29 August 2013

Tunisia: Experts Weekly - Can Tunisia's Democratic Transition Succeed?


We asked a panel of experts how terrorism, political assassinations and recent anti-governments protests will affect Tunisia.

On 25 July, Tunisia was rocked by the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, the second opposition politician killed in the past six months. A few days later, eight members of the military forces were killed while patrolling the mountains at Chaambi, near the Algerian border.

Since then, public protests have become more frequent. There have been hunger strikes at Bardo, there was a march to commemorate the six-month anniversary of the assasination of Chokri Belaid, and this week has seen thousands gather outside the national constituent assembly to demand a swift resolution to the current political stand-off between the ruling al-Nahda party and the opposition.

Last week, the government indicated a willingness to negotiate and engage in dialogue with the opposition but there have been few tangible results as of yet.

Perhaps even more significantly, this week the government claimed that terrorist groups had gained a foothold in the country and banned the Salafist party Ansar al-Sharia. Hysteria has dominated the headlines with analysts comparing Tunisia's sitation to that in Egypt and the lawlessness of Afghanistan.

With these changes in the social, economic, political and security spheres, we asked our panel of experts "How will the democratic transition will be affected?"

Yasmine Ryan, North Africa journalist for Aljazeera:

The current political standoff is the biggest test Tunisia's democracy-in-the-making has faced so far.

There was a breakthrough last Thursday, with al-Nahda agreeing in principle to the opposition's demand for a non-political, technocrat government to oversee the country up until the first presidential and parliamentary elections in the post-Ben Ali era.

The opposition believes al-Nahda and its political allies are clinging to power and that it is doing everything it can to stack the odds in its favour. They argue al-Nahda have instrumentalised Salafist groups, giving them free reign to intimidate and bully opposition politicians, intellectuals and women with little intervention from the security forces.

This worrying trend has culminated in the assassinations of two leftist politicians. Only on Tuesday did the government finally declare Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organisation.

From al-Nahda's perspective, the years of oppression they endured under the old regime are all too recent and they fear being once again being excluded from the country's political landscape.

Underlying the showdown is an atmosphere of deep mistrust and implicit fears of violence, from both sides. The situation in Egypt is very much in everyone's minds, and has added to the pressure on the governing coalition to sit down with the opposition in the name of preserving national unity.

Mohamed-Salah Omri, Lecturer in Modern Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Oxford:

A number of shocking incidents - the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, the killing of a number of security officers, and the murder and mutilation of eight soldiers in the south-western Chaambi mountains - have marked a turning point in the perception of terrorism, government tactics and public mood.

The attack on Chaambi, which remains unexplained and therefore subject to speculation (including army conspiracy and foreign meddling), was spectacular and calibrated to inflict serious damage on the morale of the armed forces as well as public's sense of safety.

It discredited, once and for all, those who denied or played down the Islamist terrorist threat, and has proved that Tunisia, with its openness, homogeneity, and strong liberal institutions, was not as well-protected against extremism as many had thought.

I was in Kasserine earlier this month where I experienced first-hand heavy artillery fire and air raids rocking the mountains of Chaambi and Sammama day and night.

Residents get very little sleep, inhale the smoke from the numerous fires, rush to hospitals to see the latest victims, share news of unconfirmed arrests and lament the media and government neglect.

Some were readily speaking of their mountainous region as a new Tora Bora - the notorious hideouts of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The nature of the response reveals the scale of terrorism in the country, its logistical support and political cover. It also shows the absence of a strategy to deal with it and the shocking state of the army.

I single out three main outcomes of the current violent turn in the Tunisian revolution:

First, there is a growing perception that the post-revolution government and the media have reverted to treating the interior of the country as a remote trouble area to be contained by all means necessary without fear of accountability.

Second, Islamist terrorism has now become part of everyday life in a country which may have had brushes with it in the past, but has never previously experienced it in any major way.

Tunisia remains vulnerable to terrorism. Terrorists have been capitalising on this for two years, benefitting from a favourable climate of freedoms and a governmental stance that has been lax, if not outright acquiescent.

Third, hostility against the ruling al-Nahda party is on the rise, despite the fact that it is leading the official response to terrorism. Accusations that the party has contributed to the rise of terrorism have gained more public approval, leading to the further isolation of the party and the deepening of the ongoing crisis.

This all leads to the conclusion that security has become the people's number one issue. For this reason, terrorist violence, perhaps more than any other factor, threatens Tunisia's transition to a stable democracy and a free society, and marginalises the core social demands of the revolution.

Andrew Lebovich, analyst focused on political and security issues in North-Africa and the Sahel:

On Tuesday, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh declared for the first time that that the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) was responsible for the murders of opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, as well as a growing number of confrontations with Tunisian soldiers largely concentrated on the border with Algeria.

Laarayedh for the first time called AST, led by veteran Salafist and al-Qaeda associate Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi (Saifallah Ben Hassine) a 'terrorist organisation' linking the organisation directly with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This is a decision, long in the making, that stems directly from Tunisia's internal political context. But the decision also reflects the place terrorism occupies in contemporary Tunisian political debates.

Tension has been brewing between the Islamist al-Nahda-led government and AST since September, when the AST was accused of organising protests that attacked the US Embassy in Tunisia. The government has long been accused of laxity in pushing a more conciliatory policy towards radical Islamists while also possibly having relationships with vigilante groups, notably the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR).

Such widespread suspicion helped fuel the large anti-al-Nahda protests that broke out after Belaid's killing on 25 July - protests that, despite being ongoing, have diminished in size from where they were even several weeks ago.

It was the confluence of this internal tension and the external political environment after Egypt's 30 June coup that help explain al-Nahda's decision to engage in dialogue with reinvigorated opposition parties and the country's most powerful trade union, the Union Générale Tunisien du Travail (UGTT).

The opposition forced a halt to work in the country's National Constituent Assembly, and al-Nahda has since gone back and forth on a number of issues, both publicly and in private talks with opposition figures Beji Caid el-Sebsi and UGTT leader Hossine Abassi.

But for the moment it is unclear which side will give in first. While al-Nahda has slowly crept towards the opposition's demands for an apolitical government, it is unclear if it will back down from current demands that a government reshuffle take place only after a constitution is written and other key issues are resolved.

Meanwhile, while the opposition can mobilise huge crowds, anything short of the threatened UGTT general strike may not be enough to force al-Nahda's hand. And attitudes are hardened to the point that Laarayedh's declaration on AST will likely change few minds in the opposition about al-Nahda and its suspected relationship with extremists.

In this context, terrorism becomes a political tool of heightened importance. It cannot overthrow the government or directly intervene in the political process, but it can be the drop of water that causes the vase to overflow. In a situation of locked horns and political stalemate, that is a dangerous power indeed.

Rom Bhandari is Legal Editor at Think Africa Press. He holds an LLM from King's College, University of London. His interests include human rights and migration.

Follow him on twitter @romromromTAP. Email: rom.bhandari@thinkafricapress.com

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