Voices from Tunis: Insights on election transparency and security

#TunisiaVotes

Middle East Eye spoke with a dozen or so Tunisians regarding some critical issues facing their nation. Their answers were candid, forthright and often surprising

Tunisian girls walk on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on 6 November in Tunis (AFP)
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Thursday 12 February 2015 18:45 UTC
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TUNIS, Tunisia - The past several years have been years of change, turmoil and reforms for the people of Tunisia, who despite having hopes for a bright and democratic future, have many more struggles ahead; first and foremost, being the issues of election reform and security.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the US-backed dictator who came to power in 1987, was ousted by the Tunisian revolution in January 2011. Former opposition political leader Mohammad Moncef Marzouki was appointed interim president in December 2011, by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a body appointed to create a new constitution after the toppling of the Ben Ali regime. Since that time, Tunisians have been striving to move forward with transparent elections and a stable and promising security policy.

Elections

Voter registration for Tunisia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections opened on 23 June and concluded last week. Yet low registration numbers have raised questions about the country’s current political situation.

Only about half of the country’s estimated eight million potential voters registered during the 2011 elections. The latest registration period concluded with only an estimated 760,000 of the remaining four million Tunisians eligible to vote having registered, according to the High Authority on Independent Elections. 

Tunisia’s electoral commission recently proposed election dates, scheduling the parliamentary vote for 26 October and the first round of the presidential vote for 23 November.

Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87 year-old ex-premier from the secular Nidaa Tounes party, is set to be the main opposition contender, despite widespread criticism of his having served in various ministerial positions under the country’s founding president Habib Bourguiba (in office from 1959 till 1987) and later under Ben Ali.

The Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist party that dominated the country’s first democratic elections in 2011, resigned earlier this year after months of political crisis, largely caused by the assassination of two opposition politicians last year. 

Earlier this week, Ennahda announced that it may not submit a presidential candidate. Citing pervasive political divisions, senior party member Ali Larayedh said: "We call on political parties to find a consensual candidate for the presidency, someone independent or who belongs to a political party.”

Ennahda is also “willing not to submit a candidate,” Larayedh added, explaining that the decision had yet to be made.

In addition to Essebsi, others expected to run include current President Moncef Marzouki, Najib Chebbi of the Republican Party, and Hachmi Hamdi of the Tayar al-Mahaba party.

Representatives from 23 different political parties assembled in the capitol on Tuesday, 22 July to sign a pact regulating conduct during the election season.  The agreement mandates respecting the results of the elections and abstaining from violence, reported Tunisia Live, a local English-language online news service. “We must be ethical in our political conduct,” President Marzouki said. “The Tunisian people must know everything about this pact in order to know who respected it and who did not.”

Speaking to Middle East Eye in Tunis, many young Tunisians spoke about their expectations for the historic elections and the future of democracy in the country.

Tunisian voices on elections

 “The elections are very important. They are the only way to pave the way to a true democracy in Tunisia. Although people are not very motivated to participate in the elections, they are the only way, even though many of us are complaining about political parties that weren’t very successful in this very difficult transitional period. Participating in the elections is still very crucial, very important.

These elections will bring new results. Unlike the first elections, they will give us a government for the next five years. I don’t know who I am going to vote for yet. I still didn’t choose a political party because I am waiting for them to release their political parties. The difficult thing in Tunisia is that there are very many political parties. A few of them are very popular and got many seats in the first elections. I think the new political parties also deserve to be part of the post-transitional period. I registered, so I will participate and vote.”

Jamil Choura, 26, male, Arabic language teacher

 “I still don't know who to vote for. It seems like no one actually deserves, they all betrayed people's trust in one way or another. Still, I'll decide when election day comes, because Tunisia needs my voice.

I think the government to-be will face the challenge of security first, both national and individual. Tunisians like to live a good life. They are what the French call des bons vivants, and security is paramount in this matter.

I think that the government should be tougher on violent political groups. This is what makes individuals either feel unsafe or feel like they can get away with a crime. I think Tunisia is a place where you can prevent the microcosm (individual small-scale crimes) by really controlling the macrocosm (political/ideological violent groups).”

Dorra Agrebi, 23, female, graduate student at La Manouba University

“In spite of all the difficulties and challenges, Tunisia overcame many roadblocks and succeeded to pass its transitional period. After the revolution, Tunisian politicians placed negotiation and common goals above division. Tunisia is considered as an inspiration to the rest of Arab spring countries.

The first task that the next government should focus on is the economic recovery to match the political progress. Since Ben Ali's regime until today, the number of jobless young Tunisians with higher degrees has increased.|

After the next election, we hope that Tunisia becomes politically stabilized to accelerate efforts in economic reform and development. The second task is to implement a strategy to fight terrorism, which becomes a severe threat to the security and military stability of the country.

The third task is to establish an approach to tackle the problem of the waste management system that affected the environment and many sites in Tunisia and caused damage to many sectors, such as the tourism sector.”

Intissar Chahbani, 27, female, engineer and PhD candidate

“What do I think about the elections? I just say don’t get your hopes too high because democratic transitions need a lot of time to happen. Not just three years and not just two elections. I think Tunisians didn’t get the right tools yet to vote in the right way. Even with that, the constitution that was made is not the best and most adequate constitution. Probably these elections will be another step, but not the final step.

