Saturday, 22 November 2014

A first for Tunisia

Tomorrow means big change for Tunisia.

For the first time in history, Tunisian citizens will choose the head of their state in a free, democratic and transparent presidential election. This entitled right comes after several hundred years of great political and regional instability. The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 saw men, women and children take to the streets in protest and civil resistance when the long time dictatorship led by president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted to make way for the democratic vote, which is now an enshrined right in the Tunisian Constitution of 2014.

Nesrine Triki, lecturer at the University of Tunis and member of the DOUSTOURNA Network, a non-government organization which advocates for human rights, participatory democracy and civic education, says: “We are proud of ourselves, especially when you see what is happening in the neighbor countries of the ‘Arab Spring’. There is civil war in Libya, a military coup in Egypt, political and security problems in Yemen and civil war and terrorism in Syria.”

Nesrine has been a member of the DOUSTOURNA Network since its creation following the revolution. Its members have played a crucial role in the drafting of the Tunisian Constitution and have since mobilised Tunisian support around the key issues facing this new type of transitional democracy. As people go to polling stations tomorrow, Nesrine has volunteered to administer the electoral processes at one such station to ensure citizen’s choices are protected. Several training sessions later and an anticipated two days of no sleep ahead to guarantee transparent and democratic processes, Nesrine shares the word on the street.

Can you share with me what it is like on the ground in Tunis at this moment?

“It’s such a relief! This is our second democratic elections following the 2011 elections of the Revolution! It’s a turning point in Tunisian history. We are so happy to see Tunisia moving slowly towards a real democracy and a more stable situation, mainly after three years of political, social and economic uncertainty… After the parliamentary elections on October 26 and the clearing up of the political scene, two vital questions are being asked. The first has to do with the presidential elections and the second with the new government.

There are officially 27 candidates who are willing to reach the Presidential Palace of Carthage. So far, four of them have renounced. Many Tunisians have already made their choice while others (like myself) have not decided yet. The choice is quite difficult. On the democratic front, there are attractive candidates like Hamma Hammami, Koulthoum Kannou and Ahmad Nejib Chebbi. Then there are members from the old regime such as Beji Caed Sebsi, Kamel Morjen and Mondher Zneidi and then some who have proven failure while in power like Mohamed Moncef Marzouki and Mostafa Ben Jaafar, among others.

Right now, the campaign is in full force with each candidate trying their best to insult, denigrate and criticise the other ones (mainly those who represent serious competition). It will take us so many years to learn how to respect our competitors!

Tomorrow I play quite a participatory role in the elections so I am trying to remain as objective as possible, refraining from posting or sharing any sort of support for or criticism against any of the candidates.”

I know that during the parliamentary elections, the Nidaa Tounes party – a secular, non-Islamic party – received the majority of votes. What does this mean for Tunisia?

“This win is the fruit of several months of continuous resistance to political Islam. We won the first battle when we managed to implement a constitution that guarantees human rights and liberties, a secular state, equality and independent institutions. The second victory is the win of majority of seats in parliament by democrats, including Nidaa Tounes, the Popular Front, Afak Tounes and some independent members of parliament (MPs). To some extent, this can guarantee that the secular state we’ve been fighting for is not going to be threatened, at least for the next five years. This leaves room for us to concentrate on the other important challenges facing our country, mainly the socio-economic challenges.

Because Nidaa Tounes did not win the necessary majority in parliament, it will need to make a coalition with other parties to govern. The image is somewhat blurry. Opting for a coalition government seems a must, and that means making concessions at the expense of Nidaa Tounes’ promised program.

So who will be the partners of Nidaa Tounes in the government? Up to now, they have refused to give any clear statements as to their allies. Many Tunisians refuse the possibility of seeing Nahdha – Tunisia’s strongest Islamic party - in the government again. But my personal reading of the political scene leads me to the conclusion that Nidaa Tounes will not discard Nahdha politicians from its cabinet. They share the same socio-economic principals and agendas. They will think twice before putting Nahdha in the opposition, and what that could represent for their government security.

While many citizens are not sure what the new government is going to look like, we remain optimistic because we believe the most difficult period is behind us.”

I know you and many other Tunisian citizens have been working towards a democratic and just Tunisia for some time now. How important is this election tomorrow?

