Tunisia, One Year Later
Francesca Bellino 15 January 2012

One year ago on January 14th Tunisia celebrated the flight of dictator Ben Alì and started to dream of a dignified, democratic future. But nowadays concerns over the economy, as well as other doubts, have largely replaced that joy and enthusiasm. The Islamic Ennahda Party won the Constituent Assembly elections held October 23rd with a margin of almost 40% (89 seats out of 217). Even more shocking was the arrival of the Salafites on the public stage who, unlike Ennahda, do not accept democratic dialogue but rather intend to destroy it and impose Shari’a Law. “The Salafite approach is totally alien to Tunisian culture,” explains Mourad Ben Cheikh, director of the film No More Fear, a documentary on the Tunisian revolution screened also at the Cannes Film Festival. “It is not normal for us to increasingly see veiled women in the streets and even female students demanding to sit their university exams wearing the niqab, or seeing attacks on groups of musicians as happened to the “Sons of the Mines” in Meknesi when they were prevented from performing due to their left-wing political views. It is probable that someone outside Tunisia is moving a group of people like puppets, with very specific plans.”

The danger of a partial Islamization of Tunisian society and the concentration of power in the hands of one single party, Ennahda, elicit new fears for Tunisia one year after their liberation. Matters are complicated further by more practical problems: the now blatant crisis in the tourism sector, previously one of the country’s driving forces, as well as the risk of industrial desertification. The recent shutting down of the Japanese Yazaki plant, which produced cables in Om Laarayès in the Gafsa mining district, aggravated this concern. “The decision was made following illegal and unannounced strikes by employees on December 15th and 16th that damaged clients, according to Yazaki, a world leader in this sector,” said Tarek Chaabouni, a politician on the democratic left (Attajdid, the former Tunisian Communist Party). “The problem was debated at the 22nd congress of the Union of Workers, or UGTT, held at the end of the year in Tabarka, when the new secretary, Housseine Abasi, was elected. There has been a renewal within the Union, a necessary one, but the problems remain. Of the three thousand foreign companies present in the country, about 120 have already left, according to the Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat (UTICA). Simultaneously, however, exports have risen slightly in the electromechanical, manufacturing, textile, leather and shoe industries. There is still a great deal of discontent, especially among the young, who have no jobs. Unemployment, unfortunately, is rising. In September 2011 it was 18%, with 700,000 people unemployed.”

The closing of the Yazaki plant is therefore a serious issue especially as far as jobs are concerned. In 2009 the Yakazi group announced investments amounting to 25 million euro and the creation of 5,000 jobs in the Gafsa area alone. That was an opportunity that has now gone up in smoke. The phosphates sector is collapsing, after declaring revenue amounting to 200 million dinars in 2011 compared to the 825 million of the previous year. Construction work on a plant that was to produce solar panels in Bousalem has also stopped. In general, according to the UTICA, productivity in Tunisia has fallen to previously unheard of levels due to the wave of 360 strikes held in the first ten months of 2011.

Protests, strikes and sit-ins characterized the entire year. One of the most recent and significant events took place on November 22nd when Tunisians protested outside parliament in Bardo to criticize Ennahda’s work. “The revolution’s great conquest was to openly communicate disdain and dissent in public, thus it is a good thing that this is happening,” said film director Mourad Ben Cheikh. “Nowadays we are seeing a stand-off between those in power and civil society. Politicians are trying to understand to what extent people have the strength to defend their freedom and their rights.”

There are also women on the front lines, communicating their disapproval. “It is true that in Tunisia women have more rights compared to the rest of the Arab world,” emphasizes journalist and blogger Sondes Ben Khalifa. “But now that there is real risk that these rights may be lost, the time has come for women to embark on a very tough battle.”

Thanks to the wishes of President Habib Bourguiba, polygamy was forbidden in Tunisia as early as 1956, and women were permitted to divorce and have custody of their children. “At a legal, and therefore theoretical level, women benefit from the same civil and political rights as men, but in practice their participation in the country’s political life and their presence in the state’s higher appointments is weak,” explains Hela Ammar, a law professor in Tunis, a visual artist and a member of the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) and of the National Inquiry Commission on abuse inflicted during the revolution.

“One of the most important pre-electoral demands was the imposition of equality in a manner that would emphasize the role played by women in Tunisian society,” adds Hela Ammar. “However, the implementation of this principle has not resulted in equality in the number of seats assigned. In the Constituent Assembly there are only 49 women out of 217 members, hence 24%”, which is not less than in most Western Countries though. “Furthermore, there are only two women appointed as ministers in the new government (Sihem Badi, Minister for Women and Mamia Elbanna, Minister of the Environment) and one Secretary of State at the Ministry of Infrastructures and Homes, Chahida Fraj Bouraoui, out of a total of 20 ministers and 11 secretaries of state. This means that women are not represented in politics, but not due to a lack of competence among female politicians.”

The new government formed on December 22nd is therefore mainly made up of men. It is presided over by Ennahda’s leader Hamadi Jebali, who spent 16 years in prison, ten of which he spend in isolation. He was released thanks to the amnesty that followed Ben Ali’s flight from the country. Ennahda has taken over the most important ministries, Interior (Alì Layaredh), Justice (Noreddine Bhiri) and Foreign (Rafik Ben Abdessalem). The Ministry of Defense is run by Abdelkrim Zbidi, a technocrat who was a member of the interim government, while the Ministry of Culture was assigned to an independent, the sociologist Mehdi Mabroukm, who in his first speech emphasized that he is, “determined to present a reform programme to strengthen revenue in the sector and eliminate restrictions obstructing those working in the cultural sector.” He did not mention the development of the “City of Culture” project that has been on the agenda for years.

