Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation has showed to the entire country how desperate young Tunisians were to work with dignity. It was December 17, and the Tunisian revolution had just started. Bouazizi’s self-immolation was immediately followed by a series of street demonstrations and protests deploring the situation in Tunisia: unemployment, corruption, lack of freedoms and very poor living conditions in most inland cities.
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Protestors were not only asking for basic civil rights anymore, but became determined to take down the whole regime which led Tunisia to such a tragic situation. Unfortunately the riots resulted in scores of deaths and injuries due to police and security forces' violence towards protestors. But the riots grew at a phenomenal rate and led to the well-documented ousting of long-time President Ben Ali 28 days later on January 14 and inspired similar actions in Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
Following the former president’s departure, a state of emergency was declared, a new caretaker coalition government was appointed and eventually changed, as protestors returned to condemn the inclusion of members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in the new national unity government. Indeed, a first government reshuffle was conducted on January 27 after Kasbah sit-ins, later referred to as “Kasbah One”. Then, Prime Minister M. Mohamed Ghannouchi – also Ben Ali’s prime minister - resigned from his position when new sit-ins were organised on February 25 (Kasbah Two).
After Ghannouchi’s resignation, a new prime minister, Baji Caid Sebsi, a former member of Bourguiba’s government from 1965 to 1986, was appointed. Elections to a Constituent Assembly were immediately announced and scheduled to be held in July, before later being postponed by the electoral commission to October 23 to allow for time to prepare.
In preparation for the upcoming elections, former opposition political parties and new parties have been legalised, and have started work on their political programmes. It is worth noting that for many years the political scene in Tunisia has known only one regime with scarcely any opposition. These opposition parties are now trying to gain public trust, while Tunisian citizens unaccustomed to a lively political scene have become more and more interested in knowing about various parties, their ideologies and their projects. Radio and TV political programs, political newspapers and public debates have since taken on an important role in Tunisians’ daily life.
Nine months after the revolution and nine days before the elections, it is worth mentioning some of the key events which have happened since January 14. These events introduced fundamental debates which need clear answers by the constituent assembly once it is elected:
First, thanks to the newly acquired freedom of speech, many important subjects such as the influence of Islamists and communists in modern Tunisian society have become part of public discourse. This has in turn led to a division of opinions between citizens: keeping Islam as Tunisia’s religion in the future constitution, versus declaring Tunisia a secular country and adapting the constitution to all citizens regardless of their religion. Parties have to answer to these various questions before elections and most importantly after them.
The Tunisian judicial system has also taken on an extremely important place in ongoing debates. The system is still full of corruption and has a tight relationship with the former regime; it is far from what is needed or expected in such a critical transition period. As an example, we can mention the release of some former regime members sued for corruption and abuse of power.
Additionally, media independence has become a very important issue in today’s debates. Tunisians are still reluctant to trust the media due to the lack of objectivity of some, if not all of it. Nevertheless, in the search for objective information Tunisians have come to rely more and more on social media like Facebook or Twitter, and famous blogs fed by some Tunisian activists since the time of Ben Ali’s regime.
Finally, the dilemma of whether or not to limit the constituent assembly's weight and scope might be seen as a limitation to the sovereignty of power and hence weaken the democratic transition. Mentioning the referendum topic shows that doubt still exists as to whether the constituent assembly will be able to satisfy the people’s will while writing the future Tunisian constitution.
All these debates are taking place in a very special context:
A whole society is seeking democracy and aiming to eradicate all former regime symbols, while eradicating surveillance, despotism and corruption. As a matter of fact, this seems to be quite difficult since some RCD members are still active in founding political parties and working in government institutions. Should RCD former members be forgiven, or should all of them quit important positions in strategic institutions? Can they participate in the new, emerging political life of Tunisia? These are some of the fundamental questions asked today.
Moreover, the coalition government lacks legitimacy since it was not chosen by the Tunisian citizens. Today there are real trust issues in this temporary government. Economic difficulties and security troubles put further pressure on those different ministries.
To conclude, the Tunisian revolution was not only a means for Tunisian citizens to ask for their basic human rights but it also inspired the revolutionary wave in other countries and created what is now called the “Arab Spring”.
Despite the “counter-revolution” , Tunisia seems to be going in the right direction: towards writing a new constitution that answers the 21st century desires and needs of Tunisian society.
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