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The Dashed Hopes of the Tunisian Revolution: Complicity between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda

[An image of Beji Caïd Essebsi delivering a speech in Palais des Congrès. Image by Magharebia/Flickr] [An image of Beji Caïd Essebsi delivering a speech in Palais des Congrès. Image by Magharebia/Flickr]

In their hearts and minds, Tunisians were not in a mood to rejoice on the fifth anniversary of their revolution. While Tunisians are often told that theirs is the only revolution that remains from the "Arab Spring," they know full well that its goals have not been achieved.

The discrepancy between the way the Tunisian revolution is viewed around the world and the way the Tunisians who carried it out experienced it may account for the difficulties Tunisians now have in defining and evaluating it. On the anniversary of the revolution, 14 January, this difficulty was made all the greater as the center of the political stage was occupied by the crisis rocking the country's largest party, Nidaa Tounes.

While this seemed like a good moment to review the last five years and respond to the people's call for change, the party cadres were instead wrangling over the issue of succession. Béji Caïd Essebsi has always rejected a democratic process within the party he founded in 2012--the party that carried him to the highest office. At the end of the party's congress held in Sousse on 9 and 10 January, the party appointed Caïd Essebsi's son to succeed him as party leader, thus flaunting the party's own by-laws. And after co-opting the leaders of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR) into his party, Caïd Essebi revived all the methods of the previous regime.

The Sousse congress spectacle was all the more deplorable as it created enormous confusion. The Chief of State presided over the "enthronement" of Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, yet was he not supposed to be above the party system? Was the revolution not meant to abolish privileges and nepotism. 

Not content with confusing past and present, in the name of national unity, the old statesman chose to make Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, the guest of honor at the congress. Yet, Nidaa Tounes was founded precisely in opposition to the Islamist party, and Nidaa Tounes voters have not forgotten the insults heaped upon their rivals during the 2014 election campaign. 

A New Man 

Tunisians spoke of the January 2011 uprising as a thawra (revolution), when the government fell and Ben Ali left the country on 14 January. The term was taken up throughout the Arab world to mark the importance of the event. For Tunisians, their revolt had become a revolution with all the enthusiasm the word implies but also in terms of a break with the past. An undeniable turning point in the history of the country, people assumed this revolutionary moment would overturn existing structures and mentalities, thus producing a "new man" and a new order.

Today many Tunisians who imagined the revolution would bring about such changes experience doubt and frustration. They now question the nature of those events. Revolution? Revolt? Popular uprising or putsch? For some, it was all of these at once, while for others it really does not matter what it is called. Historians will maintain that it was a social crisis that caused a regime to fall. The demonstrators' demands, conveyed largely through slogans on the placards brandished by young people, addressed issues of work, freedom, and called for an end to privileges. For even though purely economic and social questions were at the origin of the revolution, over the past five years, public debate has focused on the place of religion in society and on demands for freedom. The politicians who have taken turns governing the country all seem to have forgotten that it was economic demands that sparked the initial uprising, in the winter of 2010-2011.

The More Things Change...the More They Stay the Same

Five years on, disappointment is rampant. The economy continues to flounder:  the rate of growth for 2015 is 0.5 percent. To stimulate the economy, Beji Caïd Essebsi came up with a law meant to promote economic reconciliation. Ostensibly, the idea was to favor investments by restoring confidence. In fact, it was meant to suspend the prosecution of business executives for fraudulent activities under the Ben Ali regime.  For many Tunisians, this law, not yet approved by parliament, looks more like an amnesty, a whitewashing of corrupt practices. All the more so as the break with the past did not happen and the DCR networks, which had been keeping a low profile, are active again under the cover of Nidaa Tounes.

This coexistence of past and present has had a paralyzing effect on the economy. Unemployment is on the rise and young people see no improvement coming their way. But young Tunisians faced with the lack of opportunity in their own country and unable to give meaning to their life no longer set fire to themselves in public like Mohammed Bouazizi did in 2010. They join the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya or Syria, and come back to perpetrate terrorist attacks, like the three Salafist actions on Tunisian soil in 2015. According to a United Nations report, nearly 5500 Tunisians are currently fighting under the flag of the Islamic State or AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb). Tunisia has more jihadists fighting on foreign battlefields than any other nation in the world.

Politically, the country is witnessing a massive return to conservatism. The two biggest parties--Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda--have commandeered the multi-party system, which was accepted after the revolution. This takeover recreates the pre-revolutionary political landscape, except that Ennahda is no longer underground. And this conservatism goes hand in hand with measures at odds with article 2 of the Constitution, which guarantees individual freedom. New laws against homosexuality and the use of cannabis allow police to humiliate youngsters before jailing them.

While some have denounced such practices, including members of the president's own party, everyone is outraged by the dynastic character of Nidaa's last congress and by the coalition with Ennahda, which is in the air. Some twenty Nidaa MPs out of eighty-six left the party, protesting both the way the president's son was appointed to succeed him, and the alliance with Ennahda which, as a consequence of these departures, has again become the largest party in parliament with its sixty-nine seats.

A Moralizing Neo-Authoritarianism[1]

This return to the political past is expressed in neo-authoritarianism, societal conservatism, and a general moralizing mood all seem much to the liking of Ennahda, which is now a full-fledged partner of the party that outstripped it in the 2014 elections. Part of society is worried about this new arrangement and wonders what happened to the revolution. Indeed, although a judicial body was created to carry it forward, transitional justice has been a failure. Many wonder whether the crimes of the old regime will ever be prosecuted, given that most of the politicians associated with it have been co-opted into the administration and new political parties. While the president's party has become the main instrument for “recycling” politicians ousted in 2011, the phenomenon has become so banal that the press, and particularly television, is happy to do their share. And a number of high-ranking figures from the old regime are regularly invited to debate on television. In the name of freedom of speech, they give sober accounts of their participation in the governing bodies, speak of Ben Ali's timid personality, and claim that he loved his people so much that he can scarcely be called a dictator. The deposed president's former aids even have the gall to praise Ben-Ali's far-sightedness: did he not think up those committees that were created after his departure?

Of course there is some resistance to the methods of the past, as attested by the rejection of Beji Caïd Essebi's abuse of dynastic privilege. Resistance has developed within the party itself where there have been departures and a factional split. But in the society as a whole, it takes the form of a kind of political disaffection. This is in sharp contrast with the huge demonstrations of 2011 and the sit-in of the summer of 2013, when civil society rose up against political society and forced a democratically elected government to resign. 

Today, however, civil society is showing signs of fatigue. It is unable to demonstrate its condemnation of the return to political practices that belong to the past, or to decriminalize so-called deviant behavior. And yet the climate of fear created by the terrorist attacks and the urgency of economic and social problems may well overshadow issues of individual freedom and, more generally, the fundamental victories of the revolution of 2011. 

[This text was originally published in French by Orient XXI and translated into English by Noël Burch. In case of any inconsistency between the texts, the French version shall prevail.] 


[1] The "other" of neo-liberalism “requiring a strong leader aided by dedicated advisers who could overcome all obstacles to push the economy forward." (Thomas B. Gold, “Neo-authoritarianism won't create economic miracle”, L.A. Times, 30/06/89.)

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