Three weeks after the Tunisian people ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, I was delighted to attend talks in Tunis with the new interim government as part of an ad hoc parliamentary delegation.
The delegation met with Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Foreign Minister, Ahmed Ounais, the Defence Minister, Abdelkrim Zbidi, and the Minister of Justice, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi. We were also able to meet with the leaders of the major political forces. We were pleased to note the decisions taken on a general amnesty, legalisation of political parties and NGOs, accession to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, and to the UN Convention against Torture.
We also held meetings with representatives of civil society, trade unions and professional associations. The importance of a strong civil society is generally considered a vital prerequisite in developing and maintaining a strong and healthy democracy.
Just as vital, is a free and independent media. After 23 years of authoritarian rule journalists in Tunisia are savouring their freedom, with many senior editors being pressured to resign in order to make way for the new order.
Our task was to ascertain how we could aid and show our support for the democratic process and to the 10 million people of Tunisia.
This revolution is the people’s revolution, and emanated from the despair that led a man, Mohamed Bouazizi, to burn himself to death on December 17th. He wasn’t a terrorist; he did not want to harm anyone else, it seems that he felt that life without the oxygen of democracy was suffocating his core being.
Events culminated on January 14th in mass protests that led President Ben Ali to flee the country and to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia after 23 years of dictatorship.
It has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution, in Persian ´yasmin´ means ‘gift of God’, but this revolution was a mortal one, a secular revolution borne of frustration.
During our visit, other than the occasional sighting of Army trucks, barbed wire and the curfew there was actually little evidence of revolution, and the infrastructure, electricity, water, food, petrol was all functioning. The delegation encountered some demonstrations outside government offices by people who were unhappy at the speed of new legislation on for example a General Amnesty to political prisoners.
The feeling amongst Civil Society leaders is that people were concerned about the sustainability of the revolution. They felt that although the head of the old regime was removed its body is still very much in place.
The Constitution put in place in 1987 is still being adhered to and has allowed most of the old government to stay in place including the Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. He explained his position, telling us that it would be wrong for him to desert a sinking ship. He paid tribute to the country’s youth, 35% of whom hold university degrees, extolling their patriotism and their confidence which he said would be needed in the immense task ahead.
Because of the revolution, Tunisia’s international credit rating has been downgraded; the tourism industry that accounts for 17% of foreign currency and 40% of GDP has been devastated. The Minister of Defence, Abdelkarim Zbidi went to great pains to assure us that the situation was safe for tourists.
The Prime Minister told me that EU aid given to the old regime had been used on economic reforms but evidently the people of Tunisia did not see or feel the benefit. I am calling for an investigation into where this aid went, and how it was used.
Strikes are becoming a problem, as the people tired of being exploited on low wages are keen to exercise their new found freedoms. But with any freedoms comes responsibility, economic growth must be taken one step at a time and increasing labour costs are a threat to exports and to Tunisia’s vital service industry.
The security situation in Tunisia is not critical but it remains uncertain. The Military played a pivotal role in the revolution and retains the trust of the people. I am minded of John F. Kennedy’s quote ´Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.´
The Minister of Defence, Mr Zbidi, who wants to resign his role as soon as possible, is keen to make sure the revolution is not stolen or abused during this `fragile and precarious period.´ He was critical of France, and felt that the initial reaction of Sarkozy’s government was mixed. He was also critical of the EU saying that it was "offering a little bit to eat with more later", and referred to the slow and uncertain response by Cathy Ashton.
Mr Zbidi hopes that Tunisia will be given enhanced status with the EU as four of the six conditions were now validated. The death penalty and women’s rights of inheritance remain contentious issues. Addressing women’s rights is very important, as enhancing women’s role in society may be seen as a counter to the ever present threat of fundamentalism: the Islamist Party is amongst the best organised of political actors.
We met with the Minister of Justice, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi who told us that "Justice was the cornerstone of civilisation" He was keen that a new image of the country be transmitted with a strong justice system that guarantees the freedom of the citizens.
There are over 2000 magistrates in Tunisia, 1800 practising generally with 200 working on the Court of accounts or upper courts, and it is admitted that problems of corruption in the judicial system need to be addressed.
There can be no doubt that 23 years of Ben Ali’s regime will have an effect on future elections. However, in my opinion it would be impractical to wait for a new constitution to be formed before having full elections. Tunisia needs a reforming figure with an electoral mandate who can oversee the formation of a new constitution removing the shackles of the old, engaging with all sectors of civil society.
Whilst there is clearly just cause for optimism, we must not forget that more than 200 people have been killed during the disturbances that have accompanied this long-awaited transition towards democracy. It is important that those sacrifices were not in vain.
Tragically, there is still violence on the streets of Tunisia; during our visit four people were killed at a demonstration following an attack on a police station, and whilst travelling home on Sunday we learned of another death in the central town of Kebili.
That is a fact that should weigh heavily on France, Italy and other nations that supported the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Nikki Sinclaire is an independent MEP and part of the delegation to Tunisia