Political peddlers: Vending Tunisia

Tunisians are still frustrated of the status quo while politicians act like street vendors peddling their platforms.

The city of Sidi Bouzid - where the revolution that ousted Ben Ali two years ago began - erupted into unrest on December 17 as Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki planned to mark the revolution's second anniversary [AFP]

It is a brave “new world” since Bouazizi ignited Tunisia – and literally the Arab world – two years ago. In his footsteps has emerged a new breed of vendor-like politician that hawks all kinds of creeds, ideas, myths and even hope in the political “street”.

In one sense, Tunisia’s political peddlers have put the cart before the horse, selling “wares” and “goods” in the absence of an overarching climate of compromise, power-sharing, and professionalism.

The missing link in all of this is the consensual culture within which politics has traditionally emerged and has been embedded. Today, the travails of transition are more concrete than any verifiable outcomes, adding to popular disillusionment across the board.

Three aspects manifest the trials and error of a still-promising transition process, though with little or no correction of course yet in sight.

1. The end of the ‘troika

The troika that has led a broad coalition in charge of steering the business of government exists only in name.

When it was first constructed, it captured the imagination of the nation. As a new phenomenon coming after the election of the Constituent Assembly, it was the icing on the cake, “sweetening” the smooth transit from people’s power, followed by election to legislation, and decision-making.

Little remains of that “spirit” of coalescence. And the longer the interim system – now on borrowed time since October 23 – falls behind the agreed transition timetable, the more it disintegrates and loses legitimacy. More ominously, digression from the transition timetable has already diluted the original goodwill the three partners – Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Republican Congress – invested into the troika.

Talk to Al Jazeera
Rachid Ghannouchi: Re-imagining Tunisia

Internally, Mustafa bin Jafar’s Ettakatol party came in behind Moncef Marzouki’s Republican Congress party – which in turn was only eclipsed by Rachid Ghannouchi’s ruling Ennahda party. Bin Jafar, a very skilled House Speaker in the Constituent Assembly, is left with only a handful of elected deputies on his side. Many have re-aligned themselves against him, either in protest against what they see as his “exaggerated” pliant (maybe, client) disposition towards Ennahda or over petty jealousies that have plagued many a party in Tunisia following the allocation of ministries and government posts.

The same goes for President Marzouki, the man who vied for the office of president perhaps more than any other single politician in Tunisia – perhaps bar Nejib Chebbi, once a charismatic and vibrantly dissident politician in the heyday of the Ben Ali dictatorship.

Marzouki remains in the coalition, hoping Ennahda would extend its endorsement of his presidency, to be contested through popular vote when the constitution sees the light of day. However, Marzouki is not the only aspirant, and bin Jafar may emerge as a serious rival since he has charisma, calm disposition, and has not put his foot in his mouth, maintaining solidarity with Ennahda, at least in public.

Marzouki’s statements in recent weeks and months reveal the degree of disagreement between himself and Ennahda, in occasions berating the Islamists for monopoly over political power. Of late, he even dared challenge the Ennahda-led government, calling for its dismissal and replacement by a cabinet made up of technocrats.

Like in Egypt, where the term “salvation front” has emerged as a coping mechanism and device in the context of the latest constitution crisis, in Tunisia there have been murmurs of a “national unity government”, not unlike a political salvo for an increasingly aimless transition. If ever it materialises, it could include a presidential council allowing for rotation of various presidents (maybe Ghannouchi, bin Jafar, Marzouki, Essebsi and Chebbi), each holding office for six months.

This would require re-drafting the interim constitution, the only law in the land guiding the functions of the various arms of government during the transition period.

At this pace, it may not be possible to hold elections in 2013: The constitution faces additional months of discussion; as yet there is no election law in place; and the Electoral Commission has not been set up, even though a compromise was reached for Kemal Jendoubi to be reinstated as its chief.

If there are lessons to be had from the Egyptian constitutional crisis it is that a transition must be given due time in order to come into fruition by avoiding breakdown, violence or ample discussion amongst the country’s new political elites and between them and the people. Holding fire on the constitution until it is thoroughly discussed, vetted, and voted upon by an informed public may be the way forward.

The extra time might be needed for political parties to prepare themselves in a way that enable them to be on par with Ennahda, the only party with a stable constituency, and to have the building blocks of what it takes to navigate the transition terrain without the aimlessness and populism noted of most of them at present, including new coalition such as Essebsi’s Nidaa Tunis (former ruling party members and segment of the bourgeoisie), the recently-formed Democratic Alliance (which includes many current MPs supposedly with centrist tendencies), the Republican Party coalition (jointly created by Nejib Chebbi-Maya Jribi’s Progressive Democratic Party and Afaq), and the Popular Front combining the communist workers of Tunisia (POCTE) of Hamma Hammami with the Baath Party, People’s Movement and other minor parties, generally of pan-Arabist and leftist political persuasion.

In future elections there could be a broader coalition made up of Nidaa Tunis, the Republican Party, and Almassar, and if it is formed it will be an ad hoc bloc calculated to counter Ennahda’s political preponderance.   

