Tunisia's democratic awakening under threat

The well-known Tunisian human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine talks to Moncef Slimi about the arduous process of democratic transformation in the motherland of the Arab Spring

By Moncef Slimi

Following agreement over the new constitution and the installation of a caretaker government of technocrats, new political tensions have emerged in Tunisia with respect to electoral law. Do you think elections might be delayed as a result?

Sihem Bensedrine: When political opponents were able to agree on the government of technocrats after months of wrangling, Tunisians breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately what I sense today is that certain sides want to exert their influence on this government. Attempts by the quartet to impose a kind of custodianship over this government give me an uneasy feeling. [The Quartet for National Dialogue consists of the Tunisian Federation of Trade Unions (UGTT), the Tunisian Employers' Association (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Bar Association – ed.].

We must first give this government the chance to work, in order to then be able to judge the results. We should not be dictating any specific political guidelines. Otherwise, the political parties will all start accusing each other of trying to hinder or influence the government. Surely the pressure being put on the government by the various divergent parties is enough? Do we also need additional pressure from the mediator for national dialogue, whenever this body tries to assert itself as a custodian? The situation is highly confused at the moment.

In what way is pressure being exerted on the government at present?

Bensedrine: The pressure is obvious. Some are threatening the government with strikes unless several appointments are revoked. One would expect that this government, which is the result of a national consensus, would be given some breathing space to enable it to work under peaceful conditions during this short transitional period. Others are threatening to hinder election preparations if their demands are not met. This is wrong and serves to highlight the egotism of the parties at the expense of the nation, the interests of which are thereby pushed into the background.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki (centre) during a National Dialogue meeting in Tunis on 16 May 2013 (photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Platform for a democratic Tunisia: the roadmap for national dialogue included milestones such as the formation of an interim cabinet, the adoption of a new constitution, reform of electoral law, and the launch of fresh elections

Could the differences in the way supporters of the old regime are dealt with, something that was formulated in Tunisia's Law for the Protection of the Revolution, result in an impediment to transitional justice and therefore to the entire process of democratic change?

Bensedrine: Unfortunately the row about transitional justice was initially put on ice, although this was one of the most important demands of the revolution. Unfortunately the troika government [the Islamist Ennahda party and the two secular parties Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic – ed.] neglected the plans for transitional justice.

I believe the deferral of this question is costing all Tunisians dear. Social conflicts have increased and reactions to them have sometimes been violent. In order to defuse these tensions and create a calmer climate, we need public clarification and accountability, but not behind the scenes. What we need is genuine national reconciliation where the past is dealt with on a judicial basis. The postponement of this process has impacted negatively on Tunisia's political development.

Luckily, the constituent assembly has already passed a law enabling the transitional justice process to function: the bill to create the Truth and Dignity Commission. Unfortunately the formation of this commission is still being overshadowed by major political tensions. On the side of civil society organisations involved in the work of the commission, there are concerns that instead of displaying the criteria of integrity, independence, impartiality and competence as stipulated by the law, the commission will just be about political manoeuvring and quota allocations.

We can only hope that in the end, qualities such as independence and integrity will still gain the upper hand so that this commission does not miss its political target before it has even started work.

Some observers blame concessions made by Ennahda when it was still in government for the return of old networks of the Ben Ali regime through what is known as the "deep state" or through other interest groups. Do you hold a similar view?

Bensedrine: I hold the troika and not just Ennahda responsible for having neglected the process of transitional justice. It might well be the case that they hoped this would consolidate their power. After all, following their election on 23 October 2011, they did not feel they were in a position to be able to lead the nation because remnants of the old regime still had a firm grip on the administration.

By this I mean that things did not turn out as they expected. The civilian population has had to pay a high price for this. That's why I hope that they have learned from this experience, because in the future too, they will have influence on the constituent assembly, and thereby on the politics of the nation.

Chairman of the Islamist Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi (photo: DW)
Tunisia's caretaker government of technocrats is seen by many as a way out of the country's political turmoil: the Islamists of the Ennahda party (pictured here: Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi) and the opposition agreed to the formation of such an independent government in order to break the country's political stalemate and pave the way fore new elections

Political observers assume that an alliance could arise between the Islamist Ennahda and the Nidaa Tunis, which is led by the former Prime Minister Beji Caid El Sebsi. How would such an alliance respond to the demands of the revolution and the new transitional justice system?

Bensedrine: Unfortunately these two poles dominate the Tunisian political landscape. An alliance of this nature would certainly be detrimental to the democratic development of Tunisia. The logic of such a political polarisation either leads to transient allegiances or dominance by one of the two parties – and eventually, most likely to the monopolisation of power. For that reason, these parties must be warned against the dangers of such alliances because such a development would call the entire multi-party system into question, which is in turn a fundamental democratic principle.

In your view, which is the greater challenge for the democratic transitional process in Tunisia: consolidating the economy or improving the nation's security situation?

Bensedrine: In an unstable state, the democratic order is also threatened. Violence is the enemy of democracy. In the shadow of violence, free elections cannot take place, and democratic institutions cannot be established in the country.

It is a sad fact that the question of security is also causing fresh tensions between the political parties, and this means that they are no longer fulfilling their political brief. At present, all parties without exception are haggling over national security issues and putting their political interests before the common good. But I still have hope that we can overcome this problem.

Although I blame many parties for the security situation, I accuse first and foremost the old henchmen of the Ben Ali security apparatus of continued involvement in efforts to destabilise the country.

Interview conducted by Moncef Slimi

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

In the early 1980s, Sihem Bensedrine was one of the leading figures of the Tunisian women's movement. From 1985 to 1994, she served on the executive board of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. In the late 1990s, she founded the National Council for Freedom together with other human rights activists. As a figurehead of the resistance against the Ben Ali dictatorship, she was subjected to all manner of repressive measures. She was detained in 2001 following publications on corruption and torture. In 2002, she received the Johann Philipp Palm Prize for Media Freedom and Freedom of Speech. Following the Jasmine Revolution of early 2011, she returned from exile to Tunisia to help establish a democratic state. In the autumn of 2011, she received the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, which is awarded for services to democracy and freedom of speech in the Islamic world.