The CPR (Congrès pour la République), led by the President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, and allied with Ennahda together with Ettakatol (Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés) in an alliance known as the ‘Troika,’ has been given the Ministry of Administrative Reforms (Mohamed Abbou) and the Ministry of Professional Education (Abdelwehab Maatar). After Ennahda, CPR and Ettakatol are the parties that won the most seats in the elections, 30 and 21 respectively. The remaining seats are divided between the Pétition populaire pour la liberté, la justice et le développement (19), the PDP (Parti Démocratique Progressiste) (17) and an endless list of smaller parties.

“The opposition is now greatly fragmented. The first requirement for 2012 is to become united and create one single democratic front,” Tarek Chaabouni said. The opposition consists of the PDP led by the lawyer Ahmed Najib Chebbi, the Tajdid and Afek Tounes (representing the Démocratique Moderniste), by a few remaining representatives of the RCD (Regroupement Costitutional Démocratique), the party of former President Ben Alì, by a number of independent MPs, and by the Pétition Populaire created by Hashmi Hamdi, the owner of a television channel in London. Hamdi had good relations with the former regime and was one of the surprises in the elections in terms of votes received, thanks to the support of former members of the RCD. “None of these parties presented themselves as secular or as non-believers since this would have been political suicide,” Tarek Chabbouni added.

“It is a mistake nowadays to divide politicians into those who are secular and those who are not, if one considers secularism as something that is abstract or an imported concept in the French style. Italy would qualify as a non-secular country if judged on the basis of the French concept,” underlines Mourad Ben Cheikh. “In Tunisia it is now important to instead pay attention to the great wealth of opinions, to the pluralism there is and the capacity of progressives to protest so as to defend the public and political sphere as happened in Bardo outside parliament.”

According to a survey carried out by Sigma Conseil and published at the beginning of January, 41% of Tunisians consider the current period extremely critical, while 28% are less concerned. People expressed greater confidence in the future than in the present, with 67% optimistic about the future and only 7% pessimistic.

“According to this survey, in their requests made to the new government,” Chaabouni said, “first of all people are concerned with employment, then security: doing away with excessively high prices and demanding a higher standard of living. Secondly people are asking for greater attention to be paid to the regions and to the elimination of corruption. The most popular politicians are those in power, but Tunisians say they place their trust in the institutions rather than in political personalities.”

“No one accepts just words nowadays, everyone expects facts and that is why very few people currently trust politicians,” emphasizes Mohamed Challouf, producer, director of documentaries and organizer of events such as the celebrations for the first anniversary of the fall of Ben Alì, planned in Milan at the Rosetum Theatre on January 15th. “There is a great deal of confusion in the country, at times even anarchy if one observes the strikes in factories and repeated protests and people are afraid of the present,” adds Challouf. “Some of the responsibility for our current situation can be blamed on the West for opening its arms to dictators in the Arab world. Islamists, and therefore the risk that many freedoms will be lost, would not be so powerful if there had not been oppression and repression for so many years.”

In spite of the modern and open façade of Ben Ali’s regime, individual freedom was seriously tested. “Veiled women, for example,” explained Hela Ammar, “have been persecuted and at times prevented from exercising their professions due to their garments. The use of the niqab in public places is an individual choice and as such should not be condemned. This problem arose at the Mannuba Faculty of Humanities where a student wearing the niqab was prevented from sitting her exams. This is a delicate subject that requires a solution balanced between individual freedom and respect for traditions.”

In this phase there are contradictions, paradoxes and clashes in many areas, especially when addressing matters filled with taboos such as sex. “I have seen the forced closure of a number of brothels during the revolution,” says Hela Ammar, “and I was particularly shocked by the violence and recklessness. There was no consideration for the people exercising a profession that is acknowledged and regulated by the law. Sex workers are supervised, pay their taxes like everyone else. Furthermore, leaving aside all moral considerations, sex has a still undeniable social function and is exercised in hygienic and secure conditions. Closing brothels now will not reduce illegal sex, on the contrary it will result in a greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence.”

Tunisia today is confused and lost. The year began with parties at which no alcohol was served, and a visit from Italian, French and German Foreign Ministers, as well as the arrival of Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh, welcomed at Tunis airport with the slogan “Death to the Jews,” and more protests. The most recent protest exploded in Government Square on the 6th of January, with people demanding compensation for those who died and were wounded during the revolution. Mannuba University is still closed, because it is occupied by Salafites, demanding that the student wearing a niqab be admitted to her exams.

Even the worlds of art and entertainment are in turmoil. There are many ideas and initiatives planned for 2012 to “shatter the cultural desert” of the past 23 years. Among the young working on taking on this greater freedom are two young ballerinas, Selma and Soufiene Ouissi, who are organizing the third edition of “Dream City 2012: Biennial of Contemporary Art in the Public Sphere in Tunisia.” This event, scheduled for September 26th to the 30th in Tunis, and October 5th to the 7th in Sfax, will only take place in the streets, to involve everyone with videos, performances, shows, exhibitions, and debates. “The subject will be aspects of artistic freedom, art and democracy,” explained the two dancers, who met in Italy thanks to invitations to the RomaEuropa Festival in November. “During the revolution the streets were the place where everything became possible, from tension to collective joy, from sharing to exchange,” said Selma and Soufiene. “The attention of citizens is now concentrated on the street, and, therefore, we are convinced that they will appreciate even more having this space also used by artists. We are at last permitted to recover the streets as a place for art.”

The revolutionary atmosphere is everywhere in Tunisia. According to some, the real revolution has only just begun, and in the widespread chaos, there are many who have clear ideas both about the future and about Tunisia’s identity. It is sufficient to glance at Facebook, where on many ‘walls’ one can read messages such as: “We are Muslims not Islamists.” “We are moderates and not extremists.” “We dream of democracy.”


Translated by Francesca Simmons