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Tunisia in Transition

11/02/2011

While the world watches Egypt, Tunisia continues to grapple with the extraordinary opportunities and uncertainties of the post-Ben Ali era. Spurred by local grievances and anxious to consolidate their revolution, people still take to the streets in much of the country, leading, in some cases, to further fatalities and renewed protest. Remnants of the old regime have been accused of hiring criminal gangs to foment instability. Yet there are many positive signs too: the RCD has been dissolved, its offices shut down. On Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation to give President Fouad Mebazaa wide-ranging powers to drive home reform – interpreted as a means to bypass the vestiges of the RCD in parliament – while the Prime Minister recently pledged that his role in the transitional government will be his last in politics. Elections are due within six months.

Meanwhile, the steady stream of returning exiles has provided powerful symbolism of the country’s transformation. None more so than Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of an-Nahda, who returned home on 31 January to a tumultuous welcome. Shepherded with difficulty through a crowd of thousands, Ghannouchi paused to address his followers:

To you the people who called for this blessed revolution, let’s continue and preserve it, and translate it into democracy, justice and equality. The path is still long, so we need to unite and consolidate.”

After twenty-two years out in the cold, it was an impressive show of force. A reporter from Asharq Alawsat, who interviewed Ghannouchi a week later, describes the scene at his residence in the suburbs of Tunis:

His house… was transformed somewhat into a shrine, with entire families coming to greet Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi and wish him well. Various international media outlets have been camped nearby with their cameras, as they wait for him to make a statement. The courtyard of his house, where a huge tent has been erected for his guests, looks like the venue for a wedding reception. Food is being offered to visitors, children are playing in the yard, and women carrying cooking pots hurry back and forth.”

“Amidst this festive atmosphere”, the reporter adds with a hint of indignation, “Asharq al-Awsat managed to meet with [Ghannouchi] after waiting several hours.” In interviews prior to his return, Ghannouchi struck a cautious note on an-Nahda’s ability to mobilize after all these years. With Asharq Alawsat, one could detect a new confidence. Ghannouchi stated that secular and leftist opponents view an-Nahda with “a mixture of political fear and electoral fear. All these forces know the extent of the Islamic presence in the Tunisian street but they are also afraid of engaging in a political discussion.” He called for an amnesty for all political prisoners, and compensation for those detained on the “unconstitutional” terrorism laws of the Ben Ali regime: “We do not know how these will be compensated. The movement demands apologies to all the victims and to closing the page and restoring normal life to Tunisians.”

Even in all the excitement, the movement has wasted no time in reconstituting itself. An official application for legal recognition was filed to the Interior Ministry the day after Ghannouchi’s arrival. A meeting of the Constituent Committee has been convened, and internal elections held. The party has adopted a posture of measured opposition to the interim government. According to one account of the Committee meeting, Ghannouchi stressed that an-Nahda “is neither with nor against the interim government but considers it as the extension of the previous government.” He also questioned the “logic of exclusion” by which the interim cabinet was formed.

Others are eager to take part in the new Tunisia. Mohamed Ali Harrath, a founder of the Tunisian Islamic Front, who has lived in London since 1990, recently vowedto return and form a political party. Better known in British media circles as theCEO of the Islam Channel, Harrath – now styling himself ‘Secretary General of the Tunisian Islamic Front’ – claims to have “thousands” of supporters in Tunisia.

The results of a recent political opinion poll taken in the country (itself an indication of momentous change) might give pause to Ghannouchi, Harrath, and policy-makers anxious at the rebirth of Tunisian Islamic activism. The poll – the first of its kind – was carried out by Sigma consultancy, a Tunisian outfit, andreported in Jeune Afrique (and largely ignored elsewhere). The sample was not vast (1250 persons, apparently representative), and Tunisians can be forgiven for being unaccustomed to dispensing political opinion over the phone, but the results make instructive reading. Asked what political parties they knew – were aware of, not supported – 25.8% cited an-Nahda unprompted, a very solid tally given that only 27% mentioned the RCD, 24.7% Ahmed Chebbi’s PDP, and a landslide 46.4% professed to not know any. Crucially, only 3.8% of those canvassed invoked Rachid Ghannouchi as a Tunisian they trust – while his namesake, the Prime Minister, topped the poll with 20.9%. In this light, Harrath’s bid for power looks a tad quixotic.

So it would seem that political Islam is not about to take elections by storm – but its presence is felt nonetheless. The long term fruits of Islamist mobilization are beyond prediction, but for now it serves as a marker of the substance of Tunisia’s political opening. Nor is it all dreary electioneering: in the capital, formerly banned Tunisian rappers are preparing for a concert-come-rally. Among them, Mohammed Jandoubi – ‘Psycho-M’ – is known for his use of ‘Islamic’ sentiment, criticisingsecularism and moral laxity. The twenty four year-old plans to shoot his first video in front of the Interior Ministry. If one is looking for signs of real change in Tunisia, that seems as good as any.