On Sunday, Tunisians voted in the first comprehensive legislative elections since the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began the long and tortuous path along the Arab Spring. Well over 1,000 candidates from 120 parties are participating in the elections for 217 seats in the National Assembly, and will be followed by the country’s first free regularly scheduled presidential elections on November 27.
It’s clear, as Human Rights Watch has declared, that these elections present “a significant step in the country’s transition to democracy”. Yet elections, even if they’re relatively free and fair, are not the measure of democracy. The elections are being held in the wake of a new constitution that includes unprecedented protections for fundamental rights.
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It’s worth noting, however, that many constitutions around the world (such as those of Egypt and Morocco) have strong rights protections. But they are not worth the proverbial paper they’re printed on if the laws governing every day life are not harmonised with these principles, and police and other tools of political and police power are not forced to operate within this system.
In Tunisia’s case, the continued power of the old system, in particular that of the interior ministry and Ben Ali-era holdovers in the judiciary, constitute a particular threat to the country realising its democratic potential, as the imprisonment of activists and artists like Weled El 15 and Abidi Nejib who have been jailed for criticising police, illustrates. As one activist dismissively remarked, “At least Ben Ali rarely jailed anyone directly for freedom of expression. He’d always plant drugs or something. Now you actually have people jailed on speech grounds. Is this really progress?”
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Another area where words and deeds are still far apart concerns the guarantees in the new constitution for economic and social rights, as laid out in Articles 12 and 40.
A recent New York Times article about the ease with which ISIL-style ideologies are spreading throughout Tunis highlights the fundamental importance of guaranteeing a minimum standard of working and wage conditions.
What is striking about the article, which focuses on the appeal of ISIL, is that almost everyone interviewed for the story invoked economic problems – poverty, rampant inequality, lack of opportunity, the chance to at least find paid work, a home and a wife in ISIL-controlled areas – as a primary reason for their support.
Despite ongoing examples of police torture and a difficult economic situation, Tunisia’s progress on human rights is still far ahead of most of its fellow Arab countries, putting it near the front ranks globally of political systems in which rights are not just paid lip service, but actually protected.
Today, according to Abdel Basset Hassan, director of the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunis, “human rights are being institutionalised to a strong degree. As important, they are being integrated into the daily social life of poor and working class Tunisians”, far more so than in Morocco or Egypt.
This process is exemplified by the establishment of Dar Essaida, or Saida House, a human rights centre located in and emerging from the local community in one of Tunis’ poorest quarters, which has become a central meeting point for residents in the quarter, and is helping raise awareness about the culture of human rights and the need to build it from the grassroots. If we consider how quickly the discourse of human rights was turned against activists by the government in Egypt, the need to build broad support for human rights as an arena of constant struggle becomes impossible to ignore.
“It’s about implementing a complete vision, and as important, getting it out to the widest public,” Hassan confirmed. “This is the only way to strengthen advances in areas such as women’s rights or constitutional reforms. But the culture is harder to change, and you can’t just root out all the networks of the former mafia state in one year, or even ten. It’s a long process and it’s not fruitful to use the angle of ‘better or worse’ to judge it now.”
The hip-hop artists who were at the forefront of Tunisia’s revolutionary explosion in 2010 exemplify the ambivalence that remains today. One group with whom I’ve worked since the revolution is Armada Bizerta, whose songs “Touche Pas ma Tunisie!” and “It’s the Sound of da Police” helped define the musical landscape of the new era.
Despite the growing local and increasing international acclaim they garnered after the revolution, half the group’s four members decamped in Europe during its first tour of the continent in 2012. They chose – like so many Tunisians – the uncertainty of life as undocumented migrants to a modicum of success in an equally uncertain political and economic landscape back home.
“Tunis isn’t like Libya or Egypt,” beatmaker and rapper Gela’i Ahmed – who remains in Tunisia – explained to me as we headed to the studio late one evening last month. “We’re an educated people and can control ourselves.”
But in days of conversation with Gela’i and lead rapper Malex, it became clear that without jobs, no amount of political freedom will build a future. “Artists used to have power, people used to listen to us after the revolution,” Malex lamented. “Now, no one hears.”
As a new parliament and president take power and politics enters a post-transitional phase, the question remains: Can Tunisians find a cohesive and powerful enough collective voice to complete the goals of the revolution and build a politically, economically and socially sustainable democratic polity?
Perhaps such questions are premature. Revolutionary hacker and University of Tunis professor Kerim Bouzouita best summed up the situation on the evening of voting: “There is no destiny for Tunisia without freedom and no freedom without democracy.”
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.