Interview: Rights activist Nabila Hamza discusses post-Ben Ali Tunisia

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 5 Dec 2012

Tunisian rights activist and president of the Foundation for the Future Nabila Hamza tells Ahram Online about political developments in her country since last year's ouster of Ben Ali regime

Nabila Hamza
Tunisian rights activist Nabila Hamza (Photo: Foundation for the Future)

AHRAM ONLINE: How do you perceive the current process of constitution drafting in Tunisia?

Nabila Hamza: Writing the constitution is the most important and challenging step in a new democracy; it's a document that sets up the framework for society and the political regime, outlining all the rights and responsibilities of governments and citizens. Tunisia chose a difficult drafting process that has proved  lengthy and complicated. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia had a 217-member elected National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), representing the diversity of Tunisian political ideologies and charged with writing an entirely new document, rather than relying on a previous constitution with some modifications.

The members must come to a consensus on each article, which makes it a lengthy process.  The NCA has already been working for a year. But there is no roadmap about the finalisation of the document or holding of a popular referendum, which postpones the next parliamentary and presidential elections and leaves other economic and social problems unresolved.

However, the constitution-drafting process is somehow advantageous for Tunisia. It created a dynamic debate that includes all socio-political groups, as drafting sessions are broadcast on TV networks. The average Tunisian is now contributing to the political debate and thinking about how to shape future society in a way that will protect civil liberties and human rights. The NCA also continuously invited experts, academics, NGOs, trade unions, and CSOs to offer their suggestions to the established eight committees and their members.

This is one benefit the NCA has over its counterpart in Egypt: the latter 100-member body is heavily dominated by Islamist political parties and is not representative of the plurality and diversity of opinion in Egyptian society, nor is it a consensual process.

AO: Are you satisfied with the proposed constitutional articles as regards socio-political rights and distribution of power?

NH: These issues sparked much controversy in Tunisia, both inside and outside the NCA, especially with the Islamist Shari’a-based world view contradicting that of the liberals. In general, I think we are on the right track in terms of reaching a consensus.  It has been a difficult process, but we will succeed. 

It is also important to remember, however, that the constitution is not the only legal source we should be examining when evaluating Tunisia’s democratic progress.  Regarding socio-political rights, the pressure from civil society and street movements counts: no longer are people afraid to say no after the removal of Ben Ali’s tyrannical regime.

Tunisian political parties have mushroomed from seven to 140 parties and the press from five or six to 60 newspapers. In the beginning, the Troika tried to shut down several anti-government newspapers, but thanks to journalist union strikes and demonstrations, government policy has been reversed.

The new constitution will enshrine press freedom and create an independent High Commission of Media tasked with drafting more specific regulations for the field.  Although there is still a discussion regarding the inclusion of so-called “blasphemy clauses,” much legislation has been improved, such as the legislation governing associations.

For women's rights, the days after the initial release of the draft constitution saw feminist protests against the inclusion of a clause defining women as “complementary” to men, seeking to keep the gains of Bourguiba's years enshrined in our Personal Status Code. After this backlash, the “complementary” clause was removed, and Al Nahda has promised to promote gender equality. 

However, no one can know for sure if women’s rights will be completely protected until the final draft of the constitution is released, so feminist groups should continue to put pressure on their NCA representatives. Concerning the nature of the political system, the NCA announced the adoption of a semi-presidential model. The draft constitution guarantees an independent judiciary and clearly defines the powers held by each branch of government.    

AO: How do you evaluate President Moncef Marzouki's political performance until now?

NH: Personally, I have great respect for Moncef Marzouki as a human rights activist. He dedicated his whole life to the cause of fighting Ben Ali’s totalitarianism, at a time when everyone else was silent.  But it is widely recognised that Marzouki is not the “real” president. 

His decisions have been constricted by the Troika and particularly Al Nahda's predominancy, and his role has been overshadowed by Al Nahda's Ghannouchi.  So his presidential performance has been unsatisfying, though I believe he cannot do any better when he is handcuffed by the Troika. 

It was a good decision to apologise to the girl who was raped by policemen. But it is not sufficient. The real change came after civil society, particularly women’s and human rights activists, mobilised to pressure authorities to pursue the case against the rapists and withdraw the appeal against the girl.  The demands of civil society were met in this case, and the prosecutor general has in fact retracted the suit against the girl.

AO: Can Al Nahda efficiently handle the domestic scene?

NH: Al Nahda has had a hard time resolving Tunisia's domestic crises, ranging from high unemployment and poverty rates and uneven regional development to societal violence.  Most of its cadres have recently returned from exile or been released from prison.

So, while they are prepared for leadership, they have no experience in running a country. The slogan of “Islam is the Solution” will not be enough to win a second term.  What is currently happening in the cities of Siliana, Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, Gafsa, and the strikes, demonstrations and attacks on government and Al Nahda headquarters are a sign that the demands of the revolution are growing ever more urgent. 

The party and the Troika couldn’t handle the challenges facing the nation, which allows the police interference. Thus, Al Nahda must now concentrate on building consensus through political dialogue to address societal violence, as well as develop an economic plan to address the marginalisation of much of the population.

AO: Do Salafists signify a threat to the country's internal stability?

NH: Many Salafists were released from prison under a general amnesty plan for opponents of Ben Ali’s regime during the revolution.  Some of them should not have been, as their violence currently poses a threat to national security and to the democratic process. 

Even if the Salafist movement is not homogenous, ranging from the pacifist to the jihadist, the movement as a whole is conservative. It advocates the implementation of Sharia as the main source of legislation, control of women’s rights and bodies, and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.

They have attacked journalists, artists, bars, theatres and more, trying to press for their demands. The Salafists control over 50 mosques in which they preach their extremist ideas. Al Nahda tried to initiate talks with them, but later changed its approach to allow for dialogue with non-violent Salafists while taking a harder line when dealing with the violent elements of the movement. 

After the attack on the American Embassy, there are roughly 100 Salafists in jail awaiting trial.  Those imprisoned have begun a hunger strike that has already claimed the lives of two prisoners, which I and other rights activists strongly condemn.

The human rights groups that have spoken out demand that the Tunisian government should reform the judicial system, as the current system allows prisoners to languish in jail for months or even years before seeing trial. 

The Salafists will not succeed in convincing the Al Nahda government to add Shari'a to the constitution because Tunisian civil society and opposition are too strong to allow this to happen. Al Nahda has also been moderate in its discourse, saying it will not apply Sharia as a source of legislation, though it has compromised and included Islam in the preamble of the draft constitution as an element of Tunisian identity.

AO: Will Tunisia move towards democracy or a reproduction of another authoritarian (yet Islamist) regime?

NH: Democracy is a long process with progresses and set-backs, ups and downs. There have been a number of achievements in Tunisia thus far, such as free elections, a draft constitution, and other steps, so it is fair to say that the democratic experiment is in full swing in Tunisia.  I don’t believe that Salafists will be able to do whatever they want to delay this process in the face of such a vibrant civil society in the opposition.  Salafists are not the only players. 

We will be able to achieve full democracy in Tunisia if we address certain issues including political violence, the social and economic needs of the population and neo-authoritarianism under the cover of democracy.  We must build pluralism in our society, because if any one political party is allowed to dominate, we will surely slip back into the totalitarian tradition.


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