Tunisia: The return of street politics

Political posturing between opposing blocks is increasing the inevitability of further unrest and public demonstrations.

Tunisia demonstration
Tit-for-tat type muscle-flexing is likely to go on, and if not contained soon, street manifestations when tensions are running high could trigger more violence, writes author [AFP]

The political feuds, violence and attendant narratives of insecurity and mutual exclusion are now derailing the democratic process inaugurated in October 2011. Instead of democratic breakthrough, the birthplace of the Arab Spring is now experiencing temporary breakdown. ‘Street politics’ virtually takes centre stage, whilst existing institutions such as the Constituent Assembly and government are partly relegated to the margins.

The developments on the ground command close scrutiny as questions about the current state of affairs multiply and precise answers elude. 

The National Army Taking Charge?

Generally, has Tunisia’s politicians lost the plot? 

The test of good governance is not something current political elites have been coached to measure up to. Authoritarianism emasculated them, robbing them of a space for sharpening political skills and learning the art of compromise. Despite huge sacrifices, these elites neither engineered the most important ‘dramatic moment’ in the country’s modern political history, nor have they lived up to the rules of engagement in the interim transitional phase: deliver consensus, a constitution, a new electoral law and institutions with which to navigate the rough terrain of democratic transition. 

The national army is today more visible in the streets of Tunis and other cities. May be General Rachid Bin Ammar thinks polity has failed, and he and his soldiers should re-position themselves just in case street politics escalate into endless duels between diametrically opposed groupings poised to stage manifestations aimed at the minds and souls of increasingly confused and disillusioned public. The public mood is rapidly swinging to support of the army as a care-taker and guarantor of order until elections are held and permanent institutions ease the country out of the protracted interim phase.

Right now, things are looking as if the ‘interim game’ is becoming the only ‘end game’: an endless state of provisional legitimacy without performance legitimacy. That is, elected politicians and their parties have thus far failed to deliver the aforementioned goods of good governance. There have been for some time arguments in favour of the army stepping into a care-taker role. 

In the current context of worsening violence, General Bin Ammar remains very popular and his role in the ouster of Bin Ali is not shared by a single Tunisia official or politician. Only the UGTT and the Lawyers’ Union come close to claiming such bona fides in relation to Tunisia’s revolution. 

As political violence increases and consensus dissipates, the army is returning to the streets, and most likely this is not a single-handed undertaking. Others in government, including the embattled Prime Minister, Hammadi Jebali, President Moncef Marzouki, and House Speaker, Mustafa Bin Ja’afar, could have been parties to consultation with General Bin Ammar over containment of disorder. 

Street Politics and ‘Protection of the Revolution’

A revolution defensible by batons and bullets is not worthy of the name ‘revolution’. Revolutions create durability through ethical, legal, democratic and popular means of self-regeneration.

It is patronising for any single Tunisia group of claiming guardianship over the revolution, by enacting laws to protect it or cultivating mob culture to defend it. 

There is no substitute for the ballot. Like those who executed Chokri Belaid, the advocates of protection forget one thing: revolutions do their own sifting and need not exclusionary measures or killing on their behalf.

Thus the escalation of violence and the increasing ubiquity of non-state actors who are taking the law into their own hands, policing neighbourhoods, streets or buildings is a response to the logic of protecting the revolution. From whom? For whom? Tunisians alone should do the eliminating by voting in and out of office or parliament. 

The Salafists are a prime example of a group ruling the streets of many a Tunisian town. They are not the only culprits: the UGTT itself had at least on one occasion displayed similar tendencies with its vigilantes using batons systematically against Islamist protestors, amongst others. The batons of one size and shape hint of the slippery slope of self-protection and policing assumed by the big political players in Tunisia. The same applies to the Nahda-affiliated groupings with the self-appointed role of protecting the revolution. 

This is totally inimical to democratic reconstruction, law and order, and the requirement of sole legal monopoly over use of force by official authorities accountable to democratically elected the administrators and representative bodies.  Whatever the motivation, those who have veered from this standard are today guilty of acts that have contributed to the degeneration of Tunisia’s promising democratic debut.  

Street Politics: Funerals and Manifestations

Chokri Belaid’s funeral was staged in a way that set the scene for duels between the secularists and Islamists as to who commands more following amongst the public. 

The funeral in the famous Jellaz cemetery did draw thousands from all walks of life and political colours mostly to condemn the killing. For a core secularist constituency the manifestation had other meanings: affirming anti-Islamist credentials and politics. Thus the funeral procession began in a Tunis ‘Culture Hall’ NOT in a mosque – as is customary in Islam. 

In response, Nahda staged its own manifestation last Saturday in Tunis to show it still had the following needed to be taken seriously. Key Nahda figures, including Habib Bellouz one of the Islamist party’s grandees with Salafist leanings and sympathy, has called for a ‘malyouniyyah’ (million-strong protest specific to Egypt) for today. It is doubtful he will succeed at a time when Tunisia is split down the middle, not to mention the country’s small population of 11 million – smaller than Cairo’s.

More importantly, this tit-for-tat type muscle-flexing is likely to go on, and if not contained soon, street manifestations when tensions are running high could trigger more violence. For the Islamists, at a time when Nahda itself is facing fractionalisation, may be tested as one means of staging their own revolution in Tunisia, especially if PM Jebali succeeds to dissolve government and go ahead with plans to form a national unity care-taker administration of technocrats. For Islamists, especially the faction allied with Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi, the move amounts to a coup against electoral legitimacy.

Of course, claims of electoral legitimacy by either Islamists or secularists must be qualified: such a legitimacy is meant to be interim and ad hoc, specifically intended to produce a constitution by a certain date. That date has already passed several months ago. 

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).