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Tunisia: elections, justice and dignity

It is widely said that young people did not vote on Sunday, and at some of the polling stations in central Tunis there were few young people in the queues.

With the whisper of revolutionary ideals still on the lips of its disenchanted youth, Tunisia went to the polls for its parliament on Sunday, October 26.  Tunisia’s electoral body announced that the provisional turnout was 60%. The final results are expected on Wednesday.

But the ideals which triggered the Arab spring are drowned out by the shout and jostle of the front runners - right wing Nidaa Tounes and the party of political Islam, Ennahda - as they jostle with smaller parties for their place at the table of power. Under Tunisian law polls are not allowed during the campaign and in practice the companies produce very different results. However exit polls seems to suggest Nidaa Tounes has the most seats, followed by Ennahda, and then the Popular Front. There are 217 deputies in the National Assembly. There are 33 electoral districts - six of them outside of Tunisia. Over five million voters are registered. The final count of seats may be delayed if there are legal challenges.

Legislative elections in Tunisia. Checking identity before the vote. 26 October  2014 Tunis. Legislative elections in Tunisia. Checking identity before the vote. 26 October 2014 Tunis.On the right, Nidaa Tounes is widely believed to be the political refuge for many ex-members of the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD) - the party of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  The RCD party itself was banned immediately after the revolution, but Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly failed to ban its members from political life.

When asked recently to describe Nidaa Tounes, the party’s secretary general, Taïeb Baccouche, coyly remarked that: “ It is centrist but may have left-right interferences.” The leader of Nidaa Tounes is the 88 year old Béji Caid Essebsi who has had a long political career, part of it under the dictator Ben Ali.

For Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, its chief, made it clear that, in his view, Tunisians have a choice between political Islam ‘a la Ennahda' or violence. He is reported as saying: “One of the best ways of combatting terrorism is to propagate moderate Islam because terrorism is based on an extreme form of Islam. This is why we, Ennahda, are most dangerous for terrorism because we fight them on their own ground.”

However, after a left wing deputy, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated in July 2013 crowds at Brahmi’s funeral were unconvinced and shouted: “Gannouchi Assassin!”Six months commemoration of the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi. 25 January 2014 Tunis. Demonstration of the families of the Martyrs and wounded just before the legislative elections. 22 October 2014 Tunis.The ‘ancien regime’, the police, and transitional justice

But underneath the rhetoric of elections, Tunisia’s radicalised young people, human rights bloggers and the families of those killed or wounded during the revolution continue to fight for the values of that revolution.  They continue to resist as the police try to re-establish the impunity they enjoyed under Ben Ali, youth unemployment rips apart hope, and delayed and slow transitional justice crawls forward.

Over the seven months leading up to this election the signs of this confrontation are scattered across Tunisia’s political landscape. 

On April 12, 2014, the military appeal tribunal in Tunis sharply reduced the sentences of policemen, military and officials previously given long sentences for killing and wounding people during Tunisia’s revolution. The families of martyrs and wounded went on hunger strike demanding that the trials of the policemen and soldiers who had killed demonstrators during the revolution be transferred from military tribunals to civilian courts.

Demonstration of the families of the Martyrs and wounded just before the legislative elections. 22 October 2014 Tunis. Six months commemoration of the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi. 25 January 2014 Tunis.Then at the end of April in a cliff-hanger of a vote, Tunisia’s Parliament, the National Constituent Assembly narrowly failed to pass an amendment which would have banned all members of the RCD (Ben Ali’s political party) from standing in elections. An uncharitable view is that Ennahda’s leadership decided that a political alliance with the old RCD network would be useful; but the normally well-disciplined Ennahda split on the issue.The parliamentary amendment to ban all RCDistes was lost by only one vote.

Whatever the reason, ex-RCD politicians now parade themselves on TV and on radio admitting mistakes but saying their experience and skills should count in post-revolutionary Tunisia. There are even ex-RCD candidates for the post of president of Tunisia. This has alienated many young - and not so young - Tunisians.

Police stop a court hearing, bloggers attacked

On May 12, Aziz Amami, a well-known blogger, was arrested for an alleged drug offence and beaten up by police in the police station. He had spoken on the radio about the families of the martyrs and wounded. A support campaign for him grew very quickly as Tunisians are aware that planting drugs on opposition activists was a tactic of the police during Ben Ali’s rule. With large demonstrations outside the court, Amami was eventually acquitted.

Large numbers of young people mobilized again on May 27 outside the court at Kasserine on the Algerian border for a hearing against Issan Amri. Issan Amri’s brother Khaled had been accused of ‘setting fire to a police station’ which had become the catch-all phrase for arrest and charges by the police against young activists. The brother of Issan and Khaled was killed during the revolution.

