Political violence could unite Tunisia: Opposition figure

Bassem Aly , Friday 22 Feb 2013

Member of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, Mahmoud El-May, speaks to Ahram Online on prospects of democratic transformation, role of Salafists in society, and problems facing the Islamist ruling Ennahda party

Mahmoud El-May
Member of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly Mahmoud El-May (Photo: Mahmoud El-May's Facebook Page)

The assassination of leftist opposition figure Chokri Belaid has drawn the attention of all Tunisians to the dangers political violence poses for the country, Mahmoud El-May, a member of  the centrist Al-Joumhouri party and the constituent assembly (ANC) which is drafting Tunisia's new constitution, told Ahram Online.

"A big majority of our people are against violence and I hope they will mobilise to stop this new phenomenon in our society," said El-May, who was elected to represent Tunisians living in France in the ANC.

"The killing of Chokri Belaid [in early February] will unify all major political force against violence and I hope this will accelerate the realisation of the objectives of the revolution."

The crisis will be overcome only by a clear political road map that includes the finalisation of the constitution and setting dates for next presidential and legislative elections, added El-May.

The resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali

"[The ruling Islamist] Ennahda is not a majority party in the ruling coalition, and, therefore, they could not alone block Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's initiative to form a cabinet of technocrats after Belaid's assassination. Their coalition partner in the Congress of the Republic Party (CPR) helped them stop the initiative," El-May said

On Tuesday, Jebali, who is himself a member of Ennahda, resigned in protest after his own party rejected his proposal to form a unity cabinet to end the current political crisis and prepare Tunisia for elections.

Though no one claimed responsibility for the assassination of Belaid, some accuse Ennahda of orchestrating the episode and believe Jebali's government has failed to deal firmly enough with religious extremists.

"Today any initiative needs the consensus of all political forces. As for my party, we think that a government of mixed technocrats [mainly for Interior, Justice, Defence and Foreign Affairs] will reach the required goal," El-May said.

Jebali, however, said he would not lead another government without assurances on the timing of fresh elections and a new constitution.  

The Future of Tunisia's constitution

Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly met for the first time on 22 November 2011 as a result of the country’s first post-revolution elections, in which 3.85 million Tunisians – out of 7.5 million eligible voters – cast ballots.

The Islamist 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. The Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party (Ettakatol), a social democratic party, won 20 seats.

A “troika” coalition government was formed by Ennahda co-founder Rachid Ghannouchi, giving his party the post of prime minister to Ennahda, the symbolic post of president of the republic to CPR, and the post of assembly speaker to Ettakatol.

El-May told Ahram Online that his party, which holds 16 seats in the ANC, presented a roadmap to the assembly to complete the democratic process.

"From the 15 April to 15 July the constitution could be voted on and finished. In the mean time, a government headed by Jebali could govern by decrees. The elections, according to our map, could be held on 27 October," El-May said.

El-May argued that such road map is feasible if the ANC succeeded in putting together a consensual government."

What about the Salafists?

El-May said that Salafist groups exist in Tunisian politics but the number of their supporters is negligible and they only focus on violent acts.

"I really do not see them on the political scene; we cannot talk about them as a political current," El-May claimed.

There has been a complex domestic struggle over the role of religion in government and society during the post-revolutionary period.

The North African country has witnessed numerous violent incidents linked to hardliners, prompting opposition activists to accuse the Islamist-led coalition government of not doing enough to rein them in.

In December, for example, 15 Salafist Muslims attacked a hotel in the Tunisian city of Subaytilah destroying furniture and the bar. Bearded men threatened hotel guests with meat-cleavers, calling them "infidels," eyewitnesses told AFP at the time.

The bar-related incident in Subaytilah came after a similar attack on a bar in Sidi Bouzid where bottles were smashed and customers were chased away by Salafists with cries of "God is Great" and "drinking is forbidden."

Violent clashes also took place in the capital between Salafists and alcohol sellers.

Though, Ennahda has promised not to ban alcohol or impose the veil or use Sharia, Secularists fear the party has come under pressure from Salafists calling for the introduction of Islamic law.

"They are almost hundreds not thousands; they are more of a nuisance force that will unit Tunisia," El-May said.

"The demand for the non partisan minister of interior is in part to freely deal with those kinds of Salafist phenomenon", El-May added.

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