“The image of ‘the president’ in our minds has been directly affiliated to dictatorship for so many years now. Despite the fact that we had a different president the last three years, Dr Mohamed Moncef Marzouki who was a democrat and human rights activist who fought the former authoritarian Ben Ali regime for a long time, we were disappointed by the decisions he took and the decisions he failed to take… Having said that, the new constitution puts in place all the necessary warranties against dictatorship and tomorrow’s election is a truly symbolic one. The first in history.”

I have read that the female candidate Kalthoum Kannou might have a good chance of being selected as the first female president. What would this mean for Tunisia?

“I believe the success of the ‘Tunisian Spring’ has found its roots in the struggles made by Tunisian women. They were present in the key moments since December 2010. Our situation is so different to other Arab and Muslim countries. We have benefited from the revolutionary and courageous decisions made by the first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s. Tunisian women have mainly benefited from the free educational system. However, I’m disappointed to see only one female candidate running for the presidential elections…

Mrs Kannou has some distinctive qualities compared to many other candidates. As a judge, she is known to be credible, competent and perseverant. I strongly support her candidacy and I was even asked to help with her campaign. Unfortunately, I don’t think she can make it to the second tour of the presidential elections. There are two main reasons for that and they have nothing to do with her skills or vision to run the country.

The first has to do with her running for the elections as ‘independent’ because she lacks the support of a strong political party. Secondly, despite the fact that Tunisian people are more open to the idea of female politicians leading political parties or governmental institutions or running as MPs, the idea of having a female president is still not accepted by the overall majority. Tunisia is still a patriarchal society where religious views and archaic beliefs exist.

I personally believe that having a woman as a head of state would mean a huge jump forward for Tunisian society. I’m optimistic. I believe this day is not far away. I can see it coming very soon in fact. We will certainly be the first Arab country with a female president.”

What does Tunisia need from this new government to solve the many problems that have impacted its citizens throughout the modern era? Can you shed some light on some of these problems?

“The main reasons behind the Tunisian Revolution were translated in the slogans raised by protestors before and after January 14th in 2011: Employment, Freedom and Dignity. Three years later, we only enjoy Freedom. Now that freedom is enshrined in the new constitution, the other claims are still pending. Serious social and economic changes have to be made. There are high rates of unemployment, particularly among our youth, and great socio-economic disparity exists between people living in urban and rural areas.

The Revolution itself was born from Sidi Bouzid, one of the poorest regions in Tunisia and for this reason, developments and infrastructural investment is a priority to minimise the rate of poverty and unemployment. Also addressing national security and the emerging trends of terrorism is very high on the agenda. This represents a real threat for the political and social stability of our country and for the whole process of democracy.”

You have been at the centre of great change in Tunisia, and tomorrow is yet another landmark event. What have been your insights and what’s next?

“I believe that our Revolution has made it possible for us to shortcut time and history. Instead of accepting reforms, we pushed for landmark change and demanded a revolution to overhaul the political, social and economic systems. There exists a divide within Tunisian society though. Some are satisfied with reforming the system and then there are others who want to radically start all over. There are some who believe in creating change with violence and others who stand for peaceful change. We are eager to see new faces in politics, to see more youth and women as decision-makers, and to see more citizens involved in changing their lives and the life of their respective communities. Unfortunately though, many can’t see the close link between politicians’ decisions and their influence on citizens’ daily lives, including for example prices, services, taxes and quality of life.

I remember in September 2013 the government prepared a new tax on vehicles. Many journalists and social network activists kept talking about it for days, seeking citizens’ reaction, but the people were not interested and didn’t react. When the law was passed as part of the 2014 budget bill, people were shocked to discover the new sums of money they had to pay. Only then did they react. Only then did they understand what the media and activists had warned against many months earlier. There was widespread protest and some incidents of violence, which forced the government to exclude the new tax, but only temporarily.

Change can be different and this is what I dream of. I hope that one day citizens learn how to react in due time to protect their rights, and learn how to be self aware of their role as citizens with the entitled power to control, oppose and suggest. I want to see positive citizens create positive change for a better Tunisia. That’s what I want.”

Question: As Tunisians head to the polls tomorrow to cast their first presidential vote, think about democracy. What does democracy look like for you in your life? 

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