As lawyers for Issan Amri laid out their case, a policeman entered the court and ordered the police to leave. People present at the court said that even during the dictatorship the police never dared to invade a court of law. In the uproar, Charfeddine El Kellil one of the defense lawyers was threatened by police. He had to leave Kasserine with police protection - against threat of attack by the police.

As more and more trials were held against young people for actions during the revolution, the National Constituent Assembly came under intense pressure. On June 2, it passed a law, which granted amnesty to all “acts committed to accomplish … the revolution” from December 17, 2010 to February 28, 2011.

National Constituent Assembly. Tunisia. National Constituent Assembly. Tunisia.However last Thursday, the lawyer Charfeddine El Kellil talked of his concern about the amnesty. He said there are quite a lot of cases which lie outside the short amnesty period. These cases are being appealed, he said, on the basis that “the revolution was an on-going process which has never finished. The slogans and the popular demands were the same. This is an argument, but it is not decisive enough in the view of the courts.”

On June 9, Tunisia formally celebrated its transitional justice programme in pomp and ceremony. The 15 members of l’Instance Vérité et Dignité (IVD) which will investigate all repression from 1955 onwards, were paraded before an international audience. But according to the lawyer Amor Safraoui who heads a transitional justice NGO, “some NGOs were invited but the victims [families of those who died] themselves…were not invited. It is merely to applaud, which proves…that civil society is a mere decoration, not to be taken into serious consideration."

Tunisia formally celebrated the launch of its transitional justice programme - without the families of the victims Tunisia formally celebrated the launch of its transitional justice programme - without the families of the victims.On August 30 Linna Mhenni another well-known human rights blogger – who needs police protection due to death threats - experienced being attacked by the police while under police protection.  Her own police bodyguard had entered the central police station in Djerba and she was then attacked by police. Mhenni’s father and mother were also attacked and insulted when they came to the police station to her aid.

She is well-known and was able to mobilize a storm of protest but she wrote later on her blog: “My fears and thoughts go to the anonymous who do not have protection, nor visibility, which allows them to defend themselves against police violence.”

As the election rolled out, the challenge facing the IVD’s role in transitional justice became clearer. The IVD held public meetings to inform Tunisians about their work. At one held in Ben Arous on October 18, two ex-political prisoners grilled members of the IVD: “Will the investigators have access to the archives?” “The torturers of yesterday may become deputies in the new National Assembly, how will you investigate them?” “Thousands of activist-students who were arrested were not allowed to finish their studies under the dictatorship, will you look at their cases?” “What about those who self-exiled during the dictatorship?”

Unemployment, low salaries and despair

Election rhetoric cannot obliterate completely the harsh reality of life for many Tunisians three years after the revolution.

The World Bank in an October report says that Tunisia has a large number, “of young men and women aged 15 to 29 who are not in employment, nor education nor training.” The report says that for young men the figure is 20.3 percent (urban) and 33.4 percent (rural). For women the figures are 32.4 percent (urban) and 50.4 percent (rural).

It is widely said that young people did not vote on Sunday, and at some of the polling stations in central Tunis there were few young people in the queues.

At a recent demonstration for the families of the martyrs and wounded, a young activist said of his non-participation in the elections, “I boycott not only the elections but the whole revolutionary process. It is a false process, it is not a transitional democracy. Quite simply it is a system to renew what is already in place.”

As Sadok Mhenni, a veteran left-winger who was imprisoned under Habib Bourguiba put it: “I don’t think that these elections are the end of the democratic process. The government will be despotic.”

In a Tunis polling station, an election observer, Shaheen Abbssai, explained that even employed Tunisians face serious difficulties. The minimum salary is now 320 Dinars (139 Euros) per month. If a family is completely destitute they can receive a small state benefit of 110 Dinars (48 Euros) per month. They can receive emergency treatment in hospitals but have to pay for any medicine and non-urgent treatment. A recent survey found that 58% of Tunisian households in the sample had an income of less than 500 Dinars (218 Euros) per month.

The old and new conservative elites on both sides of the secular/Islamic divide will be the beneficiaries of the elections. But most of the issues which triggered the revolution remain live: police impunity; unemployment particularly amongst youth; inequality; and the lack of justice, dignity and hope.

All photographs by Isabelle Merminod

About the authors

Tim Baster is a freelance journalist working in the fields of human rights, minorities, social movements and migration.

Isabelle Merminod is a freelance photojournalist working in particular in the borders of the European Union.


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