MEI Visiting Research Professor Lilia Labidi, former Minister of Women’s Affairs in the first transitional government of Tunisia, gave an interview to the Singaporean Malay language newspaper Berita Harian on 21 July 2012 about her country’s Jasmine Revolution and its repercussions. MEI Research Assistant Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja translated the article from Malay to English.
Impact of the Jasmine Revolution Yet to be Felt
By Linilidia Abdul Hamid
More than 18 months have passed since the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. This symbol of marked protest that sparked a nationwide revolt in Tunisia later burgeoned into waves of protest across the Middle East and became known as the “Arab Spring” or, in Tunisia, the “Jasmine Revolution.”
Hopes that the countries involved in the “Arab Spring” would take their lead from the Eastern European countries that became democratic 20 years ago have nevertheless yet to materialize.
The impending concern that other countries in the North Africa and Middle East zone would similarly turn chaotic has also yet to happen.
Tunisia, ahead of the other countries that have undergone the protest process, is currently led by the second transitional government elected last October.
It is now preparing to draft its new constitution while focusing its efforts on rebuilding the country.
The process toward democracy for Tunisia began following the ouster of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Linilidia Abdul Hamid reviews Tunisia’s current situation in an interview with Professor Lilia Labidi, Visiting Research Professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.
Punishment for the old regime
Yesterday, the former president of Tunisia was sentenced to life imprisonment over charges of complicity in the murder of 43 demonstrators involved in the revolution that overthrew him last year.
According to AFP news agency reports, he was given the sentence in absentia.
Hedi Ayari of the Tunis military court said that Ben Ali was tried together with about 40 of his former officials, including former Presidential Security Head General Ali Seriati, who was given a 20-year prison term.
Former Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, whereas the case involving another former Interior Minister, Ahmed Friaa, was dropped.
The total death toll for the uprising, which exceeded 300, resulted in Ben Ali’s decision to flee the country, and he is now in exile in Saudi Arabia.
To date, the former president has been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison for various charges, including embezzlement, illegal possession of weapons and drugs, housing scandals, and abuse of power.
Since Ben Ali’s departure, Tunisia has adopted a new democratic constitution and held elections that brought the Islamist party Ennahda to power last December.
Situation in Tunisia
According to Visiting Research Professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS), Lilia Labidi, political elites, civil society, and citizens from all walks of life are now learning about democracy.
“It is important to note the large number of political parties, civil societies, and media organizations that have emerged since 14 January 2011 (the date when former leader of Tunisia Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted).
“For instance, 114 political parties were formed between January and September last year,” she said.
According to her, with the elections of October 2011, apart from the failure of the parties of the traditional left, the legalization of several hardline Islamic parties has surprised many.
She added that several parties are trying to reorganize and regroup in new formations so as to effectively counterweight Ennahda, the strongest party at present.
“Tunisians, who are not used to the constant labor strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations, as well as the interruption of water and gas supplies, are now anxious.”
“Such events have affected the mood of Tunisians who are used to a safe environment,” said Professor Labidi.
This constitutes one of the challenges that needs to be addressed by the second transitional Tunisian government, a three-party coalition in power.
Ennahda is the most important political party in the three-party alliance, holding over 40 percent of 89 seats in the National Constituent Assembly.
However, the number of seats won was insufficient to give the party a majority in the National Assembly.
Failure to obtain a majority in the National Assembly during last October’s elections has led Ennahda to form a coalition government with two secular parties, the center-left Congress for the Republic Party and the Ettakatol Party, formalized in a ceremony last November.
Under the agreement, Ennahda’s Secretary-General Hamadi Jbeli was given the most powerful elected office as prime minister while Moncef Marzouki from the Congress for the Republic Party holds the largely ceremonial position of president.
Mustafa Ben Jaafar from the Ettakol party was voted Speaker of the National Assembly, and is responsible for drafting the new Tunisian constitution. The alliance holds the majority with 139 seats in the 217-member Assembly. The Assembly is also responsible for preparing for the new elections in March next year.
Despite being labeled an Islamist party, Ennahda has promised not to implement shariʿa law in Tunisia.
According to Professor Labidi, the party presents itself as representing a moderate Islam and embodying a centrist ideology that respects the rights of women and will not impose shariʿa as the legal basis in Tunisia.
The Tunisian government needs to address several key issues, said Professor Labidi, including the problem of unemployment, the war against corruption, and state sovereignty.
“In addition, it also needs to write a constitution that will guarantee the rights of women, freedom of expression, political pluralism, and the exercise of democracy, which is currently the main task of the National Constituent Assembly,” she said.
Relations with the West
Touching on Tunisia’s international relations, Professor Labidi said that while the countries in the West are still important for Tunisia due to their geographical proximity, as well as their political and economic history, Tunisian political elites have also turned toward Asian countries such as Singapore, China, and Indonesia.
She added that meetings with representatives from France, Finland, Italy, Spain, and Germany show the importance of relations and links with those countries.
In fact, she said that President Marzouki had recently delivered a speech before the French parliament.
Hopes for Tunisia
For Professor Labidi, who was previously the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the first transitional government of Tunisia, Tunisia is presently going through a very difficult but important phase.
“The difficulties that Tunisia is experiencing are a consequence of more than two decades of authoritarian rule, in which corruption at the summit of power affected the morale of the nation,” she said.
She added that much can be learnt from the experience of mothers who had lost children who tried to cross the borders illegally in search of work or who had family members die in the revolution.