“Tunisians are very proud to have initiated the revival of the Arab world”

Yadh Ben Achour

Events in Tunisia may have sparked this year’s Arab spring but the ousting of President Ben Ali from power in January was only the beginning. Difficult days still lie ahead in consolidating the transition to democracy. 

The desperate actions of a frustrated and humiliated young university graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi sparked a revolution that has transformed not only his native Tunisia but the whole of the Arab world. After his vegetable cart and produce were confiscated by a policewoman who had, according to his family, slapped him, the 26-year old Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set fire to himself outside the municipal offices in his impoverished home town of Sidi Bouzid. 

His suicide struck a chord with young men and women across the country exasperated by their complete lack of political freedom. But the absence of democratic accountability and free speech were not the only, perhaps not even the principal, drivers behind the Tunisian uprising, which was to unseat Zine al Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of authoritarian rule. High levels of unemployment, particularly among the under 30s, coupled with wide economic and social disparities between the more affluent coastal area and the impoverished interior regions, were also key factors bringing Tunisians onto the streets in December and January. 

The Ben Ali regime has gone, but the revolution is far from complete. Tunisia is in a precarious state waiting for elections – originally scheduled for July but now postponed until the autumn – for a 260-member assembly that will draw up a new constitution. 

Almost every day there are small-scale, peaceful demonstrations in the capital. And tensions are running high and rumours rife, fuelled by widespread suspicions that the inexperienced interim government is not moving as quickly as it could on reforms. Deepseated fears that democratic progress could yet be derailed mean that these demonstrations sometimes escalate – as they did in the capital, Tunis, on 6 and 7 May, prompting the authorities to impose a city-wide curfew. 

Following two days of violent unrest, Global interviewed Yadh Ben Achour, the man in charge of preparing the crucial elections for a Constituent Assembly that will eventually draft Tunisia’s new constitution and shape the country’s future direction. A specialist in public law and political Islam, Ben Achour comes from an old and well-established Tunisian family that had, on occasion, found itself on the wrong side of the Ben Ali regime. He spoke about the remit of the Higher Commission for Political Reform, which he heads, the current instability in the country, and the sense of pride he feels at being part of the events that have provoked change across North Africa and the Middle East. 

Global: How and when was the Higher Commission for Political Reform created?

Yadh Ben Achour: It’s a long story, which started on 15 January 2011, the day after [former president] Ben Ali stepped down, when the [former] prime minister, [Mohammed] Ghannouchi, asked me to form the Political Reform Commission whose role was to get rid of the repressive laws in our country. Meanwhile, the Council for the Protection of the Revolution was formed to oversee the government, monitor government action, make decisions, and approve the appointment of civil servants, ambassadors and ministers. It is made up of 12 political parties that helped the revolution and non-governmental organisations such as the General Union of Tunisian Workers and the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights. The council also includes national officials and representatives of the regions. 

This situation was very dangerous because it created two parallel institutions, a revolutionary institution and a constitutional one. So the prime minister negotiated with the members of the Council for the Protection of the Revolution, but it was very difficult because they wanted to join the Political Reform Commission. This is how the Political Reform Commission, composed only of lawyers and law professors, became a sort of mini-parliament with 155 members. 

The title of the Commission has also changed. It has now become the Higher Commission for the Achievement of the Objectives of the Revolution, of Political Reform and the Transition to Democracy [the Higher Commission for Political Reform]. This very long title is the fruit of extremely tough negotiations between Mr Ghannouchi and the main elements of the Council for the Protection of the Revolution. 

What are the objectives of this new Higher Commission and what powers does it have?

The aims and objectives of the Commission are to set up and implement the principles of the revolution, that is to say, establish democracy in the country with free, multi-party and transparent elections. Now that Tunisia is heading towards the elections of a Constituent Assembly, the main problem is to select and adopt an electoral law. This has been problematic, particularly Article 15 of the Act [relating to the barring of members of the Ben Ali regime from standing for election], but the problems have been resolved and the electoral law published. 

The Commission is [also] a consultative body, which must propose bills and policy reforms and discuss government action in collaboration with the prime minister. 

Elections for a new Constituent Assembly are due in July. How are the preparations for the elections going?

Well, elections were scheduled for 24 July 2011 and we did our best to meet this deadline, but when you hold elections for the first time, real democratic elections, it is a very complicated operation – for practical, administrative, financial and logistical reasons. And I think the deadline of July will have to be postponed to October or November. We have many, many steps to cross. It’s going to be extremely difficult. But in any case the deadline is not set in stone – if we have to postpone it, well we’ll have to postpone it. 

This is a very uncertain time for Tunisia – the country is being run by an unelected interim government and there is currently no constitution. If you delay the elections for a Constituent Assembly don’t you risk the revolution being reversed or diverted?

You must remember that it is the people in the street who asked the government to form a Constituent Assembly. So we are going to have new elections. These elections will give new legitimacy and legality, which, I think, will be entirely consistent with the objectives of the revolution. After all it is the revolutionaries who wanted a new constitution. 

