Tunisian politicians struggle to deliver

One year after vote that brought them to power, the Islamist-led government faces disenchantment.

Thousands protested against the Troika on the eve of the election anniversary [Ali Garboussi/Al Jazeera]

On the one year anniversary of the first “Arab Spring” election, the politicians that were voted into power are facing widespread disillusionment with their government.

Tunisians went to the polls to elect the officials who would write the rules of the country’s new political system on October 23, 2011.

It was the first election since the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the country that triggered a string of uprisings that have forever changed North Africa and the Middle East.

The Islamist Ennahdha party won 89 out of 217 seats, joining with two secular centre-left parties in a ruling coalition known as the Troika. Their critics say the lack of experience in government, combined with an absence of fresh ideas, is not up to the task of transforming the small Mediterranean nation into a fully functional democracy.

“They have nothing to do with the revolution. They are completely disconnected.

– Wala Kasmi, activist, speaking about the ruling coalition

Wala Kasmi, a 25-year-old activist who had protested against Ben Ali’s regime, said the constituent assembly had failed the Tunisian people in “every possible way”.

“They are failing on security, they are failing on the economy, and they are failing when it comes to liberties and rights,” she said in a phone interview from central Tunis, following a protest against the government on Tuesday afternoon.

“They have nothing to do with the revolution. They are completely disconnected,” she said, voicing a viewpoint that has become the standard criticism not only of the ruling parties, but of the opposition blocs.

Such criticisms are not just coming from Tunisian activists. Amnesty International, the UK-based human rights advocacy group, issued a briefing on Tuesday warning that the transitional authority had not yet gone far enough to protect the gains of the revolution.

“The authorities need to seize this historic opportunity and confront the painful legacy of abuse and violations of the past and enshrine in law and in practice universal human rights with the aim of making the rule of law a reality in the new Tunisia,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy programme director.

Opposition gets organised

The Troika still has its supporters. Several hundred people waving Ennahdha flags rallied outside constituent assembly on Tuesday to in support of the Ennahdha-led government, a source at the scene told Al Jazeera.

In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s chairman said the party “pledges to continue working with our national partners towards building the future Tunisia, through dismantling the system of corruption and despotism and building a national consensus that takes Tunisians forward towards the protection of their revolution and achievement of its aims”.

A year after the election, however, the coalition faces a much more organised opposition than it did in the 2011 election, which saw some 81 parties and nearly as many independent candidates compete. 

There’s the Call of Tunisia party (Nidaa Touns in Arabic), a secular right-wing movement that emerged in April to take the gap once occupied by Ben Ali’s now disbanded Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Led by is likely to do well with conservatives nostalgic for the calm before the uprising.

On the left, eleven smaller parties, including communists and Baathists, came together in October under the banner of a new movement, the Popular Front. One of the leading members of the movement is Hamma Hammami, who has managed to come through the country’s political transition with his credibility amongst supporters of the uprising relatively intact – so far at least.

“The Troika has clearly and pitifully failed in its mission,” Hammami, the movement’s spokesperson, was quoted as saying by Tunisian media on Tuesday, criticising the amount of time it was taking to write the constitution.

All of these movements are led by figures who have been politically active for years. To date, the Tunisian political scene has been markedly lacking in any new blood. The young people who succeeded in toppling the former regime have not yet formed any credible political counterforce that represents the future as they envision it, perhaps because their disillusionment with the political class runs so deep.

Slah Eddin Kchouk, leader of the less mainstream Tunisian Pirate Party, which advocates direct democracy and freedom of expression, was also amongst the protesters in central Tunis on Tuesday.

“The classic political parties are trying to buy and sell people. The youth of Tunisia, we refuse this masquerade, this system,” he said. “All they want is power, they don’t listen to us. They have betrayed the people.”

Consistent with the spirit of the uprising, many of the younger activists tend to advocate a strongly anti-authoritarian, often anarchist ethos – which they express online and in street protests – without wholeheartedly embracing any of the more traditional parties currently on offer.

Kasmi sees potential in the Popular Front, but says it cannot yet lay claim to being the voice of the youth.

“We don’t see ourselves in any of the existing parties,” she said. “We’re sick of disconnected old people coming up with projects that have nothing to do with our aspirations.”

Goading from Salafists

At the other end of the spectrum, the Troika is under pressure from ultra-conservative Salafists. Many of Tunisia’s vocal Salafist minority reject the principle of democracy and have called on Ennahdha to take a firmer grip on power and to be less forgiving of secular opposition.

Hundreds of Ennahdha supporters showed their support for the Troika on the election anniversary [Rabiî Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]

Abou Iyadh, also known as Seif Allah Ben Hassine, the leader of Tunisia’s ultra-conservative Ansar al-Sharia movement, condemned the ruling coalition in a video statement published on YouTube on the eve of the election anniversary. 

Ben Hassine is allegedly one of the main instigators of the violent protests outside the US embassy in Tunisia on September 14.

In the video, Ben Hassine says the Ennahdha-led government has strayed from the “true” path of Islam, and criticised the foreign affairs minister Rafik Abdessalem for having expressed relief that no Americans were killed during the violence in September, without directly naming him.

Ben Hassine was critical of the coalition government, including members of Ennahdha.

“You are humiliated. Everyone hates you, everyone looks down on you,” he said of the Troika.

“You have been extraordinarily submissive in your decisions,” he said, in what appeared to be a call for Ennahdha to be more hardline.

He saved his most direct criticism for Ennahdha’s ally, President Moncef Marzoui of the secular-left Congress for the Republic, calling him “al-Maatouh,” an Arabic term that loosely translates as “idiot”.

“He [Marzouki] doesn’t have any power and America controls him and his government,” Lyadh said.

Although Ben Hassine is wanted by police, he has mysteriously managed to evade arrest leading many Tunisian opposition activists to accuse the interior ministry of complicity.

In late September, Marzouki said Salafists were “very, very dangerous” to the security of Tunisia.

Amnesty International’s briefing noted the Tunisian authorities’ apparent unwillingness to protect the rest of the population from attacks and acts of intimidation from the Salafists.

Olivia Gré, head of Reporters Without Borders Tunisia office, said that while the government had recently promised to enshrine media freedoms into law, the authorities were slow to adapt to the profound cultural changes.

“The values of freedom of the press are now deeply ingrained in Tunisian media culture,” she told Al Jazeera.

“This current government cannot be held responsible for the legislation that they inherited from Ben Ali, especially since they themselves were victim of the repression,” she said. “But they haven’t acted as quickly as they should have to change that legislation.”

Particularly alarming, she said, was “climate of impunity and indifference” when it came to increasingly frequent physical attacks on journalists.

“Whether it is an attack by police, civilians or Salafists, not a single aggression against a journalist or blogger has been punished,” she said.

With the next election set for June 23, 2013, the constituent assembly has another six months to complete its task. If the first year is anything to go by, Tunisian activists remain as vigilant as ever to take to the streets if they believe the authorities have not gone far enough to dismantle the vestiges of the previous regime.

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter at: @yasmineryan

Source: Al Jazeera