The Resignation of Tunisia’s Prime Minister Jebali and what it says about democracy in Tunisia…

Photo Source: http://www.metrofrance.com

Two nights ago Tunisians heard their Prime Minister, Hammadi Jebali resign. The following morning, I saw a major English language television channel refer to the resignation as “again” throwing Tunisia into “turmoil”. The visuals showed film footage of a demonstration with tear gas…from a previous time!

Unfortunately, this is yet one more example of the media not understanding the process of democratic transition in Tunisia. Using past film footage in itself, was visually misleading, as are loaded words such as “turmoil” to describe Tunisia’s political happenings.

Tunisians have for the most part seen a rather peaceful political process take place. The February 6th killing of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and political activist representing secular views from Tunisia’s political left was a shock for all Tunisians! The relatively peaceful transition since the January 2011 Revolution was now marked by an assassination and the use of a gun, two shocking symbols in Tunisia. Tunisia has never seen the violence that has marked Syria, Libya, Lebanon, or even the level of protests that have been seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The killing of Belaid, implicitly, pointed a finger at Ennahda, the Islamic political party that holds a plurality of roughly 41% in Tunisia’s freely elected Constituent Assembly. Why is the finger being pointed at Ennahda?  There was no one other than the Islamic political movement that would have wanted Belaid silenced, as it was against Ennahda that Belaid voiced his opposition. The assumed is that it was Ennahda or their sympathizers who would want him out of the picture.

Hammadi Jebali was appointed Prime Minister by Ennadha, as their plurality based on the democratic and transparent elections of October 23, 2011 permitted them to choose the Prime Minister position. Jabali has been a long time Ennahda member and served more than a decade and half in prison during the dictatorial years of Ben Ali. Today, many in Tunisia have seen Jebali as a puppet to Rachid Ghannouchi, one of the founders and the undisputable leader of Ennahda.

Since Belaid’s death, Jebali felt the stink of the taint that has been cast over Ennahda. Perhaps to deflect himself from this stink, a week ago he called for a government of technocrats, rather than the present political leaders who by all Tunisians’ accounts, have accomplished nothing. The idea of bringing back technocrats met with favor from many Tunisians, except Ennahda’s Ghannouchi and his followers, who said it was unacceptable that technocrats should replace people who were in their positions due to the political will of voters. Jebali said he would work behind the scenes to try and make it a policy change, but if he could not accomplish this, he would resign.

Jebali’s resignation did just that! No one, but Jebali, knows what was really behind his decision to resign. His actions are most likely motivated by one of several possibilities:

1) He is acting to uphold his word, acting as a result of Ennahda’s decision not to consider technocrats.

2) He wants to not carry the taint which now follows the killing of Belaid and thus, as he said in his closing resignation speech…he wants to be the Prime Minister of all Tunisia, not of Ennahda.

3) The theory favored by conspiracy theorists that the entire process since the killing of Belaid, including Jebali’s resignation, is that of a charade being orchestrated by Ennahda.

Most people can see this as an honorable move on his part, even among those who had little high regard for Jebali. The small Constitution now called for President Moncef Marzouki to call on Ennahda to appoint a Prime Minister, as they are the party holding the plurality and thus, entitled to carry the PM post. Their chosen appointee to the Prime Minister post is Ali Laareyedh, a longtime Ennahdha activist and until this appointment, the Minister of Interior. Political watchers would likely say that Laareydeh was the less controversial candidate from Ennahda’s short list, which also included Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki. Ennadha also knows that polls show they are no longer the political front runner, but rather, in a dead heat with Nida Tounes, the umbrella organization founded by Bourguiba era, Beji Caid Essebsi in an attempt to form a political block of centrist democrats.

 

All of this political wrangling is unfairly cast by the media as “turmoil”. Our United States Congress plays with brinksmanship regarding the “fiscal cliff”, name calling among politicians, debating whether all Americans should have access to healthcare and most recently, debates on whether automatic weapons are an entitled right based on our Second Amendment right to bear arms. All of this which is viewed by the political eyes of the rest of the world as politically puzzling. Could this also be called “political turmoil”?

What will evolve in Tunisia’s political process in the days and weeks ahead is any pundit’s guess. However, for a young democracy that went from decades under dictatorships, “turmoil” and “violence” are not adjectives that aptly describe Tunisia’s political process. Rather, democratic political transition, which includes ups and downs, is the more appropriate description of what is taking place.

Hopefully, the United States and other democratic countries can continue providing their support to Tunisia to help them through this process of their very new democracy. The West must stop looking at all of the Middle East and North Africa with the same brush and let Tunisia’s democratic actions let it stand above its neighbors in its path to democracy.

Photo courtesy of Middle East Institute, Washington, DC

 

Jerry Sorkin’s involvement with Tunisia dates back three decades. He lives much of the year in Tunis, Tunisia. Since July 2010, he has served as President of the American Tunisian Association (www.americantunisianassociation.com) . The views expressed are his own.

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Villanova University from Villanova, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) is currently in Tunisia as part of a program through their Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. The program was designed and coordinated by Villanova Professor Marwan Kreidie and Lowell Gustafson,  Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences in conjunction with TunisUSA’s academic programming specialist.

