In Tunisia, a new caretaker government faces policy challenges

Explore similar themes
Human rightsLabour rightsDemocracy

On Monday, 27 January 2014, the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia (Assemblée Nationale Constituante - ANC) signed off an almost secular constitution after nearly two years of bitter debate between Islamists and secularists.

Then, on Tuesday, the ANC finally gave a ‘vote of confidence’ – and therefore the power to govern – to Mehdi Jomaa and his team of 21 independent ministers. This team will rule Tunisia until elections.

The outgoing Ennahda Prime Minister, Ali Larayedh, resigned on 9 January, 2014.

Thus, Tunisia’s Islamic party, Ennahda, elected temporarily for only one year but, in the end, clinging to power for 27 months, handed the reins of government to independent technocrats. This ended a crisis which has endured for over a year.

On the main street of Tunis, the capital, there was a palpable sense of relief amongst the crowds.

In some other ‘Arab Spring’ countries, things haven’t gone so well. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s legally elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the military on 3 July 2013. Large numbers of his supporters have been killed by the military. In Syria, the war rages on, partly fuelled by religious differences. Libya appears divided up into areas controlled by rival armed militias, some allied to political Islam.

On 14 January 2011, Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country.

Elections held in October 2011 gave victory to Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamic party, who formed a government with two other small parties. They were to govern for a year, to allow a new constitution to be written. But they clung on to power, while the deadline for a written constitution passed.

Economic difficulties crushed ordinary people, and a burst of acts of allegedly Islamic terrorism, leading to the death of soldiers and politicians, shocked Tunisians.

On 6 February 2013, Chokri Belaid, a left wing politician and a well-known vocal critic of Ennahda, was assassinated. Thousands were on the streets for his funeral. Six months later, on 25 July 2013, a left wing deputy, Mohamed Brahmi, was also assassinated in front of his house.


The UGTT steps up to the mark

The next day, the Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail – UGTT), Tunisia’s legendary trade union, called a general strike to protest against Brahmi’s death. The union’s executive later called for Ennahda to step down.

Popular Front deputies refused to work and started a sit in outside the ANC. Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the ANC president, temporarily suspended the ANC’s work and called on the UGTT to act as a neutral mediator between warring political parties.

What followed was a negotiating ‘tour de force’ by the UGTT, which arguably spared Tunisia from the violent fate of other Arab Spring countries. 

The Secretary General of the UGTT, Houcine Abbasi, led a ‘quartet’ of four civil society negotiators – the UGTT, UTICA (the employers’ association), the LTDH (the Tunisian Human Rights League) and the Tunisian lawyers association.

Abbasi’s team negotiated a ‘roadmap’ and a process of ‘national dialogue’.

In December, a new prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, was finally selected after weeks of debate. The ANC rushed through the constitution in three weeks. It was concluded with lots of emotion and the ululating cries of women deputies, before being formally signed in the presence of presidents and foreign dignitaries earlier this week.

In an interview with Equal Times, Naima Hamammi, deputy secretary for the Union of women, youth and associations of secondary teachers (Syndicat général de l’enseignement général - part of UGTT) praises the negotiations: “The changes in the [final] constitution came down to the movement of the people, civil society, progressives, political parties and the UGTT.”

She notes that equality between men and women is now inscribed in this constitution, unlike previous drafts.

But she was also cautious: “It is necessary to see how these laws work in practice,” and she stresses the economic problems of Tunisia noting, “if there is no stability there is a risk of going backwards.”


Now what?

The new constitution protects, amongst other things: the right to organise and to strike, equality of women, and freedom of expression.

The state guarantees the right to a clean environment and is required to ensure that citizens have work. Although Tunisia’s official unemployment rate reached 15.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2013, real figures are thought to be much higher and with huge regional disparities - in some regions one third to one half of the population is jobless.

The constitution also requires the state to seek to eradicate violence against women and includes decentralisation as a state objective - Tunisia central area has suffered under-development for years.

But, the reality on the ground is far away from the constitution’s articles.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is putting pressure on Tunisia to adjust its economy to the requirements of international capitalism.

Progressive activists say that there appears to be no alternative vision to yet more neoliberalism. But neoliberalism – the policy of the dictator Ben Ali - proved disastrous for ordinary Tunisians.

The new constitution is only a step on the path; but where is Tunisia’s revolution going now?