As a member of Tunisian civil society who has worked to help the country’s democratic transition, nothing hurts more than feeling obliged to stop those who say its process of transitional justice is better than that of other countries in the region. Almost seven years after the eruption of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, questions remain unanswered, wounds remain open, and the dream of a by-the-book transitional justice has been deferred. While Tunisia has made some strides in reconciliation and areas such as women’s rights, the country’s leadership has failed to truly unify Tunisians in the process of reconciliation.
Tunisia’s progressive achievements are in danger, with deliberate delays of parliamentary work causing the absence of a supreme court and the collapse of the independent commission overseeing elections. In the meantime, unconstitutional bills can be passed by a conspiratorial ruling coalition. As previously discussed, Tunisia’s presidency has disturbed the process of transitional justice for over two years. The finally adopted Administrative Reconciliation Act, which would provide amnesty to public officials for corruption and misuse of public funds, has been the sole project Beji Caid Essebsi has pushed forward since he became president following 2014 elections. After being reviewed by the Constitutional Interim Commission and ruled constitutional by the president, the act’s passage means that Tunisia will officially institutionalize impunity again by creating a parallel route for transitional justice with no guarantees of accountability.
A One-Party State
Tunisia’s legislative and presidential elections of 2014 unofficially announced the end of the democratic transition, for it took the country back to the monopolization of power held by one party. The opposition did not realize then that the dying beast of the former autocratic regime was not yet dead, but manipulating unfortunate circumstances in its favor. Now, leftist and central-democrat movements understand the gravity of this mistake, and so do young activists who do not intend to repeat it.
While observers of the Tunisian scene had expressed surprise at the recent sabotage of the transitional justice process by the parliament’s adoption of the Administrative Reconciliation Act, this development should have been expected. The resignation of the chairman of the independent electoral commission under pressure and the initiation of debate of reforming the ruling model are among the signs that powers have again become recentralized around one party. Nidaa Tunis backs the head of the government, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the majoritarian bloc in the parliament, while Essebsi is the party’s founder. With such a comfortable presence across the Tunisian governance model, and a historical truce with Tunisia’s icons of “moderate Islamism,” Nidaa Tunis has aborted all checks and balances in the plans the constituent assembly has laid out.
The historic public hearing sessions of the Truth and Dignity Commission, set up to oversee transitional justice and investigate human rights violations committed by the state, are seen as a huge leap in the reconciliation path, but obstacles stood in the commission’s way. The commission delivered only a partial image of the atrocities of the past, with some of the testimonies judged by commentators to be incomplete. To be fair to the commission, the Tunisian presidency denied the commission the access it demanded to the archives of the presidential palace. Essebsi held ministerial and high state positions in time of former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Essebsi is now backed by his majoritarian bloc in the parliament, which is also composed of icons of Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally, which have declared themselves opponents of the commission since its establishment and refused to attend any of its hearing sessions.
Now, with the election of a ruling party comprising recycled members of the former regime and the adoption of a reconciliation bill that will grant amnesty to public servants guilty of corruption, can we still talk about a democratic transition in Tunisia? While members of the political class do not promise much, their younger counterparts in civil society have so far been not only vigilant but vibrant and ready to lead the older politicians of the opposition, who have felt lost and hopeless. The last massive march called for by the Manich Msameh (I Will Not Forgive) movement was a display rarely seen in Tunisia or elsewhere of older opposition figures walking behind the young, emerging leadership of the protest movement.