2. UGTT polarisation

The worst possible scenario in the current political wrangling is for the historic Tunisian Workers Federated Union (UGTT) to be drawn into partisan politics. The UGTT is a brilliant Tunisian institutional specificity that should tread the current mired politics carefully. It should avoid excessive ideology and partisanship. It is the one forum where no single power claimant, especially the Islamists, have control over. The leftists should not, therefore, use it to fire shots at the Islamists and play dirty politics at a time when the labour force and labour relations need an honest and formidable broker to bargain on their behalf.

 Economic payback eludes Tunisians

If anything, the UGTT should carve a margin of existence that brings together independent voices and discourses that infuses a dosage of equilibrium and level-headed politics in a country where partisanship is proving its narrow mindedness and incompetence. To allow itself to be a magnet for failed political parties and leftist demagogues is a recipe for disaster, especially as there are signs the union is slipping into the slippery slope of divisiveness and polarisation.

The latest crisis concerning the aborted strike two weeks ago points to the tearing apart of the one institution that, incumbent on internal restructuring and reform, could play a major role in the future of democratic Tunisia, neutrally and potently. It can hold its own if it avoids manipulation by expedient forces desperate for scoring political points against the Islamists.

The polarisation trend is deepening with two currents fighting over the steering of the union: The Ashourists (claimants of the struggle of Habib Ashour, a reformist stalwart in the union movement who defied Bourguiba’s political monopoly and manipulation of the union movement) and the Leftists (made up of existing left-leaning parties, including communists, workers’ parties, espousing more radical tactics of labour relations and bargaining techniques).

A perfunctory survey maps out the ideological tendencies within the UGTT. Houssine Abbassi, UGTT chief, who was instrumental in calling off the recent strike, is largely considered independent, but perhaps closer to the Ashourists. So are Noureddine Tabboubi, and Kamel Saâd. The Democratic Movement of Patriots, which views itself as independent but with left-leaning ideals, is represented by prominent figures such as Mouldi Jendoubi, Kacem Aifia, Belgacem Ayari, Mohamed Msellemi, Sami Tahri, and Hfaïedh Hfaïedh, formerly from the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party.

The People’s Movement, which also embraces a leftist agenda including social justice, has two prominent figures within the UGTT leadership: Bouali Mbarki, and Samir Cheffi. Anouar Ben Kaddour represents the Modernist Democratic bloc, being staunchly secularist and embraces leftist socio-political ideas.

It may be inevitable, and quite right, for UGTT leaders to have all kinds of political leanings. However, these should not be allowed to guide how they steer the union movement, so that they stay clear of partisanship and narrow political agendas. Had it taken place, the strike that was called off would have further polarised the country along rigid and rash political lines. It would, in no small measure, had been owing to the manipulation of Nidaa Tunis, Chebbi’s PDP, Almassar (liberal-secularist made up of two parties, Ettajdid and Tunisian Labour Party), and other left-leaning parties as well as the journalists’ union.

3. Localised anomie

 Tunisians frustrated over lack of change

House Speaker Bin Jafar and President Marzouki took a beating in their visit to Sidi Bouzid in the second anniversary of the protests triggered in the impoverished town where Bouazizi ignited himself and all kinds of pent up anger against politicians. Very little of that anger has been expunged. The town’s people have no appetite for politicians whom they view as incompetent and impervious to their suffering.

Thousands cut off the meeting, meant to celebrate the second anniversary of the eruption of protests, chanting anti-government slogans: “The people want employment!” Marzouki and his cavalcade were forced to cut their visit short under the deluge of booing cries and stones. Hammadi Jebali, who apparently was sick, saved himself the embarrassment – but most definitely avoided brushing shoulders with Marzouki.

Since the triumph of Bouazizi’s revolution, politics has had an elitist flavour. This is one reason why two years after the Arab world’s first people’s power revolution, politics and politicians have failed to resonate with wide audiences, namely the masses that engineered the ouster of Ben Ali. Politicians’ narrow appeals to partisan self-interest, coupled with mediocre performance and divisiveness, has more or less de-populated public squares until further notice, maybe until the next eruption from below.

It is true that Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh banned the public use of the Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the site of Tunisia’s key protest that forced Ben Ali out of power, and has de-populated the public squares of Tunis. In this regard, Egyptians fare better than Tunisians as their squares remain at the disposal of the people.

However, generally the impoverished towns of the centre and the south have re-focused their attention to local issues of bread and butter: Employment being the first on the agenda of hot items flagged by protesters. Last week, Kairouan, once the seat of the Aghlabid dynasty and one of Islam’s most famed mosques, witnessed protests. These came after the riots of Siliana, amongst other rebellious towns forming the misery belt of Tunisia that have seen only broken promises for regional development (tanimyah jihawiyyah), a term that formed a cornerstone of Bourguiba’s development plan for the country.

Where to?

With increased misery, aimlessness, and higher youth unemployment, in parts as high as 30 percent and maybe above, the vendors of Tunisia will have hard time buying loyalty, following and trust.

Like street peddlers, politicians across the political spectrum will need more than verbal and rhetorical inducements and ornaments to embellish their parties and convince Tunisians, namely the have-nots, to participate. For, so far the return from the October 23 vote is minimal if not inexistent.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

More from Author
Most Read