Tunisia: Ennahda fails to deliver promises of work and freedom

A protest outside a court in Sidi Bouzid after accused protesters were released last month.

Almost a year since Tunisia's Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, Islamist party Ennahda, leader of the coalition government, continues to lose the confidence of those who rose up against dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in late 2010.

Anger was prompted by Constitutional Article 27, which was passed by the Committee on Rights and Freedoms on August 1, defining women's rights as "complementary" to those of men, placing women "at the heart of the family and as man's associate".

This enraged feminists and democracy activists, who saw the article as trying to undermine the principle of equality for all citizens, enshrined in Article 22. Formal equality for women has been a strong principle in Tunisian society since the days of post-independence ruler Habib Bourguiba.

Activist Wafa Ben Hassine wrote in independent collective blog Nawaat on August 3 that "the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that".

Thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Tunis to protest against the definition of women in Article 27 on August 13. Reuters said protesters chanted "Rise up women for your rights to be enshrined in the constitution".

The question of women's rights, and the relationship between religion and the state in Tunisia, has come into focus since the downfall of Ben Ali on January 14 last year. The dictator used Tunisia's legacy of equality to justify suppression of political Islam movements such as Ennahda, as well as taking part in the “war on terror”.

Hardline Salafists (fundamentalist Muslims) were locked out of taking part in the CA elections, but have polarised national opinion with a campaign of aggression against alcohol vendors. The first Salafist party, the Reform Front, was granted official recognition in May, reported Tunisia Live. Ennahda leader Rasheed Ghannouchi attended the party's first conference in July.

In mid-June, Salafists were suspected of destroying an art exhibition in Tunis they considered offensive to Islam, resulting in riots that left one dead. In August actor and comedian Lotfi Abdelli's show in Menzel Bourguiba was obstructed by a Salafist sit-in.

Media freedom

Media freedom is another front where confidence in Ennahda has been shaken.

Two hundred journalists rallied on August 22 against the appointment of Lofti Touati to director general of the Dar Assabah state-run newspaper. Associated Press reported the protesters were angry at the government for going back on a promise to consult with civil society leaders before making such appointments.

Touati is a former police commissioner. He has come under fire after ordering a piece in Dar Assabah critical of his appointment and accusing him of being "too close to Ennahda" be replaced with advertisements.

Minister of foreign affairs, Rafik Abdessalem, was reported by TAP state news agency on August 26 as saying that Ennahda's goal was to "clean up" the media and prevent them from "[transforming] themselves into forums of opposition to government action".

Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki responded to the furore at the congress of the centrist Congress Party for the Republic (CPR), one of the parties of the coalition government.

He criticised "the appointments of Ennahda supporters in key positions whether they are competent or not”, Jeune Afrique reported on August 25. “Our brothers in Ennahda are working to control the administrative and political state."

Tunisian cyber activists, at the forefront of the uprising against Ben Ali, have lodged a bid with the Interior Ministry to reveal the identity of the figure responsible for administering Tunisia's regime of internet censorship, nicknamed "Ammar404".

Nawaat reported on August 21 that Sofiane Chourabi, one of the initiators of the idea, said: "It seems that this government is working on wiping out and marginalising this issue, so that those who committed violations would not be held accountable."

Food, work and national dignity

On the economic front, Ennahda and the coalition have done little to differentiate from the old regime. Al-Akhbar English reported on August 17 that the minister for investment, Riadh Bettaib, announced the state would take out a further $1 billion in World Bank loans.

Radical labour struggles have continued to grow. The General Union of Tuniisan Workers (UGTT), under radical left leadership since its conference in January, has led a wave of strikes in the south and interior aimed at fulfilling the Jasmine revolution's demands of “work, freedom, national dignity”.

City-wide general strikes have swept through Tataouine, Monastir, Kasserine and Kariouan, as well as Sidi Bouzid, the town where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010, which triggered the Arab uprisings.

Day workers in Sidi Bouzid demonstrated on July 26 over a two month delay in wages, reported Al Akhbar English, attacking the party offices of Ennahda. Water shortages in the region over the past six months have also raised anger. Sidi Bouzid's governor, Mohamed Najib Masouri, has blamed residents who failed to pay their bills for the shortages.