The president doesn’t have many duties here – just external relations and the military. The main thing for the [upcoming] government is to fix the mistakes of the previous one, like the economic and social [mistakes] especially; trying to find a new balance here. Our society and political system here now is very messed up, so they need to find a balance. For the next five years, the most important thing is the economy; because if everything goes economically well the politics will follow. I may vote for the communists.”

Souhayel Hedfi, 25, male, pharmacy student and civil society activist

“When I see what Tunisia has become three years after the revolution, I cannot feel anything but disappointment because of the dangerous path that we have taken a path that does not inspire optimism and enthusiasm.

Even though we gained freedom of speech, we did not achieve what is truly important, what truly matters, which is the improvement of everyday life and the end of the corruption that absorbed the majority of the country’s efforts towards development.

What actually happened was the total opposite. The unemployment is rising rapidly, the economy is sinking, poverty is becoming more and more widespread and the insecurity is growing. Despite all of these fundamental issues, the Islamic party of Ennahdha, which while in power, seems to be deaf to the people’s claims and expectations. Instead of focusing its efforts towards the economy, it constantly triggers debates about ideology and religion.

I believe that what we truly need is a stiff and competent government that restores order and discipline amidst the anarchy that emerged after the revolution.

In this context, the upcoming presidential election is our best chance to change the people in power, even though I am not sure that there is a political party in Tunisia which has the ability to ameliorate the situation. Nevertheless, what I am sure of is that if we do not vote, we will not get our head out of the ground anytime soon.”

Adnene Boumessouer, 18, male, recent high school graduate

Security Issues

Since the revolution of 2011, and the subsequent establishment of the Constituent Assembly, a transitional government designed to draft a new constitution, authorities have struggled to cope with expanding militancy.

The security crisis led to the Chief of Staff of Tunisia’s army resigning on 23 July. General Mohammad Salah Hamdi, who had been appointed just a year earlier by interim President Mancef Marzouki, came as the military endured widespread criticism for its handling of an armed attack that killed 15 soldiers and injured dozens near the Algerian border on 17 July.

Another attack on 27 July took the lives of an additional two soldiers when armed militants clashed with state security forces near al-Kaf, a northwestern town also near the Algerian border.

Many believe that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, reportedly an affiliate of al-Qaeda, is behind the attacks, while others speculate about the involvement of armed groups driven out of Mali last year during the French intervention.

In response, the government shut down radio stations said to be promoting Jihadist activity as well as number of mosques across the country with connections to Salafist ideology. The radio stations and religious institutions alike were accused of celebrating the deaths of Tunisian soldiers.

Not the first of their kind, the recent attacks have sparked a lively public debate about the government’s handling of political violence and the upcoming parliamentary elections in October and the presidential elections in November and December of this year. Security has become a central issue for politicians and will likely be a key factor in deciding the outcome of both votes.

Several Tunisians in Tunis and al-Kaf expressed a wide arrange of opinions to Middle East Eye, regarding how the state ought to deal with the ongoing security crisis as the fear of more attacks looms.

Tunisian voices on security

We have a terrorist law in Tunisia that is no longer effective. The only solution is to make that law effective once again. Yes, it may violate personal freedoms, but the situation we are in now requires that. The state security at this point is more important than individual freedoms. The Constituent Assembly should validate law that is presently proposed [“The Anti-terrorist Act”] and that will give the state more room to prosecute terrorists.

Ghofraine Heragui, 25, female, student at Tunis Architecture University

First of all, we should restructure the whole government. We are dealing with a security issue because of the flaws that exist in the government. The government should also conduct very rigorous investigations into the recent [attacks]. Either they should have local Tunisian investigators who are experts hired by the government to carry out the investigations. But if we don’t have people with the expertise we should bring subcontractors from France or somewhere else.

The government could also make a convention or a deal with Algeria, where they dealt with the same security problem in the 1990s and did a very good job of handling it.

Habib Boumamama, 27, male, coffee wholesaler

The solution is to take down the regime. It’s been three years and the security situation is only getting worse. We especially need to bring down the Constituent Assembly because all of the main decisions go back to this body, which hasn’t done anything good. We should hand the country to the army for six months to manage until we finish the presidential elections [in December] and constitution.

None of the politicians can be trusted to handle this or other problems. They are all liars and just want to get more power.

Salima Ben Chadli, 31, female, hotel manager

I’m not very optimistic. In reality, I don’t know what the government should do. This problem is bigger than just the government. We need help, from for example the United States. And until now the United States should have been more proactive in fighting terrorism. They are claiming to spread democracy everywhere, after all.

The security situation is obviously going to jeopardize the election process. This is a very sketchy scenario.

Samira, 47, female, television producer

In order to stop the attacks, the government needs to make a deal with Algeria to close the borders. They should do the same with the Libyan borders – close them. They need to make entry for non-Tunisians much tighter. The government officials should be people who are qualified and know what they are doing, not just people who are looking for seats in the parliament.

Our security problems are very scary. I worry about hanging outside with my wife and kids sometimes. That was never the case before.

Abdelsalem Hamami, 30, male, chef

Tunisians have said it themselves, they have a long road ahead, many are skeptical about the intentions and ideologies of rivaling political parties, among a plethora of other challenges. One thing is apparent, however, that the generation of youth in Tunisia is a generation of well-informed, engaged and determined individuals. With such cohort of future leaders, despite all that must be endured, there is still hope for a bright future.