Middle East Monitor’s Christine Petré Talks to IRI’s Djordje Todorovic about Tunisia’s National Reconciliation

Tunisia, let’s not forget about the revolution already
Middle East Monitor
By Christine Petré

If 2014 was the year of Tunisian democratic success, 2015 will be all about keeping it on track. However, for a sustainable democratic future, and to calm fears of re-emerging authoritarianism, reconciliation, end of impunity and reformation of laws ought to be priority in the New Year.

Tunisia has chosen a post-revolutionary path, which allows former regime figures to re-enter politics and run for office. Moderate Islamist party Ennahda accepted the decision, arguing that excluding opponents would be destabilising in the long-run and decided to give the Tunisian people the choice to decide the country’s future. “It is the Tunisians who will say we do not want to go back to the old regime. That is a much more clear and effective message,” Ennahda’s Ameur Larayedh explained earlier in 2014.

Tunisians went to the ballot box in late-2014 and voted in secular Nidaa Tounes in the country’s first Parliamentary elections since the constitution, giving the party 85 of the 217 Parliamentary seats. In addition, Tunisians chose Nidaa Tounes leader and former Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba politician Beji Caid Essebsi as their President, raising fear about the 2-year young political party’s executive and legislative domination of the new democratic scene. In addition, Essebsi’s decision to nominate Habib Essid, another former regime official as the country’s new prime minister meant yet another return of previous government officials as three of the most senior political positions are held by ex-regime leaders.

Year 2014 also saw many former regime figures released from prison, including Rafik Haj Kacem, interior minister at the time of the revolution and Mohamed Ghariani, secretary general of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD, who quickly became Essebsi’s political adviser before leaving Nidaa Tounes ahead of the Parliamentary elections, describing the party as undemocratic and accusing a small group of monopolization.

At the same time the Truth and Dignity Commission, inspired by the famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by constitutional decree, responsible for investigating and prosecuting past crimes, was thrown into turmoil in its inaugurated phase as human rights activist Noura Borsali became the third person to resign, stating that its work was under threat and risked becoming a political tool. The commission’s work continues to be stalled. According to blogger Aya Chebbi the number of resignations speak for itself, “many others were also nominated and refused to take part so many question marks around this commission,” she said and concluded, “which makes it look as a political tool.” Is the commission about justice and dignity or about revenge? Chebbi asked.

The transitional justice system includes truth telling but also prosecutions, Human Rights Watch’s Amna Guellali told Al Jazeera, emphasising the commission’s important part in Tunisia’s transitional process in order to break the cycle of impunity. “We will never have an end to these abuses because those who commit them will consider themselves as being immune.”

The Ben Ali regime frequently used the judiciary system as an authoritarian tool to curb freedom of expression and dissent.

Impunity remains a serious issue in post-revolutionary Tunisia, which has a long way to go before it can call itself democratic, argued Chebbi, “The reform of the judiciary is urgently necessary.” The judiciary system is torn by corruption, non-enforcement of laws and the need to modernise laws to today’s Tunisian reality. “The law is applied selectively,” added Chebbi. While at the same time as former regime officials have been released, bloggers and human rights activists have been put behind bars.

The Ben Ali regime frequently used the judiciary system as an authoritarian tool to curb freedom of expression and dissent. How much has really changed? Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari was recently convicted in absentia by a military court for publishing Facebook posts critical of Ghazi Minister of Defence. Upon arrival to Tunisia he was arrested and is currently awaiting a retrial on February 26.

The trial was described by Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) as, “not worthy of the new Tunisia.” HRW also highlighted that international law prohibits trials of civilians at military courts. According to Article 91 of the Tunisian code of military justice any offense against the military may cause up to three years in prison. “Repressive laws like article 91 of the military justice code should have no place in a country where basic human rights are the foundation of its new constitution,” Goldstein said about the law, raising concern about how the law will be used by the country’s elite, “As long as such laws remain, those in power can’t resist the temptation to silence criticism and dissent.”

On the same day as Ayari was supposed to be back in court, human rights watchdog Amnesty International published a statement defaming another arrest, of film director Ines Ben Othman, accused of criticising a police officer. On December 19 the director went to a police station in Aria, close to Tunis, to file a complaint against its deputy head for attacking her online. As the two came into an argument, the police claim Ben Othman violated Article 125 of the Penal Code, which could mean up to one year in prison. However, Ben Othman is stating that her persecution is politically motivated as not only she is an influential figure but her fiancé Walid Zarrouk is a well-known government critic and founder of Mourakeb, which is working to keep police accountable to human rights. Amnesty argued that Tunisia’s current legal system is an obstacle to the country’s democratic future.

“Tunisia is entering the period that will have to produce many reforms,” highlighted Djordje Todorovic, International Republican Institute’s Tunisia Resident Country Director. Administrative, economic and educational reforms are all necessary and will pose a serious challenge for the new government. “Things are different in Tunisia now, and legislation that doesn’t reflect reality will have to be addressed and discussed.” The work of the Truth and Dignity Commission is imperative for the country’s future, argued Todorovic. “However, it still remains to be seen how Tunisia will address the issues of transitional justice and national reconciliation.”

According to Oxford researcher Monica Marks Tunisia is likely to battle with authoritarian and plural democracy for a long time, just like most transitional societies, “which force that will be strongest is yet unclear,” highlighting that only a week after Nidaa Tounes won the Parliamentary elections Essebsi suggested to shut down the commission’s work, questioning his commitment to the democratic body, to which he himself could be implicated.

Essebsi has responded to the authoritarian concern by referring to his mature age, “Do you think that a man my age will now dominate and restrict freedoms?” he asked. But is the past really the past? If Essebsi’s democratic commitment is sincere he has no time to waste. Reconciliation, end of impunity and the reformation of laws used to curb opposition ought to be dealt with heads on and not be sidelined by security and economic issues, at least if Essebsi wants to put an end to authoritarian accusations.

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