Tunisia: the revolution must continue

On 27 October the Tunisian Election Commission announced the preliminary results for the constituent assembly elections. The moderate Islamic party, Nahdah (or Renaissance) topped the poll, securing 90 of the 217 seats.  It was followed by the social democratic CPR (Congress for the Republic) and Ettakatol/FDTL (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties).  The Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT) came in at the tail of a number of other parties with just three seats, in Sfax, Kairouan and Siliana.

The turnout for the elections was less than half (48.9%), suggesting that for most Tunisians the elections as constituted did not represent the consummation of the hopes for which so many struggled and sacrificed back in the spring. Bribery was rife, with money pouring in from abroad to back the rival contenders. Nahdah, banned under the former Ben Ali regime, was now able to run its campaign from a swanky office in downtown Tunis, publish manifestos in several languages, sponsor charity events and hand out free bottled water at its rallies. This sudden change of fortunes was ascribed by some to funding from the Gulf states.

Meanwhile France can be counted upon to do everything possible to maintain her neo-colonial grip upon her former colony.  The Guardian reports that the French interior minister Claude Gueant was overheard whispering “into the ear of an eminent expert from the commission charged with overseeing constitutional reform” the following pearl of wisdom: “You need a strong man to run the country”. (‘Tunisian elections: There can be no risk-free democracy’, posted on Guardian website by Sihem Bensedrine on 23 October). The reporter concludes that “the current obsession of those who look after the future of France – still Tunisia’s closest partner – is finding the country a third dictator” – be it understood, one capable of keeping Tunisia hogtied to France.

PCOT points to the continued control over the media exercised by agents of the Ben Ali regime as having shaped the electoral outcome, and also the opportunist appeal to religious prejudice to scare people away from the left. Canvassing was still going on in the mosques two days before the poll, and communists were smeared as “blasphemers”.

The ostensible purpose of the constituent assembly elections was to get into place a democratic body that could sort out a new constitution, decide on the role of parliament and choose whether to have a president or not. However the outcome of the elections, a shaky centrist lash-up between Nahda, the CPR and Ettakatol, a troika lacking any clear electoral mandate, will not find it easy to contain the unfulfilled democratic aspirations of the masses.  In September eleven of the biggest parties signed a “declaration of transitional process”, under which new legislative elections have to happen by the end of October 2012. By then, however, the real decisions may have been taken on the street, picking up from where the real “transitional process” left off.

The subsequent elevation of former dissident Moncef Marzouki to the presidency on 12 December has been claimed by some as opposing a secularist counterweight to Nahdah’s dominance, but has been dismissed by others as democratic window-dressing.  Marzouki himself has professed his readiness to be held accountable and quit after six months if he fails to win the trust of the people.

Meanwhile, the misery of the people continues to intensify. In Lassoude, a small farming community not far from Sidi Bouzid, seven thousand people rely upon a single water main along the road, which is constantly failing. Local farmers say this state of affairs has remained the same ever since independence in 1956. Responding to these concerns in September, PCOT explained to the villagers: “Tunisia has been robbed. We are free to speak out now, but life has not changed. The revolution must continue in order to secure the wellbeing of the majority. Some people have the means to travel all over America, others haven’t enough to pay for an aspirin. The water problem could be solved with less than 1 per cent of the money Ben Ali stole.” (Serge Halimi, ‘Tunisia: Democracy Year One’, Counterpunch, 7 to 9 October)

The progress made by the Tunisian revolution in tackling such fundamental questions as these will be crucial in determining whether the changes are to be real or cosmetic.