Tunisia: Old guard jockeys for power amid fresh protests

Protests in Tunisia, May 7.

Tunisia's interim government has again been rocked by protests calling for greater democracy, transparency and for a “new revolution” to defend the gains of the protest movement that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.

The protests began on May 5 after Farhat Rajhi, a former interior minister in the post-Ben Ali government, claimed that military and political elites from Ben Ali's regime would carry out a coup d'etat if Islamist parties win a majority in the July 24 constituent assembly elections.

Within hours, a video of Rajhi's comments circulated widely on Tunisian Facebook pages.

In the video, Rajhi also said Ben Ali's inner clique of powerful “Saheliens” (referring to people from the rich coastal region of Monastir and Sousse, where many Ben Ali loyalists are based) was pulling the strings of the interim government and army.

Within hours, protesters gathered on Avenue Bourguiba in central Tunis, as well as in all major cities, a May 16 report by Spanish journal Viento Sur said. Protesters demanded the government commit to holding the promised July 24 elections.

Oussama, an activist with Tunisia's Left Workers' League (LGO), said in an interview with British newspaper Solidarity: “We were demonstrating to say, 'Who is governing? Is it still the underworld, Ben Ali's mafia?'

“There were journalists, children, even very small children beaten.”

Statements by interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi that the July 24 vote could be delayed for “technical reasons” further angered many young Tunisians, who feel their revolution has been stagnated by the old guard.

Over the following days, protests were violently broken up by police. By May 6, 15 domestic and international journalists had been arrested or had their equipment seized.

That day, tear gas and truncheons were used to clear protesters from Avenue Bourguiba. Left-wing activists and publishing houses were assaulted by police.

The protesters took up the demand of the right to protest. The government responded by reinstituting a curfew on May 7. Protests continued the next day after overnight battles between police and rioters.

Disturbingly, the interim government has resorted to internet censorship ― widely practised under Ben Ali's regime.

The page of one democracy activist, Jalal Brick, was taken down. In its place, a message read: “This web page has been filtered in accordance with a requisition from the examining magistrate at the request of the Tunis Military Tribunal.”

A page calling for Rajhi to be made president was also removed.

As protests continued, the police began widespread arrests. Reuters said on May 18 that 1400 people had been detained and 300 charged with dangerous crimes since May 7.

There have been widespread reports of at least one fatality from live ammunition fired by police during the crackdown. Dozens of protesters were seriously injured.

Essebsi condemned Rajhi's remarks that triggered the wave of protests. President Foued Mebazaa sacked Rajhi as High Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties in the aftermath of the protests.

Rajhi has since backtracked, claiming that the video was shot by journalists with a hidden camera and its online release was unethical.

“My statements were just purely hypothetical and not directed at anybody and I am not responsible for interpretations,” he said.

Nonetheless, Rajhi has become a popular figure among the revolutionary youth; online activists have dubbed him “Mr Clean” for his criticism of Tunisia's political elites.

In the aftermath of the protests, Tunisia's state news agency announced that an independent body to oversee the July 24 election had been established. However, this has not been enough to quell dissent.

The latest protests have revealed a growing struggle for control between Tunisia's revolutionary youth and the political elites hoping to retain power and stagnate the revolution.

Sihem Bensedrine, spokeswoman for the Tunis-based National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, said in a May 16 interview with SwissInfo: “The main figures from the former regime are trying to protect themselves.”

“As there is a certain vacuum at the head of the revolution, which has not yet placed its men in power, the elite from Ben Ali’s regime are trying to save some of their privileges, or even regain political and economic power.”

To what extent the left will be able to challenge the old guard in the upcoming elections is being widely debated.

The Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT) said in a May 8 statement that the interim government was trying to blame it for the latest protests in a bid to delay elections.

Other left parties have reformed and begun operating openly in recent months.

Whether the left will be able to regroup before the elections remains to be seen.