This March 5th lecture was by Ahmed Hamza, of Kairouan, a 24 year old entrepreneur and Social Media specialist who played an active role in the early days of the Tunisian Revolution, both as one who was actively using the Social Media tools of tweeting and blogging, as well as being one of the founders of an NGO (non-governmental organization) that was helping to provide housing, medical needs and assistance to the thousands of refugees who came to Libya in February 2011, while Tunisia was still dealing with their own domestic changes resulting from the Revolution.

As part of this 3 credit course, students are meeting with people who have been involved with Tunisia’s Revolution and the democratization process taking place. Leading the program is Hatem Bourial, one of Tunisia’s noted writers and a specialist in culture, history, and the political scene.

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“Winning the Arab Spring”

The term the media developed as, “The Arab Spring” started with the sudden and unexpected flight of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to Saudia Arabia. The media was all over Tunisia, a country that previously, rarely made the news. But following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi and the flight of Ben Ali, Tunisia was suddenly front page news. Within ten days of Ben Ali’s departure, the media left nearly en masse for Egypt where mass government protests started on January 25th culminating with Mubarak’s stepping down from office on February 11th.

The “Arab Spring” continued to subsequent developments in other Arab countries where pro-democracy movements inspired by events in Tunisia, began their protests against their respective governments’ autocratic ways; Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, as well as far more modest protests in Saudia Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. All of these political uprising shared one thing in common, having been inspired by Tunisia, the country perhaps least known to Americans among these so-called, “Arab Spring” countries.

Of all of these countries, the only one to have achieved a democratic system resulting from their protests is Tunisia. Egypt has the trappings of change, but the reality is that the army is in control, with much of its leadership tied to the former Mubarak regime. The recent arrests of the Western NGO’s who have been in Egypt to help with the democratization and now being prevented from assisting in the transition to democracy, certainly does not bode well for Egypt’s democratization. The stories are well known of Libya and Syria, as the media covers the ongoing stories where daily battles have included shelling, bombing and thousands of deaths. Egypt remains a continued media story as the protests continue in Tahrir Square and more and more arrests seem to take place preventing a democratic process from really taking hold.

In the interim, there seems to not be a day that goes by where I run in to someone or speak on the phone with someone who knows my involvement with Tunisia. This usually leads to comments suggesting that in their mind, Tunisia is probably going through the same chaos as all the other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

That’s unfortunate, as Tunisia is the success story!  Not everything is perfect, to be sure…  However, it is quite amazing to think that after decades of autocratic rule, where prior elections were a charade, little Tunisia went from January 2011’s surprise changes to a ten month transition that included: developing electoral systems, citizens learning about political campaigns and forming political parties, all leading to the October 23rd elections that had Tunisians throughout the country waiting upwards of two to three hours to vote in that country’s first fair, transparent and peaceful elections. In the months since, the process of forming the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a constitution has been taking place. Indeed, discussion and debates have been vigorous, but they take place in an atmosphere of openness that is as open as that of watching C-Span covering the debates in the American Congress. Certainly, not everyone was pleased with the voting outcome, but all Tunisians take pride in the fact that much was accomplished in such a short time and all will admit that the elections were transparent and honest.

The Tunisian economy remains in a precarious state, battered not only by the Revolution, but also due to prior economic activities that were often illegally organized by the former regime and “The Family” around it. Labor strikes continue and their impact on preventing economic growth is clear. But, in a true democracy, strikes and labor unrest are part of the process. One only needs to look at Italy, France and even the US to see where the inspiration for Tunisia’s workers to demonstrate and strike originated. Italy and France are certainly the masters in the art of strikes!

While the US Congress has many members who see no place in the United States for a government administered health plan that ensures medical care to every citizen in the wealthiest country of the industrialized world…Tunisia continues to offer health care to all of its citizens, despite one’s ability to pay.

And as Americans struggle to afford to send their children to colleges and universities due to the highest educational costs in the world, one of Tunisia’s biggest problems, that of unemployment, is a result of that country’s policies of having built too many schools in their attempt to provide free education through university, as a right, for all Tunisians. How ironic?

While Tunisia’s problems since the Revolution began are not behind it, and there are many who are looking forward to the next elections in the hope of seeing different political parties in office, the country continues to move forward peacefully, with the democratic process that Tunisians embarked on, continuing. In many ways, rather than lumping Tunisia in with “The Arab Spring”, a better analogy might be the 1989-1990 fall of the former Soviet Bloc autocratic regimes, who also had a large percentage of well educated youth. In a matter of years, success stories developed about economically successful democracies in what is now, the “free” Eastern Europe.

While Tunisia has fallen to the back pages of the media, it should be held up as a symbol of hope to other emerging democracies and encouragement should be given to all those countries coming forward to help Tunisia in its continued democratic transition…the United States among them.

Hopefully, the West will learn from Tunisia and its people, that the Arab world is not a monolithic bloc and once the West comes to know Tunisia and its  people, it will no longer be a surprise as to why Tunisia not only started the democracy movement of January 2011, but leads in the race for success!