Eight years after the 2011 uprising, Tunisia is the only Arab country that has accomplished a number of major successes, but political vulnerability and economic turmoil could reverse those gains.
TUNIS — Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which sparked mass revolts and the so-called Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East, marked its eighth anniversary on December 17. Though the North African country has been lauded for having a constructive debate on gender equality, the country is still marred by a range of issues that mainly stem from its economic woes.
The country is also dealing with political instability as lawmakers defect to new or different parties ahead of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Observers say tensions are at an all-time high for the first time since the 2011 revolution.
“It is a fact that in the last eight years our country has made progress in [strengthening] democracy, human rights and civil society, and in adopting a new Constitution,” said Romdhane Ben Amor, a Tunisian activist who works for the independent non-profit Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES).
“It is a real success story compared to other countries in the region."
Amor, however, says the country’s political elite are out of step with economic reality and they must allow young people to join politics.
Tunisia’s ruling party, Nida Tounes, is currently facing an existential crisis of sorts. The party is plagued by a rift which has seen a large number of its members resign. The power tussle between Hafedh Essesbsi, the son of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, and the country's prime minister Youssef Chahed, has weakened Nida Tounes' position in parliament. The party lost its majority in the house due to the mass resignations.
About 35 parliamentarians of Nida Tounes recently created a rival bloc called the National Alliance, which is preparing to launch a new political party in January 2019.
In September 2017, the Tunisian parliament passed a controversial bill that paved the way for an Administrative Reconciliation Law, which is aimed at granting complete impunity to civil servants implicated in corruption under the former regime.
As part of the transitional process that came post-revolution, a Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was set up in May 2014 to ensure justice for past violations.
Human Rights Watch stated: “This law obstructs any investigation into the systematic corruption that prevailed in Tunisia for decades, and prevent courts from ruling on human-rights violations.”
The NGO also believes this administrative law would allow those civil servants to return to positions of power. The law provoked fierce debates in parliament, demonstrations in the streets and caused a division in public opinion.
A local opposition group which called itself Manich Msameh (I will not forgive) says it remains skeptical towards this reconciliation process. The group is composed of more than 80,000 online activists.
The fact is that most of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary administration is still in place. Widespread corruption is one of the major concerns, particularly with the population suffering due to a failing economy and an unemployment rate which has reached more than 16.5 percent.
According to a poll by the International Republican Institute in September 2017, “89 percent of Tunisians believe corruption is higher than it was before 2011.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
Over the last eight years, Tunisia has adopted several measures to enhance democracy, particularly after the adoption of the new Constitution in early 2014.
Violence against women was widespread and systematic. But not anymore. After a 20-year battle, the country has made a historic stride by passing its first law in relation to violence against women in July 2017.
Civil society’s long and arduous fight against racism has also yielded fruit, with a new anti-racism law criminalising this form of discrimination.
Another major success for civil rights activists is in the formation of the inheritance law, which was passed in the summer of 2017, granting equal rights to women. Tunisia became the first Arab country to have a gender equality law, despite divisions over the proposition when the Islamist party, Ennahda, rejected it.
Tunisian women also made significant gains in electoral politics. About 47.7 percent of women voted in the country’s first municipal elections. They also featured at the top of electoral lists by 29.55 percent, according to the Supreme Independent Electoral Commission.
With the 2019 elections looming, civil rights activists are hoping for a Constitutional Court to become operational. The court could make crucial legal reforms and have powers to prosecute people who are guilty of corruption, murder, kidnapping and other forms of human rights abuses.
The court could also block people with criminal backgrounds from contesting in the upcoming elections and launch investigations into systematic human rights violations committed between 1955 and 2013.
The Truth and Dignity Commission, an independent body, has already referred 30 cases of human rights abuse to court trials, a historic move that allows Tunisian courts to hold security officers to account.
Amnesty International commented: “The government must commit to implementing its recommendations in order to ensure that perpetrators of historic human rights violations are brought to justice, victims receive reparation and measures are taken to stop such crimes being repeated.”
As the international community keeps a close eye on the process, the Commission’s recommendations are expected to include institutional and legislative reforms as well as measures putting an end to corruption within the institutions.
“Tunisia’s authorities must now show they are serious about breaking the pattern of impunity that has perpetually haunted the country by committing to fully implement the IVD’s recommendations, in particular those addressing reform of the security and justice sectors,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Tunisia continues to be under a state of emergency ever since a deadly terror attack on the Bardo Museum killed 28 people in March 2015. The emergency law has come under public criticism several times as many civil society organisations say that it violates freedom of expression.
The state of emergency grants exceptional powers to Tunisian security forces, allowing them to ban strikes and meetings that, according to a recent presidential statement, are "likely to provoke ... disorder". It also includes measures to "assume control of the press".