And the Constituent Assembly, what powers will it have when it is elected?

It will have three things to do: first, establish a new constitution for a Second Republic of Tunisia; secondly, appoint a government – an executive with a president and a government; and thirdly, the Assembly must have legislative power. 

Is it dangerous to be without a constitution now?

Of course it is dangerous. It’s a transitional period. A transitional period is always dangerous. Always. It is a period of disruption, instability and waiting. We don’t know what we are waiting for, but we are waiting for something. 

So yes, it is a period of instability and you can see the state of the country today. There are lots of troubles, lots of protests, strikes and other similar events. So definitely a transitional period is a period of instability. 

To return to the elections, how many political parties have registered and how many of them have a truly national reach? Also, the Higher Commission has proposed a system of proportional representation for the election and declared that the party lists should be split 50:50 between men and women. Why was this decision taken and will it be difficult to find enough female candidates? 

We have about 70 parties, but there are not many with a national political force. I think there are not more than five or six parties that could present a list of candidates in all the regions in the country.

Among the parties there are lots of small groups with only a little representation. Those groups have no real political weight. 

Tunisia has always considered itself as a leader in the field of feminism and women’s rights, and so it is quite normal and natural for us to adopt this principle of parity. It will be easy in Tunis and in other big towns, but in some regions it will be difficult to obtain lists with an absolute parity. 

Will members of the Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s former party, be barred from standing for election? What will happen if they decide to stand?

Not all the RCD, only officials who were in charge of the party will be excluded – mainly members of the politburo of the Central Committee, for example, or the general secretaries of the Coordination Committees and the presidents of the professional cells. 

Article 15 of the Electoral Act has been passed and its application will come later. It’s only when the lists of candidates are presented that we will have to deal with this problem. But only a few of the RCD leaders will be candidates for the elections. I think it will only affect a small number and the problem will be solved case by case.

Today, in Avenue Bourguiba, the main street in Tunis, there are protestors challenging the police, carrying signs and shouting antipolice slogan. 

Yes, yesterday the police assaulted demonstrators and entered the building of the La Presse newspaper. So there were overreactions, and today the protesters are reacting against these excesses. Personally, I think the police have to show more professionalism in dealing with protesters. They should not react violently. They need to know that there are other ways of channelling or dispersing a protest without resorting to the level of violence we saw yesterday. The Tunisian police must learn to react more gently, and above all with more professionalism. It is an ethical problem. 

Have there been any changes within the police force since Ben Ali fell?

Yes, certainly, steps were taken to change the main leaders and directors of the Ministry of Interior. Some officials, especially the ones responsible for the killings and the massacres of January 2011 will be pursued – especially those who, under Ben Ali, tortured and sometimes killed people. They must be pursued and brought before the court or the Ethical Committee of Forgiveness and Reconciliation so that they can confess their crimes in public. 

The socio-economic causes of the revolution – youth unemployment and disparity between the regions – have yet to be addressed. What can the government do to alleviate these problems? They are Tunisia’s major problems. This country has not only political problems but also social and economical problems and they are huge. We suffer from a very high rate of unemployment, in particular graduate unemployment. We have a tremendous disparity between the coastal regions of the country and those of the interior. So we’ll have to take innovative and creative measures in the economic and social fields. We must also review our entire fiscal system in order to reduce disparities between different social classes and also to reduce regional disparity. So, we need to work on those key points and for that we need strong policies, proactive policies that will reduce unemployment, encourage investments and reform the fiscal system.

The hopes of the people for a fairer and more democratic Tunisia have been raised with the fall of Ben Ali’s regime but it will take time for these hopes to be realised. How do you manage these expectations, which can’t immediately be met by the interim government?

First, we need to be very patient. Secondly, we must immediately engage in job creation projects in the regions, build universities, schools, hospitals and highways in poor areas. We need a proactive economic policy. We need international aid from supportive countries and international organisations. We also need to be able to trust that Tunisians don’t want to receive all their rights immediately, which would be impossible. We need to allow some time. Time should help relieve society of some of its problems. You know, you need time and patience to convince and good communication is crucial. 

As a Tunisian – and more especially as a Tunisian involved in shaping the future direction of your country – how do you feel about the fact that events that started here sparked a revolution across North Africa and the Middle East? 

We had despaired of the Arab world, the most rigid [region] on the planet. Most countries change and move towards democracy and encourage human rights but in the Arab countries, apart from a few rare exceptions, we had a totally rigid system with leaders in power for life. It was a situation in which elections were manipulated and falsified, and thus the political development of the Arab world was in a catastrophic state. 

The revolution of 14 January brought a profound change. Tunisians are very proud to have initiated the movement, being the first to have taken the initiative towards a revival of the Arab world. 

Now, even if this revolution fails – and it is possible, we never know – well, even if it fails and the dictatorships come back, something will remain of it. The history of the Arab world cannot be the same anymore: there is now the time before and the time after 14 January.

About the author:

Yadh Ben Achour is the President of the Tunisian Higher Commission for Political Reform.


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