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Tunisian activists challenge new Islamist dominated parliament

Week-long protest outside interim parliament shows not all Tunisians are happy with where democratisation has taken the country

Nada El-Kouny , Thursday 8 Dec 2011
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A protest outside the parliamentary building, Bardo Palace, Tuesday, Tunis (Photo: Reuters)
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Since the end of November, Tunisia’s interim parliament has faced an ongoing wave of protests, and, most recently, an open-ended sit-in. The sit-in, in which some 3,000 protesters are participating, brings together several different political groups making a wide range of demands on the interim government, led by the Islamist Ennahda Party.

According to Tunisian journalist Lassad Ben Ahmed, several different groups have been occupying Bardo Palace – the interim assembly’s temporary residence – for the last week. Among those protesting are relatives of people killed in the recent revolution and unemployed citizens demanding job opportunities, in addition to students and trade union activists.

Protester Oussama Barkia, a marketing manager by profession, told Ahram Online that the protests were also being attended by a number of intellectuals and secularists who opposed recent statements by Ennahda, in which the party called for replacing the country’s central bank with an Islamic finance bank.

Statements made by Ennahda Secretary-General Hamadi Jebeli in mid-November, in which he claimed “We are in the sixth caliphate,” have also prompted public outrage. The term “caliphate” refers to a system of governance based exclusively on Islamic Law.

On Saturday, Ennahda activists staged a counter-protest, along with others waving the black flags associated with the hard-line Salafist movement, leading to limited clashes between the two sides.

In a related incident on Tuesday, a group of Salafist activists staged demonstrations at the University of Manouba, in the country’s northeast, to protest against a decades-old legal ban on the full Islamic face veil (niqab) and to demand that male and female university students be segregated.

This soon attracted a second group of protesters who made counter-calls against these demands.

“Protesters who have turned out against the Islamists are trying to send the message that such superficial issues – like bans on certain apparel – are not a priority at the moment,” said Barkia.

The first meeting of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly was held on 22 November, following the country’s first post-revolution elections, in which 3.85 million Tunisians – out of 7.5 million eligible voters – cast ballots, according to official figures.

Ennahda won the majority of votes with 37 per cent, securing 90 of the assembly’s 217 seats. The centre-left Congress of the Republic Party (CPR) followed, picking up 30 seats. This was followed by the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party – better known as ‘Ettakatol’, a social democratic party – which won 20 seats.

A “troika” coalition government has since been formed by Ennahda co-founder Rachid Ghannouchi, which gives his party the post of prime minister, the CPR the symbolic post of president of the republic, and Ettakatol the post of assembly speaker.

Despite a more stable political situation in Tunisia following the appointment of the transitional government – which has been mandated with drafting the country’s next constitution – much of the public remains dissatisfied.

According to Barkia, the bulk of the protesters turned out to pressure the new government to maintain the “democratic path” that it had promised. Protesters, Barkia pointed out, accuse Ennahda of seeking to concentrate all powers in the hands of the prime minister. The two other posts, meanwhile, will be largely symbolic.

Tunisia-based journalist Ben Ahmed, for his part, expressed his dissatisfaction – expressed by many of the protesters – over the slowness of the Cabinet’s decision-making and seeming lack of transparency.

On the fourth day of the sit-in, a number of protesters drafted a manifesto laying out eleven demands, including a call for the immediate cancellation of proposed laws that they believe could provide “a basis for a new dictatorship concentrated around a single party.”

The manifesto goes on to call for such laws to be abrogated; the imposition of a two-thirds majority in parliament for a no-confidence vote on all government decisions; and an “obligation” to submit the draft constitution, upon its completion, to a national referendum.

The manifesto also calls for the live broadcast of all Constituent Assembly meetings, the immediate prosecution of those responsible for killing protesters during the revolution, and the physical and mental rehabilitation of those injured.

On Tuesday, the Constituent Assembly appeared to concede, promising a number of reforms, including a more “equitable” separation of powers and the removal of the two-thirds majority. These decisions, however, were not endorsed by other parties in the assembly.

Protesters, meanwhile, intend to stay as long as they must to ensure a functioning, democratic process.

How much power the ruling Ennahda Party will ultimately have, and what policies it plans to carry out, will no doubt become clearer in the coming months. Until then, many Tunisians will remain unsettled by the new status quo.

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