Reconciling with revenge – Protecting Tunisia’s revolution

By Gloria Cheung

A revolution does not just end with the overthrowing of the previous regime, and Tunisia been grappling with this reality for the last four years after toppling Ben Ali, the sovereign who was in power for 23 years. Vast crimes and injustices were perpetuated in his reign through the state apparatus, thus some measure of transitional justice is necessary to reestablish legitimacy and trust between the state and the populace. As other countries in the region struggle with revenge killings and the escalation of violence, Tunisia has been the only country to successfully launch a Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC). Two recently proposed draft security laws might now threaten this new panacea.

Political Benevolence

Having been through decades of stifling repression, it is not difficult to see why revenge and retribution might be at the forefront of Tunisian concerns after the ouster of Ben Ali. Granting amnesty to old regime loyalists, similar to what Yemen did for President Saleh and his aides, would seem almost untenable after civil society had fought so long and hard to change the status quo and win back the right of the Tunisia people to determine their political future. Yet Tunisian politics have been relatively successful at prioritizing political stability over the desire for revenge, especially when compared to the experience of its neighbours.

The process of political transition has been long and fraught with obstacles for Tunisia; in 2013 the high-profile assassinations of Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, two popular opposition politicians, created a political crisis that threatened to divide Tunisia. A similar crisis arose in Libya two years prior, when Abdel Fatah Younis, one of Gaddafi’s former right-hand men and a defector to the rebels was assassinated. In the aftermath of his death, Libya was rocked by a flurry of political assassinations that effectively created a climate of vigilante justice, especially since the government did little to stop it.

Yet the response could not have been more different in Tunisia, the leading Islamist Party, Ennahda, agreed to step down from power in September 2013 in an effort to break the political deadlock and resolve the crisis. This eventually paved the way for a successful election at the end of 2014 that brought the less-controversial secularist party, Nidaa Tounes, in power. The fact that the Ennahda party was able to put aside its political interests and resign in order to break the political deadlock is testament to the robustness of Tunisian political culture whereby those in power do not see violence as a viable means to end violence but are instead able to utilize political channels to address their concerns.

Tightening Security

However, a surge in militant activity in the last year threatens to undo all the progress Tunisia has made. The recent attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis on the 18th of March has invited a radical response from the government; the Council of Minister have not only accelerated their approval of a new counterterrorism law, a new controversial bill that would grant additional powers to state institutions to curb civil liberties has also been proposed.

Both laws have been heavily criticized for containing provisions that not only infringe on fundamental rights, but are also broadly defined to the extent that they are open to misuse by the government. In the new security bill, article 5 outlines that the publication of any “security secret” is subject to a ten-year jail term, whereby the term “security secret” could refer to anything “related to national security”. Likewise in the terrorism law, according to Human Rights Watch, the definition of “terrorist activity” could include demonstrations or protests, due to the fact that they disrupt public services or harm public property. Some critics have commented on how the nature of these articles is reminiscent of the state police tactics employed in Ben Ali’s regime, and could be used to forward political interests.

Despite Tunisia’s trend of exceptionalism in the region, and its distinct successes with the democratic transition, these worries are not unfounded. Tunisia’s efforts to in late 2011 to address the 132 deaths that happened during the December 2010 and January 2011 uprisings were marred by an over-eagerness to begin pursuing trials for leaders of the former regime, a process that was too quick at risk of compromising the process itself. Said trials undermined the Tunisian transitional authority’s ability to provide justice and reconciliation for the victims and their family.

Likewise, the onus now is on Tunisia’s nascent government to take a measured step back and resist responding too quickly to the surge in militant activity with overly draconian measures. The current chaos that has befallen neighbouring Libya demonstrates how violence tends to beget violence. Falling back on violence and a strong state might be the most convenient solution to the escalating disorder, however this comes at the price of the constitution and rule of law that Tunisia has fought for in the last four years.

Benevolent dictatorships may have been more of a myth than a reality in the Middle East in the last half a century, but its not too late to save the legend of Tunisia’s exceptional revolution.

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Gloria Cheung

Gloria Cheung is a researcher in the Middle Eastern Studies of the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of interest include but are not limited to political trends and developments in the Middle East.

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