Civil society in Tunisia between hopes and games of politics

The civil society was crucial for achieving the political changes wrought in Tunisia in 2011, but what role do those changes play today? Journalist Fatima Badri unravels this issue and discusses the problem of the shrinking gap between the civil society and the established political parties.

September 10 2014 Text: Fatima Badri Translation from Arabic: Ahmed Abboud

A look at the reality of civil society in Tunisia after the revolution makes us realize the numerical explosion in the size of the societies, which exceeded 12000. This speedy growth has come from a state of openness and facilitation in the respective procedures witnessed in Tunisia after the collapse of the top figure in the hierarchy of dictatorship. In addition, the Tunisian society has been in a state of thirst for civil work, and its willingness to defend its rights in carrying out public affairs, express its views and contribute to building the future of the country.

Back to the actual path of this large amount of organizations of civil society, we realize the magnitude of the challenges they are facing, especially on the level of participation in the building of a state of law and institutions, and incarnating a democratic system that guarantees the rights and freedoms of citizens. Moreover, these societies and organizations have exited from their neutrality and being influenced by the wave of political polarization in the country.

The general environment in post revolution Tunisia is characterized by the political and partisan actions. And especially after the elections, the trend has been towards dual polarization and the division of the political and social scene based on criteria related to religious and cultural identity and how strong the link is to the former regime. This scene has shadowed in particular the structure of civil society which has followed the general restructuring of the so-called modernists or secularists, on the one hand and the so-called conservatives or Islamists on the other. This has led to a kind of joint efforts between the parties and the societies. There has been a sort of congruence between the demands of the civil society and those of the political parties.

This equation has pushed the organizations of civil society away from the essence of their functions and objectives. It has also been the reason for creating major problems on the level of the neutrality of the public departments and utilities. Some of the regional and local structures have, therefore, been capable of disabling the activities and demonstrations of the societies that represent opposition to the government on one hand, and granting facilities to the parties that are pro-governmental on the other.

This breach of the powers and activities of the society has led to a state of confusion in the Tunisian political scene in general. It has caused inflation in the number of societies in a way that some of them have turned into legal and (acceptable) carriers of suspected and foreign finances that support certain programs of certain parties. Some of the components of the civil society have engaged in a wave of political violence that has hit the whole country. These violent events are mainly linked to organizations and groups which have been formed after the revolution and taken often the form of associations and societies. Their aggravated breaches, which are ranged from verbal and moral violence to incitement in the media and the press and the Internet against the intellectuals and journalists and opponents, have exceeded all limits to reach a level of physical violence, material attacks and death threats against a lot of people and the murder of Lutfi Naqd, a leading figure in the opposition, in (18/10/ 2012) is a clear example.

Thus, a lot of civil society work has openly become out of the civic and patriotic context and who deals with it has been considered as a threat to national unity and security. This confusion, which the civil society scene has witnessed in Tunisia, has had an impact on the level of the effectiveness and usefulness of most components of civil society, especially on the path of the political process and the enactment of laws: the legal texts, which are related to the constitution and presented by many associations and organizations like the Association of Tunisian Judges, have not been taken into account.

Despite the repeated appeals and protests concerning a draft resolution on a ministry for human rights, which have meant to put pressure on the supervising powers, they have fallen on deaf ears. To this end, many associations and organizations have joined forces to pass a draft resolution on the Ministry of Human Rights in the context of their contribution to the development of laws relating to the path of a transitional justice. However, the efforts exerted by the people participating in the research and discussions have been in vain, because they have been excluded in the period of law making. This has provoked a lot of parties, which have realized that their endeavour has been unsuccessful. Perhaps one of the files which have driven many of the organizations and societies of silence is the body of truth and dignity, which has been created under the law of transitional justice. Besides, the National Constituent Assembly has worked on the exclusion of civil societies, especially those who work in the field of transitional justice, from working in the Committee on the sorting of candidates to this body. At the same time, the candidates have been chosen behind closed doors according to partisan quotas and in advance consensuses.

