s economy, has picked up slowly this summer but in some well-known and popular resorts like Hammamet, some hotels have closed down because of bankruptcy. Others, some of which are five star hotels owned by Tunisian business people, have been bought by European tourist clubs mainly from Italy and Spain. Most Tunisians do not approve of this because it means cheaper fares for European tourists and not necessarily enough income for the Tunisian economy.
Before 2011, Tunisia was receiving up to seven million tourists, mainly from Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and some Eastern European countries. These have mostly stayed away because of instability and the way Tunisia has been portrayed by Western media as a ‘trouble spot’. While European tourists are choosing other destinations, more and more Libyans now travel frequently to Tunisia to avoid the political instability and the daily violence in their own country, but most Tunisians frown on the way Libyans behave: driving recklessly and causing road accidents , using and abusing of alcohol and other substances and dangerously encouraging the sex trade.
While I was there, news came of a Tunisian woman who died after being badly beaten and pushed from the third floor of a block of flats in the coastal city of Sousse. Two Libyan men were arrested in relation with the incident. A forensic examination of the woman’s body indicated that she had been murdered. Earlier reports circulating on the internet said that two women, alleged to be prostitutes, had been badly beaten by two Libyan men holidaying in Tunisia.
This is not the first such incident. Four Libyans are currently serving long jail sentences in Tunisia found guilty of murdering Tunisian prostitutes in 2011. In the two separate incidents, both women died after falling from apartment balconies. The four still deny murder, citing accident and misadventure as the cause of the death. At airports and other public spaces, groups of Libyan men accompanied by Tunisian women has become a regular sight.
The peaceful movement that brought 23 years of Ben Ali’s rule to an end in 2011 and initiated what has become known as the ‘Arab spring’ is often referred to as a model for other countries to follow. Tunisian leaders today including, Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda movement (the party which heads the governing Troika), still think that the political violence, terrorism, the daily economic hardships faced by the majority of the population and the countless social problems, would not bring what he calls a ‘successful’ experiment down.
Most Tunisians do not agree though. They blame the party for countless issues: mismanagement of the economy, widespread corruption in public office, radicalization of the youth , using the hardline Salafist movement when it suits its needs and turning against it when it does not, allowing mosques to be used by some extremists to advocate violence, inviting preachers from the Gulf region to spread dangerous and completely alien ideas to a Tunisian population that is largely educated and emancipated, just to name a few.
Western media also likes to remind Tunisians that they should be relieved that the change in their country has not been as violent as in other countries in the region namely Libya, Syria and even Egypt. But Tunisians wonder why does it have to be so? Their country was ahead of most Arab countries in many areas thanks to the vision of its first President Habib Bourguiba until Ben Ali came to power in 1987. When they overthrew him in 2011, their slogans were: ‘work, freedom and dignity’.
They understand and accept that real change takes time, but they aspire to a better future for them and their children not for their country to go down- hill and become so entangled in new and dangerous issues that would only exacerbate existing ones and leave their country vulnerable to foreign manipulation.
* Mounira Chaieb is a Tunisian writer and journalist based in London, formerly with the BBC.
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