Tunisians are worried that the country is going in the wrong direction and frustrated with the Islamist-led government’s poor performance, a new survey suggests. But the gravest threat to the democratic transition comes from ultraconservative Salafists, “the would-be Bolsheviks within Islam,” says one observer.
The ruling Nahda party “ignored—willfully, say their critics—obvious warning signs of this emerging threat,” notes The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski:
The Salafists turned on anyone or anything deemed un-Islamic. They’ve besieged a television station which had broadcast the animated feature film, “Persepolis,” that includes a depiction of Allah. They’ve overran liquor stores, an art gallery, theaters and concert halls. Arms flowed from neighboring post-Gadhafi Libya into secret stockpiles of extremist cells in Tunis. Nahda resisted calls to crack down on them.
“Tunisians expect election irregularities including violence between political parties and vote-buying,” says the study, conducted Apr. 20–29 with 117 participants from four cities across the country.
“Participants view Chokri Belaid’s death as the beginning of a potential trend of politically-motivated violence. There is also widespread concern that parties who do not fare as well as anticipated may not accept the election results, raising further questions about the process,” it notes.
“Frustration with the governing ‘troika’ persists,” say Nicole Rowsell and Asma Ben Yahia, the study’s authors.
“While worried that the country is going in the wrong direction, Tunisians expressed a commitment to participate in the next phase of the transition by voting in the next elections and promoting greater tolerance in Tunisian society,” they note:
Many participants recognize the importance of individual responsibility in creating positive change, but want to see greater social harmony. Since the 2011 elections, Tunisians have referenced the need to “change mentalities” to bring about a more tolerant society that can accommodate divergent opinions in a new democracy…..
Participants are divided on strong contenders for Tunisia’s next presidential race. While Nidaa Tounes party leader Béji Caïd Essebsi was most frequently mentioned as a likeable candidate, a larger number of participants remain undecided or unconvinced by political leaders who have either expressed their interest in the post or have been mentioned as potential candidates.
Secular Tunisians remain unconvinced by Nahda’s declared commitment to women’s rights, after the party proposed that the constitution describe them as complementary rather than equal to men.
“There was a proposition made by some members of parliament that belong to the major party within the coalition to include a clause in the constitution that they were complimentary, rather than equal to men, in terms of family life,” said Lisa Watanabe from the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland.
Regardless, she told VOA, the European Union has little influence over Tunisia’s justice system.
“Tunisia does have an association agreement with the European Union, so in terms of putting pressure on Tunisia, it may have some degree of influence in terms of demanding some conditionality to funding, but I do not think it can put a great deal of pressure on the government, to be frank,’ said Watanabe.
The NDI focus group study builds on seven previous rounds of public opinion research conducted by NDI since March 2011. This time, participants discussed their views on the country’s draft constitution, the role of political institutions and expectations for future elections. Key findings included:
- Citizens are frustrated by political leaders’ unfulfilled electoral promises and the absence of visionary leadership. To rebuild trust with the electorate, citizens want political parties to offer genuine policy solutions coupled with honest apologies for past mistakes.
- Tunisians believe that citizens and political leaders alike must combine a commitment to patriotism with hard work. Participants expressed a new sense of personal responsibility for bringing about positive change, including social and economic improvements and a more tolerant environment for divergent opinions.
- Citizens crave a return to order. Freedom of expression, while seen as one of the key gains of the revolution, is also viewed as contributing to political gridlock and disorder. Economic insecurity, administrative inefficiencies and concerns about corruption fuel fatigue with what is seen as chaos and instability in everyday life.
- Citizens see public outreach by the NCA, including the recent national dialogue process to present the third draft of the constitution, as insufficient and seek a true two-way dialogue. To that end, participants indicated a strong preference for a referendum to “have their say” on the constitution, though some worried that it could delay the progress of the transition.
- Tunisians are enthusiastic about voting in the next elections. Those who voted in October 2011 NCA elections want to seize this opportunity to choose different candidates and parties, and those who did not vote now appreciate the importance of voting as an avenue to seeing their concerns addressed. As a result, Tunisians are concerned about delays in the milestones required for calling the next elections.
- Tunisians hold mixed views of women currently serving in the NCA—some believe they were elected only to meet the gender quota—but view positively the potential impact of an increase in the number of women in political life. Participants believe youth have a role to play in politics but are loath to accept young elected leaders.
Efforts to address transitional justice issues have been sporadic and disorganized at best, Tunis-based Sarah Mersch writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal:
Much is expected of the transitional justice process, as it is required to deal with years of regime repression that had systematically silenced and victimized Tunisians from various backgrounds, including communists, unionists, student activists, and Islamists. It also must address crimes of the revolutionary period; the investigation commissions put in place immediately after the revolution to shed light on the human rights abuses during the revolution report that 338 people died and 2174 were wounded. However, politicization of transitional justice issues, among other challenges, has stalled the process after the elections.
Like many initiatives that began in the immediate aftermath of the revolution—a time when many civil society actors and politicians were eager to start projects but unprepared for the challenges of post-authoritarian transition—the work of the investigation commissions has been largely ineffective.
Another threat to a proposed draft law on transitional justice comes from a Nahda-backed proposal to completely exclude former RCD members from political office, Mersch adds:
The so-called “law on the immunization of the revolution” is essentially targeting members of Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, Nidaa Tounes, which is the strongest opponent to Ennahda. Collectively condemning former members of the RCD would strengthen Ennahda’s image as a bulwark against the return of the old regime in the lead-up to elections. However, it might also lead to the unjust condemnation of many people, especially given that many Tunisians were forced to join Ben Ali’s party.