The December 17 Progressive Forces Front, along with the UGTT and other forces, organised a demonstration on August 9 to take up the demands to secure water supplies and settle workers' wages.

The demonstration also called for the resignation of the governor and the regional commander of the National Guard, and the dissolution of the whole CA for failing to address the issues of Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia's poorer interior regions.

Police attacked the protest with tear gas and rubber bullets, putting five in hospital. Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni said one young activist of the Tunisian Workers' Party (POT), Saddem Akermi, was hospitalised after he was shot with a rubber bullet.

An Ennahda spokesperson blamed the demonstrations on the party Nidaa Tunis (Call to Tunis), which formed on July 19 and is comprised of ex-regime figures.

He claimed to have "proof that some figures within the region known to be close to Nidaa Tunis sided with criminals, thieves and alcohol vendors to spread anarchy in Sidi Bouzid," reported Leaders.

The December 17 Front and UGTT responded with a general strike on August 14. TAP said thousands marched through the town and rallied outside the local courthouse to demand the release of prisoners from the previous protests.

Crisis of legitimacy

These struggles have shaken the confidence of many Tunisians in the Ennahda-led government to chart a new path for Tunisia after the ousting of Ben Ali.

An International Crisis Group report published in June dismissed the "spectre of a second insurrection", but said continued political turmoil and a failure to address severe economic inequality could "risk snowballing into a legitimacy crisis for the newly elected government".

Nidaa Tunis has presented itself as the alternative vision to the government. The party, led by elder statesman and post-Ben Ali prime minister from February to December last year, Beji Caid Essebsi, has been condemned by government parties as a revival of the old regime. CPR secretary general Mohammed Abbou told Tunisian radio that Nidaa Tunis represented "a return to tyranny," reported Tunisie Numerique.

Essebsi responded to the attacks, calling them "free of charge". He publicly supported the demonstrators in Sidi Bouzid, saying "it is inappropriate to describe this way the democrats, activists and human rights components of civil society who took to the streets to protest against repression and to defend their rights."

Given the moves of Ennahda in office, and the emboldened Salafist aggression since the downfall of Ben Ali, Nidaa has taken up space for a secular-based "Doustourian" (constitutional) party with the popular recognition and networks to electorally challenge Ennahda, unlike the two secular government partners, the CPR and social-democrat Ettakatol.

Two representatives of the CPR in the CA, Dhamir Manai and Abdelaziz Kotti, said they had joined Nidaa on August 23, joining members of the 17 different parties formed out of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).

The left alternative

However, the left has also made steps to challenge both poles of the mainstream political spectrum and follow through on the demands of the Jasmine revolution.

The Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), which holds three seats in the CA and has some of the best recognition of any of the far-left parties, made the decision to rename itself the Tunisian Workers Party (POT) in July.

Party spokesperson Mohamed Mzam told Tunisia Live on July 11 that the party aimed to "avoid the stereotype most Tunisians think of when hearing the word 'communist'", and that people should instead "focus on what a political party is committed to offer them on political, social and economic levels."

The decision came after a long process of discussion and a general referendum within the party. Discussion had begun immediately after the overthrow of Ben Ali, but was postponed for the CA elections last October. This may have accounted for PCOT's inability to win serious space in the CA.

POT has also participated in the re-formation of the national January 14 Front, which was active immediately after the overthrow of Ben Ali to push for further democratisation, but quickly broke apart. Negotiations to re-form the alliance began in July, and on August 13 a first agreement was announced between 12 left parties from a variety of Marxist, Nasserist, Baathist, Green and other backgrounds, alongside independent revolutionaries.

Mohamed Brahmi, of the Nasserist Movement of the People party, said the front was formed "following the example of the December 17 Front set up in Sidi Bouzid".

POT's chairperson Hamma Hammami described the coalition as "a political front and not essentially electoral. It will work for the realisation of the objectives of the revolution."

The re-formation of the front is an important step for the democratic struggle. The spectre of a "second insurrection" may manifest before new elections are due in next year.