Tunisia: from activist public to the re-founding of the Republic - report on lecture by Charles Tripp
Tunisia event with Charles Tripp
25 January 2017
On 25 January 2017, Caabu hosted an event on Tunisia with Professor Charles Tripp: 'Tunisia: from activist public to the re-founding of the Republic'. The event was chaired by Paula Sherriff MP, who went on a Caabu delegation in September 2015.
Charles Tripp, whose current work examines the emergence of the public and the rethinking of republican ideals across the states of North Africa, set out his talk by asking how an activist public can reoccupy the public space, assert the rights of its citizens and ultimately reclaim the state for its own? Acknowledging that republics elsewhere face similar challenges, his talk would focus on Tunisia, a country for which this question has been particularly pronounced following its revolution in 2011.
The aftermath of Tunisia’s revolutionary uprising has clearly gone smoother than other countries in the region, which Tripp attributed to several key factors: the meaningful role of institutions like the trade unions (UGGT), a weak army which Ben Ali had distrusted and deprived of power, a deep tradition of mass uprising and republicanism in the country and finally the particular quirks and personal qualities of the regime, including Ben Ali’s fortunate misinterpretation of events. However while Ben Ali was overthrown, to what extent have efforts to readdress the state-public relationship really succeeded or has resistance proven too entrenched?
Plurality of the Republic
Tripp began by addressing the concept of plurality. Tunisia faces various competing visions for the state, including one rooted in Islamism and another in secularism. Whereas elsewhere in the region these divisions have been deeply polarising, Tunisia has largely avoided this danger. The main Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda has shown itself to be committed to the country’s democratic experiment, and the constitutional assembly managed to set aside their differences and produce a constitution in 2014 which satisfied both sides. Healthy political differences remain, and Tunisia’s proportional representation system serves to encourage this sense of plurality and the forming of coalitions.
Another fault line which has proven more enduring is that of class. This was evident in the January 2016 protests which took place largely in the Tunisian interior, historically marginalised areas. While such demonstrations are a lifeblood of a healthy democracy, Tripp argued that the question of how to go from the public space to public institutions is still very pressing. Despite positive signs of political maturity, Tunisia still suffers from disappointing election turnout, and the question of how to maintain an active interest in the political process, particularly amongst the marginalised, remains.
As well as class, Tunisia faces race, gender and sex struggles, often ignored. Tripp emphasised the vital role that culture can play in breaking down barriers, citing some rap musicians who often discuss such themes. LGBT activists have also been campaigning to repeal article 230 of the constitution which prosecutes same-sex relationships. In Tripp’s eyes, recognising the plurality of all Tunisians goes to the heart of what it means to a citizen of a republic.
Another challenge Tunisia faces is finding the right balance between security and freedom. Tunisia lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, bordering Libya and Algeria, and also suffers from its own terrorism problem; proportionally more Tunisians have joined ISIS than any other nationality in recent years. As such, the country faces very real security threats, as seen by the tragic 2015 Sousse attack. However while the threat is undisputed, Tunisia’s response to this has drawn heavy criticism. An anti-terror law from 2003 is still in force, and is seen by many as regressive and too wide. Meanwhile a new national ID card has been proposed which threatens to infringe upon hard fought civil liberties. Tunisia clearly still ensures the old heavy handed habits of the security forces, who are accused by some, including Amnesty International, of committing human rights violations. An Amnesty report on Tunisia’s approach in combating the terrorist threat is due to come out shortly.
Key in this challenge of curbing state violations is that of transitional justice. Tunisia has established a Truth and Dignity Commission to seek justice for the many victims of widespread state violence under Ben Ali’s rule and even his predecessor. Over 50,000 complaints have been made, and November 2016 witnessed many brave Tunisians sharing their harrowing accounts in public testimonials. Victims do not seek financial compensation but recognition and redress. While some transitional justice institutions and judicial chambers have been established to help achieve this, the legal frameworks have not yet been agreed upon. Others do not appear adequate, and a 2015 reconciliation law effectively granted amnesty for Ben Ali regime figures accused of corruption. The law has since been withdrawn but highlighted the importance of understanding the connection between violence and corruption.
Linked to this question is the relationship between prosperity and equality. Are they mutually exclusive as some make out? Poverty is very visible in Tunisia, evident in the graffiti across the country calling for a ‘revolution for the poor’ and the mass ‘unemployment protests’ in January 2016 Unemployment, around 15% nationally, is believed to be around twice that figure among Tunisia’s burgeoning youth and in marginalised areas. Tripp posed the question of how to encourage private job growth without enforcing inequality? Current economic policies, based on neo-liberal models and epitomised by the agreement of another IMF loan, do not seem to be sufficient. Ultimately, Tripp argued that any solution must address the regional imbalance, with significant investment in the interior, as well the redressing historical injustice.
The travel advice of foreign governments including that of the UK which warn against all but essential travel to Tunisia is not helping the economy either. On how to find the right balance, Tripp understood the UK’s concerns about the safety of its citizens in Tunisia, but urged on the government to consider ways of compensating for Tunisia’s economic loss, efforts which UK industry should lead.
Many thanks to Charles Tripp for giving this insightful talk, Paula Sherriff for chairing it, and to all those who attended who took part.