Tunisia: Daily protests as assembly crisis grows

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Daily protests are demanding the dissolution of Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in the wake the assassination of Popular Front leader Mohamed Brahmi.

In the face of the protests, leader of the Ettakatol party and speaker of the NCA Mustafa Ben Jafaar announced the suspension of the body on August 6.

However, the main party of government, Islamist group Ennahda, has refused to concede the dissolution of the NCA, in which it holds the largest number of seats. Ennahda now looks to have negotiated the NCA's resumption.

In response to the weeks of protests, as well as the recent ouster of President Mohamad Morsi in Egypt, thousands of Ennahda supporters rallied on August 2 at Kasbah square. They demanded, "no to coups, yes to elections".

Reuters reported Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi told the demonstration: "Tunisia is a candle whose revolution lit up the world but now they (the opposition) want to put it out by trying to set off a coup."

Estimates of attendance vary wildly. Ennahda officials said 150,000 attended, while media website Al-Monitor reported 12,000–15,000.

On the other hand, independant analysis by a variety of sources suggests at least 95,000 joined the anti-government demonstration on August 6. the day marked the six-month anniversary of the asssassination of antoher Popular Front leader, Chokri Belaid.

The widows of Belaid and Brahmi, Basma Khalfaoui and Mbarka Brahmi, took part in the march from Bab Saadoun to Bardo, where the NCA building is located. The Popular Front began planning for the anniversary march to demand justice for Belaid before Brahmi was assassinated on July 25.

After the major rally, the "sit-in of dissolution" at Bardo continued, joined by opposition delegates from the NCA who have resigned in protest. The protest has continued nightly since Brahmi's funeral.

On August 9, police removed tents set up at the site, prompting activists involved in the Tunisian "Tamarod" movement taking part in the sit-in to declare a hunger strike on August 10.

A few days later, rival pro- and anti-government rallies marked National Women's Day, commemmorating the passage of landmark laws affirming the rights of women in 1956 under Habib Bourguiba, dictator before Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

And on this occasion, numbers reported at the anti-government protest at Bardo — up to 150,000, according to Al-Monitor — hugely outweighed the few thousand joining the pro-government protest at Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

The opposition rally heard from feminist activists, Popular Front leader Hamma Hammami, and Khalfaoui and Brahmi — who both accused Ennahda of responsibility for their husband's deaths.

Mbarka Brahmi quoted from Sahbi Attig, Ennahda member of parliament, who in early July called for "trampling in the streets those who rebelled against legitimacy".

The suspension of the NCA, which is well overdue to deliver a draft constitution, was announced as a way to sidestep the pressure of the protests — but the mass turn-out on National Women's Day indicates frustration with the Islamists in government has coalesced.

In response to the situation, Ghannounchi told La Presse on August 8: "There are excessive demands at protests for the dissolution of the elected government ... In democratic regimes, protests don't change governments."

Ennahda has described Ben Jaffar's unilateral decision to suspend the NCA as a coup, which has been echoed by the network of pro-Ennahda militias known as the "Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution", who called their members to protest it.

However, after only a week, delegates from the governing "troika" of Ennahda, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR), as well as the Wafa movement, announced they had agreed to resume their work in the NCA from August 19.

Whether or not the National Salvation Front, which brings together the radical Popular Front along with centrist democratic forces and the secular ex-regime party, Nidaa Tounes, will hold together in the face of the resumption of the NCA remains to be seen.

The left is taking risks in uniting with such forces in order to galvanise broad opposition to Ennahda.

Yet the sit-in continues to gain momentum. Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni reported that those taking part began rebuilding tents on August 16 as a new contingent from Sousse joined the demonstration, signalling intent to hold strong in the demands for justice.