Tunisia: Occupy Bardo

Despite Tunisia's successful election in October, there has emerged a remarkable ideological split in the ranks. In Bardo, protesters are pressuring members of the National Constituent Assembly to pass eleven measures to further the goals of the revolution.
Kacem Jlidi
8 December 2011

On October 23, Tunisians voted. A majority of the Constitutional Assembly seats were secured by the Moderate Islamist Party, Ennahda. Some argue that despite the glorious number of 90% of voters’ turnout - still they represent only 51.7% of the total number of potential voters, using this to criticise the legitimacy of Ennahda’s representation of the average Tunisian. Others – including Sofiane Chourabi, founder of the Political Consciousness Association in Tunisia, for example -  go so far as to say that the revolution was spearheaded by jobless and ‘leftist’ people calling for an end to unemployment and social injustices, before the Islamists jumped on the bandwagon.

It all started on November 22, as the freshly elected deputies met for their first parliamentary assembly, when families of the martyrs of the revolution gathered with some citizens outside the parliament carrying signs to remind people about the objectives of the revolution. By November 30, what was perfectly evident on the Tunisian street was the emergence of a remarkable ideological split in ranks that had remained united throughout all the trauma of the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. It started with a call for a general mobilization launched by the Doustourna network, a political organization led by Jawhar Ben Mbarek, a professor of constitutional law.

The call, so far signed by twenty civil organizations, comes from many representatives of the unemployed in the mining regions of Tunisia (Gafsa and elsewhere); activists of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET); political parties and independent citizens. It states:

“Given the nature of the public powers’ provisional rule and the National Constitutional Assembly’s ground rules which threaten the country’s democratic processes and open the way to the installation of a new dictatorship… we call upon all political powers, civil societies and all citizens to join our movement of protest…”

The protest, which has taken the form of a six-day sit-in and counting, aims at putting pressure on members of the national constituent assembly to accomplish the goals of the revolution, through the achievement of eleven measures.

1. The immediate waiver of the proposed laws concerning the organization of the temporary public powers in the Constituent Assembly, which represents a basis for a new dictatorship  concentrated around a single party which will dominate proceedings without collaboration  with others and control all the state’s assets and its powers: legislative, executive, judicial, administrative and media.

2. Immediate change to the proposed laws for the internal workings of the National Constituent Assembly, imposing a 2/3 majority on all its decisions and the obligation to submit the text of the draft constitution to a national referendum for the establishment of a real democracy through the participation of the voters.

3. Adoption of a majority (50% +1) to give a vote of confidence to the government and the same majority (50% +1) for withdrawing confidence.

4. Live broadcasting of the National Constituent Assembly and its committees, publishing texts /minutes from the meetings to all citizens.

5. Immediate and fair trial of the killers of the Tunisian martyrs and the rehabilitation of everyone injured during the revolutionary process (financially and morally).

6. Establish mechanisms to ensure regional development and the equitable distribution of wealth. 

7. An immediate response to all requests for legitimate employment in all the regions of the country and a review of the results of the recruitment examination for the Gafsa phosphate company (CPG).

8. Purge the judiciary system of the symbols of corruption as an essential condition for the independence of the judiciary.

9. Immediate measures to deal comprehensively with administrative, financial and political corruption, which is still endemic at all levels of the state apparatus.

10. Suspension of foreign debt payments. 

11. Commitment of the National Constituent Assembly to include in the next constitution a ban on any normalization of relations with the Zionist government of Israel.

Even though the claims have nothing to do with religion or any kind of personal beliefs; the sit-in taking place next to the Constituent Assembly in the Bardo area is annoying to the Ennahda supporters. Almost every night these protesters have been subject to aggressive acts of one kind or another. Counter-protesters threw rocks and attempted to destroy protesters’ tents, reported Monji Bhouri, a blogger from Tunis.    

On December 3, the street where the sit-in is taking place became packed full of people demonstrating in what might yet become a historic reckoning. On one side of the street, there are the Ennahda and Ettahrir (a Salafist party) supporters and also many teenagers from the local neighbourhood, all raising slogans in favour of their parties and such Islamic customs as the adoption of the Niqab. These slogans are a rewrite of soccer chants. Monji Bhouri said, “Those participants who call themselves pro-Islam haven’t shown much behaviour worthy of the name – they do nothing but  taunt, insult and even physically attack the real democracy activists”.

On the other side of the road, slightly fewer pro-democracy activists chose not to engage in a fight with their provokers. Instead they turned their backs, facing the constituent assembly’s building and refused to move despite the injuries caused by the stone-throwing. The Tunisian media have congratulated the Tunisian security forces for maintaining a neutral role and ensuring the protection of these protesters later on in the proceedings.

“We’re here to express our opinion. If the other side has something to say, they too are free to do so, but the fear is that they are here to stop us from expressing our opinion” says Jawhar Ben Mbarek. “We’re protesting peacefully to demand transparency and prevent the birth of a new dictatorship. The violent attacks are the same methods used by the Ben Ali regime. We resisted them before and we shall continue to resist them,” added Ben Mbarek. 

Ennahda leaders issued a statement asking their supporters not to join the sit-in.

This violent uprising of Ennahda supporters might be influenced by the recent ban of a college girl wearing a Niqab from sitting for her exam. The university dean was made the victim of verbal insults and physical attack. Ennahda expressed its support for the right of the Educational Institution to make its own decisions, but called for universities to steer clear of ideological and political debates.

I join many fellow-Tunisians in a sense of frustration at the quality of the international media coverage of this Bardo sit-in. These reports tend to reduce the protest to a confrontation between Islamists and Secularists, ignoring the true demands of those who have taken the decision to sit-in.

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