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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Tunisians Must Finish The Job
The announcement of an election date is encouraging – but in Tunisia momentum is too often lost, and there is much still to do
By Bechir Kenzari
Many challenges lie ahead in Tunisia. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly six months after Tunisia ousted its former dictator, positive talk of the country's advance towards democracy is accompanied by suspicions that this advance is slow and reluctant. There is fear, for example, that the coming constituent assembly elections will be postponed forever and that the country might miss a truly historic opportunity. Are these suspicions justified?
I read a comment recently on a news website stating that Tunisians know how to start things but don't necessarily know how to finish them. The (anonymous) author mentioned the example of Hannibal. "Remember," he said, "Hannibal should have marched on Rome directly after the victory at Cannae. He shouldn't have waited. One should always finish the job."
The comment is pertinent. Throughout history, Tunisians have indeed been at the forefront of some good ideas. They were the first among Arabs to have abolished slavery in 1846, the first to have written a constitution in 1861, the first to have abolished polygamy in 1956, the first to have given women the right to vote in 1957 and the first to peacefully oust their dictator in 2011, thus inaugurating what we today call the Arab spring.
And yet, and yet. Despite all these great reforms, Tunisians don't believe their country has taken full advantage of its potential. As soon as a good idea is initiated, its materialisation tends to be either delayed or discarded.
The latest debate about the final date of the constituent assembly elections is a case in point. Originally, these elections were meant to be held on 24 July. However, while political parties were getting ready for the much-expected event, the electoral authority unilaterally suggested the date of 16 October instead.
At a press briefing, the authority's chairman listed a set of technical operations he said should be completed first. These include the establishment of a central committee, regional sections, registration centres, training programmes for executives to be tasked with monitoring the electoral process and preparation of information and awareness campaigns.
The authority's view divided opinion into two camps: one for maintaining the original date, the other for postponement.
In the absence of a clear decision from the interim government, this led to political confusion that began pushing the country into a crisis. Rumours spread that some counter-revolutionary forces were plotting to postpone the elections forever. The vestiges of Ben Ali's banned former party, lurking in the shadows, some regrouping as new parties, fuelled fears that the revolution could be hijacked at any time.
Then, finally, the interim government ended its silence and announced on 8 June that the elections would take place on 23 October. In a televised speech, Béji Caïd Essebsi, the interim prime minister, said: "We have taken into account all the views and have decided to hold the elections on 23 October," adding that the most important thing was the transparency of these elections. He also spelled out that the country's economic and social situation, and the impact of the crisis in neighbouring Libya, could not tolerate any more strikes or protests.
A general feeling of relief followed. Although the decision came a bit late, it did put an end to a period of tension that had affected the political scene for nearly two weeks. In reacting to the speech, most political parties supported the new date. The electoral authority also expressed relief to have won out in the behind-the-scenes struggle. Normal people in the street, despite their mistrust of politicians, were equally reassured. The spirit of optimism was finally restored.
Yet these last events should remind us that in times of crisis compromise is essential. In the absence of a legitimate political authority, any major decision should from now on be taken with the consensus of all political parties and civil groups.
Tunisians also have to rediscover the virtue of finishing things. In particular, they need to work harder to bring the revolution to a happy conclusion, which is the building of a new, free and democratic Tunisia. Any deviation from achieving this goal, under one form or another, would be yet another missed historic opportunity.
If the past six months have been difficult, the hardest challenge is yet to come. While waiting for the 23 October elections, which will appoint an assembly to write a new constitution that will hopefully be the basis for the first fully fledged modern democracy in the entire region, the interim government has to step up a gear.
The security situation has improved recently, true, but some other urgent issues are waiting to be addressed. These include an independent inquiry into the deaths of demonstrators during the latest riots, the reform of the judiciary, the arrest and fair trial of those charged with corruption and the restructuring of some key ministries.
There are also, of course, pressing questions of unemployment, poverty and regional disparities. According to the latest estimate of the Tunisian social affairs ministry, nearly 25% of our population still live below the poverty line, mostly in the marginalised regions where the revolution started. These poor and unemployed Tunisians want freedom, but they also want some money in their pockets to keep food on the table.
Tunisians have to hold fast and finish the task. In all this, they have to count primarily on themselves. As one of our old sayings goes: "At the narrow passage, there is no brother and no friend."
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 21/06/2011
- Bechir Kenzari is Associate Professor at the UAE University. His writing has appeared in several international journals such as the JAE, Architectural Theory Review, The Built Environment, among others. He is the editor of Architecture and Violence, to be soon published by Actar