Will Tunisia continue its democratic march?

Tunisians head to the polls on Sunday amid fears that voters have lost confidence in the country’s quest for democracy.

Tunis Vocal Tunisian activist and political blogger Emir Sfaxi fears that his compatriots are losing steam in the country’s quest to build a vibrant democracy, which began when a popular uprising ousted former President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali in January 2011.

“We feel like civil society is losing energy,” Sfaxi, 26, told Al Jazeera.”But now with elections coming up this is the most important time to get involved. Many Tunisians are afraid for the future.”

Tunisians are scheduled to cast ballots for the legislative elections on October 26, which will decide the country’s first-ever democratically-elected parliament.

Sfaxi says that the “crucial importance of this period” motivates him in his work as vice president at JID-Tunisie (Young Independent Democrats of Tunisia), a nonprofit organisation that encourages electoral participation and advocates for greater youth involvement in public and political life.

When revolution spread rapidly across Tunisia more than three and a half years ago , Sfaxi , a part-time computer programmer and university student , at the time , took part in demonstrations on a nearly daily basis.

“We were organising on Facebook and other social media, calling for demonstrations,” he remembered, sitting in a café in Menzah Nine, a prominent neighborhood in the capital.”We were using fake online accounts to avoid repercussion.”

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Recalling scenes of the revolution, Sfaxi oscillated between a coffee and video loading on his his laptop.

Watching the image of a blood-soaked youth lying on the ground during a protest, he said: “I was there. I saw the bullet that hit him. The police came with a huge convoy and started with tear gas before the live ammunition.”

After the revolution, Sfaxi wasted little time searching for a role in civil society.

“It was a natural evolution,” he recalled. Following Ben Ali’s ouster, he became a student representative at the National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology.

“In the early days after Ben Ali left, we saw only symbols of the old regime under the transitional government led by Mohamed Ghannouchi,” he said, referring to the then-acting president who served as prime minister under Ben Ali’s regime for more than a decade.

“Taking part in elections, organising, raising awareness, and protesting when necessary are all we have to do to build a strong civil society,” he said.”Without doing all that and demanding accountability for the crimes of the last regime, we risk returning to dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, many veteran politicians, who enjoyed close ties to Ben Ali, are running in the upcoming legislative and presidential elections, and political fatigue appears to have left many Tunisians jaded with the snail’s pace of the democratisation process.

Taking part in elections, organising, raising awareness, and protesting when necessary are all things we have to do to build a strong civil society.Without doing all that and demanding accountability for the crimes of the last regime, we risk returning to dictatorship.

by Emir Sfaxi, political activist

Among those Ben Ali-era figures seeking to make a comeback is Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old presidential candidate who was speaker of parliament in the 1990s.  

A political stalemate was broken in January when the National Constituent Council, a transitional governance body, ratified a new constitution. 

A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only thirty-eight percent of Tunisians “believe that a democratic form of government is the best solution to the mounting challenges Tunisia faces,” compared to a fifty-three percent majority just two years ago.

Disillusioned by the waning economy, deteriorating security situation and general lack of political progress, nearly sixty percent of those polled prefer a “leader with a strong hand to solve their country’s problems,”according to Pew, adding that more than half of Tunisians believe the country is worse off than it was under the rule of Ben Ali. 

Benedicte Goderiaux, a North Africa researcher for Amnesty International, explains that ongoing human rights abuses are among the most important barriers hindering the development of Tunisian civil society. 

“Civil society continues to remain active, demands reforms and supports victims of abuses, but it faces a huge challenge in denting the prevailing impunity for human rights violations in a context where many reforms have not happened,” Goderiaux told Al Jazeera.

The researcher further added that media outlets, human rights groups and other grassroots organisations have flourished in comparison to under Ben Ali, but that an ongoing police crackdown on Salafist groups is “worrying”.

“For instance, the authorities suspended 150 [civil society] associations in July for alleged links with terrorism without respecting the process laid out in law,” Goderiaux said.

26 year-old Aymen Abderrahman, a political activist, who has consistently campaigned since the revolution, believes the most important task at hand is expanding the inclusion of the country’s youth into the political establishment.

“A lot of the young people who led the revolution have been either thrown in jail or injured and brutalised,” Abderrahmen told Al Jazeera.

He added that the killings of two influential progressive opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi, have “stifled our efforts to make a strong civil society.”

Abderrahman says he and many others feel that political leaders, who did not take the same risks and make the same sacrifices during the revolution, have “hijacked” the political establishment.

“The youth have always been marginalised in Tunisia, but especially after the revolution,” he said. “We were the ones on the frontlines.”

He argues that the country’s struggling post – revolutionary economy is the “main issue for everyone who participated in the revolution”.

Tunisian youth face massive unemployment

A July 2014 United Nations report noted that Tunisia’s unemployment rate in 2013 sat at 15.7 percent, nearly five percent higher than all of North Africa and just under ten percent higher than the global unemployment rate. 

The report points out that youth unemployment is a potentially volatile political issue, citing the December 2010 self-immolation of Mohamad Bouazizi, a young man whose public suicide “triggered [the] revolution, fostered by unemployment, poor governance and social injustice”.

According to Pew Research, eighty-eight percent of Tunisians view the economy as”bad,”while seventy-three percent prefer a strong economy over a vibrant democracy.   “Once [the economy] is fixed, everything else will follow,” activist Abderrahmen continued.

“But now, in a fragile economic situation, we cannot talk about luxurious terms as democracy and dignity any longer when most people are focusing on making ends meet and feeding their families.”

Despite the barriers and uncertainty, Tunisia has fared far better than its Arab Spring counterparts that devolved into widespread political violence, such as Syria and Libya.

Tunisians have “confidence in our people,” Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, recently told reporters at the US Institute of Peace in Tunis.

“By the end of this year we can guarantee that Tunisia will be the first Arab democracy.”

Source: Al Jazeera