6 January 2014

Tunisia: Regime Remnants, Women and the Clown - Tunisia's Revolution Three Years On

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While Tunisia has in fact seen five governments in the past three years, it has only had two presidents.

The first was put in place in accordance with the old constitution after Ben Ali fell; the second, current president Moncef Marzouki, came to office through a deal with the ruling al-Nahda after the 2011 elections, when he was chosen to take office by the National Constituent Assembly.

The radical change from an all-powerful president in Ben Ali and the charismatic and iconic Bourguiba before him was bound to create a perception that the aura of the presidential office had been lost. But no-one had quite bargained for a figure such as Marzouki.

Seen as impulsive, wry and light, if not frivolous, he has become the butt of jokes, is regularly made fun of in comedy shows, and has been nicknamed tartur (clown).

This is as much a comment on his demeanour as it is on his status as president, a position with far fewer powers now that the bulk of responsibilities has been moved to the office of prime minister.

The youth and the women

Paradoxical as it may seem given the importance of young people in Tunisia's revolution, the median age of its top politicians has increased over the last three years.

This can be explained by the return in force of Bourguiba's lieutenants, who were marginalised under Ben Ali but are still relatively trusted, and the fact that many political parties are led by older 'historical' figures.

After the revolution, the youth found themselves on the margins of the political process, although some have found themselves in protest lines again, while others have been attracted by Salafi movements.

In January 2011, an elderly man proclaimed, "We grew old awaiting this historic moment"; today, Tunisia's young may feel they are now the ones growing old as they await the benefits from a revolution they began.

However, while the youth have been relegated to the sidelines, women have stepped in. Tunisians often proclaim Nisa biladi nisa'un wa nisf ('the women of my country are women and a half'), a line taken from a poem by Sghaier Awlad Ahmed, and praise the women who have been prominent in Tunisia's public life over the last 50 years and who took an active part in the resistance to Ben Ali.

In the October 2011 elections, partly thanks to parity in electoral lists, a large number of women gained seats, including the position of Deputy President of the Assembly. Several major organisations are also now led by women, including the Journalists Association, Magistrates Association, the Union of Industry and Commerce and National Television.

Perceived threats against women's rights in post-revolution Tunisia have also galvanised women like never before and propelled their voices into the public sphere. The revolution has also brought about - or brought to the public - a new type of woman activist: the veiled Islamist woman, a phenomenon to contend with.

Three years on

Three years into the revolution, Tunisia has changed in important ways. The direction of this change is still not clear, though it is hard to deny that important gains have been made.

Chief among these are: greater freedom of the press and association; demystification of political power and of politicians; and the loss of a political culture based on a personality cult.

Another achievement has been the consolidation of civil society and the unprecedented coming together of unlikely bedfellows, such as with the UGTT and employers' association managing national dialogue and mediating between conflicting political parties.

There have also been some less hopeful changes, however, such as the incursion of political violence into public life; an atomised political scene; and the growth of "Islamic" identity politics.

Three years on, Bouazizi's story has been rewritten a number of times but, as a new photo of his grave shows, he has receded back to his former neglect, just like his hometown Sidi Bouzid. The economy has deteriorated but the economic model remains unchanged.

From a wider perspective, Tunisia has decidedly shifted from being romantic tale to a tricky testing ground for transnational political Islam, the global market economy, and progressive politics. At this stage, none of these sides can claim victory. However, no side has been defeated either.

Dr. Omri holds a BA from the University of Tunis and MA and PhD from Washington University. Before joining the University of Oxford, Dr. Omri was Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis in the US.

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