This has made the process, as a whole, non-transparent and raises a lot of questions that are still so alive among activists in the field of civil society that the installation of the body of truth and dignity, which was organized on June 09th, has been boycotted. The fact is that the path of transitional justice requires participation, brings together everybody and neglects the narrow political and partisan consensus. Moreover, the experiences of successful countries have confirmed that the involvement of civil society in the framework of these stages is configured to understand the mechanisms of democratic action and prepare it to play the role of mediator between the state and society so that the government does not deviate from its objectives and the state does not address alone the political affairs amid a total absence of the will of the people to express his vision for the future of the country. Despite this exclusion, which the government and the Constituent Assembly have deliberately exercised against a lot of entities of civil society, there are some organizations, that have popular and historic weight, have managed to break this pattern of dealing. One may wonder what are these organizations?

What are the dimensions of their contribution? And why did not the bodies concerned intentionally exclude these organizations just like any other civil organization? It is related to the assassination of two political leaders of secular leftist parties: Shukri Belid in February 2013 and Mohamed Ibrahimi in July 2013. These assassinations have ignited the streets which have witnessed mass demonstrations and protests, led by Alnahda (the Renaissance) Islamic party, against the government. In addition to that, the National Constituent Assembly has threatened to quit after the declaration of 60 members their resignations. And then, the country has faced another shock when eight soldiers were killed on July 29 in the same year while they were chasing al-Qaida members along the border with Algeria. This has been the biggest loss of the Tunisian army in modern history.

These successive events have confused everyone and doubled the voices calling for the government's resignation and deepened the clash between political factions. This situation has demanded the presence of parties that can play the role of mediator to avoid a state of chaos and bridge the gap between different views.

This task has been undertaken by four well known organizations of civil society, known collectively as the “quad-dialogue”, the General Labor Union of Tunisian, the Tunisian association for defending human rights, Tunisian Lawyers Association, and the Union of Industry and Commerce. And they have succeeded in the declaration of a road map that included a call for the approval of a final draft of the constitution, the resignation of Alnahda government and the formation of a government of technocrats instead. The followers of the course of events in Tunisia may be convinced that these organizations have already succeeded to calm down the situation in the country and get together the different parties around the negotiating table.

However, as soon as we reflect on the situation and facts of the political games, we may be aware of the fact that the government has not been serious in dealing with these parties through giving them a huge presence, which seems for many observers to be for crucial. The fact is that nothing has been achieved except for a fragile settlement that has forced the main political parties, Alnahda in particular, to accept under pressure from two regional players and the new course of events. One can mention, in this respect, the incident of the fall of the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 and the subsequent actions of suppression against the Muslim Brotherhood and its impact on the stand of the Alnahda Movement, the ruling party, on different issues such as the response to demand the resignation of the government. Besides, the civil war in Algeria, which is geographically close to Tunisia distant, in the 1990s, has left its mark on Rashid al-Ghannouchi himself as the leader of the Movement and the pragmatic political position in general for his party. As a result, it is believed that the majority of votes, which the Islamists had got in Algeria in December 1991, have quickly vanished, because of the hasty measures which they have taken to impose their faith on society. We would perhaps be more objective when we admit that the various components of civil society in Tunisia in general are and still in the process of forming new organizations and societies.

Most of these organizations, especially the effective ones in the country, are born after the revolution and they lack sufficient expertise to contribute to the construction of a scene that is contrary to the previous one. They should also include many parties and lead to national consciences. These organizations still inhale the first doses of freedom and yet have contributed, to some extent, to raising their contributions in shaping Tunisia today. Moreover, the backgrounds of these young organizations are not prominent up till now and they do not have clear objectives and programs until they are classified properly and dealt with as such. Then, one can pass judgment on the extent of their contribution to the realization of the second phase of the democratic transition in Tunisia.