TUNIS (Reuters) - In the offices of one of Tunisia’s many political parties, a poster captures the fear that keeps people returning to the streets. It shows a woman in the midst of a protest. She holds up a simple sign: “The martyrs did not die for a new dictatorship.”
Nine months after the revolt that swept away President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali and sparked uprisings around the Arab world, Tunisians fear the changes they fought for may already be fading.
Most people in this country of 10 million are proud their revolution spread to the rest of the region, and keen to set an example with democratic elections in October. But many worry that Ben Ali loyalists continue to hold positions of power and are working behind the scenes to curtail real change. They are also concerned that divisions, particularly over the role of Islam, could destabilize Tunisia’s transition to democracy and leave the economic problems that helped spark the uprising unresolved.
It’s a similar story in Egypt, where the military council that took control after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak has delayed elections in the Arab world’s most populous country. Some Egyptians worry that they have swapped one dictatorship for another.
In Libya, joy at the capture of Tripoli is still fresh, even if Muammar Gaddafi has so far escaped the rebels. But even here there’s a sense that of trepidation about what comes next.
At least Libyans have reason for hope. In Bahrain, protesters were cleared from the streets, hundreds arrested, and promised reforms have gone nowhere. As violence continues in places such as Syria and Yemen, there is a sense in Tunisia that the Arab Spring needs to prove it can do more than just topple leaders.
Closing the door on the hubbub of his campaign offices, veteran Tunisian political activist and head of the Congress for a Republic party, Moncef Marzouki, runs through the dangers.
“We are in a transitional phase,” says the bespectacled physician. “The problem is I am afraid this transitional phase will last a long time and will be harder than we expect... People here think that a revolution is like pressing a button that brings you from the darkness into the light, but it is not that simple... Will we create a new state, with a new president, with a new government, a parliament? There is still a question mark here and this is the difficulty of this phase, the lack of clarity.”
Since Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14, Tunisian authorities have registered more than 100 parties. The 10 biggest — they range from Islamists to pro-market liberals to Communists — existed in various guises before the revolution.
Only a handful of the smaller, newer parties have any hope of making an impact in elections; most are likely to merge or close down. But to the disgust of many Tunisians, two prominent officials from Ben Ali’s now dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) have set up their own parties and plan to run, including former foreign minister Kemal Morjane.
By its own claims, the RCD counted around 2 million members before the revolution. Many of these will have joined the party to speed access to services or jobs, but some still have vested interests to protect or are tied by blood, marriage or birthplace to old regime figures.
“They are shameless and they should all be in prison... I hope that the Tunisian people will punish them in the coming elections and will give them zero,” Marzouki said. “But they may play on money or regional loyalties and this could present a danger because the youth will not accept their return at all and if they win in the elections... we will have a new revolution.”
Three polls of voting intentions conducted so far have found over half of Tunisian voters have yet to decide how they will cast their ballots. Support for former regime figures is, so far, too small to register in the statistics. Ben Ali, politicians say, alienated people at every level of society, undermining his own support base over time.
But 25-year-old Sameh Tweiti, who took part in the protests against Ben Ali, said he is still worried that old regime figures, along with their corrupt cliques, might remain in power under the guise of new parties.
The interim government has given the remnants of the old regime licenses to set up political parties, said Tweiti, protesting in central Tunis at a court decision to release a member of the former government. “It is the old regime in new clothes.”
And even if the old regime doesn’t make a comeback, politics is likely to remain messy.
Tunisians will vote for parties to join a constituent assembly — a transitional body whose main task will be to draft a new constitution.
There is little disagreement over the key elements of that document. Most Tunisians agree it must guarantee multi-party politics, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. It must also enshrine checks on political power by separating the executive from the legislative branch of government. Presidential elections have been postponed, allowing the assembly to consider whether to limit the president’s powers and vest more power in the government.
But fundamental divisions remain, mostly over the country’s identity.
Tunisia’s independence hero and first president Habib Bourguiba was a nationalist and secularist who famously referred to the Muslim veil as an “odious rag.” Tunisia’s existing constitution bans polygamy and safeguards women’s rights in divorce and marriage, making it one of the most progressive in the Arab world. But it also identifies Tunisia as a state whose language is Arabic and religion Islam.
Some secularists want that clause removed, saying it discriminates against Tunisia’s ethnic Berbers as well as its small Jewish community. But Ennahda, a mainstream Islamist party banned under Ben Ali, insists that the clause stay. In an effort to quell concerns the clause could open the way to stronger religious influences on the government, Ennahda’s leader said the group will not seek to tamper with the personal status code, which guarantees women’s rights and is jealously guarded by secularists.
Suspicions run deep on both sides.
Supporters of Ennahda argue the overwhelming majority of Tunisians are Muslim and the country should reflect rather than suppress their traditions. Sick of the rampant corruption of Ben Ali’s rule, many Tunisians see in Ennahda a return to old-fashioned values.
“I will vote for Ennahda,” said one young taxi driver, who confessed he had no interest in politics before the revolution. “They seem honest... They will put us on the right path.”
But secular Tunisians worry that Ennahda says one thing in public and another to its supporters.
Sofiane Chourabi is a young journalist and blogger who organised one of the first political protests in Tunis last December. Meeting him was complicated by the fact that many restaurants and cafes were closed during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This is a new development. In the past, more eateries remained open during Ramadan; restaurateurs now say they worry about attacks by radical Salafist Islamists — a purist strain within political Islam — who want an Islamic state.
Repressed by Ben Ali, Salafists were accused in July of staging an attack on a cinema showing the film “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre” (No God, No Master), by director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken critic of political Islam. The movement remains small and relatively weak, but the Tunisian rumor mill is rife with gossip about their latest efforts to disperse beach-goers and beer-drinkers in this laid-back Mediterranean country where tourism is a major source of income and provides around 400,000 jobs.
“There is a split in society between those who back the Islamist movement and those who back the secular movement, but it is not the right time for this battle and it could hold back efforts to achieve the main objective of getting rid of the oppressive regime,” said Chourabi, sipping cold water in a dingy cafe off downtown Tunis’ bustling Bourguiba Avenue.
With so many Tunisians still undecided over who to vote for, estimates vary over how well Ennahda will do in the elections.
An ANSAmed poll published in March showed 29 percent planned to vote for the party, while an al Jazeera poll in July put its popularity at 21 percent. ANSAmed had Ahmed Nejib Chebbi’s Progressive Democratic Party, which was recognized by Ben Ali and allowed limited participation in politics, in second place at 12.3 percent; al Jazeera gave them 8 percent.
Altogether, secular parties may end up outnumbering Ennahda, but their support is thinly spread. Western diplomats say they are comfortable with that, given that Ennahda has committed to democracy.
“They are in the political tent, which is better than being outside the tent. They say they are accepting of the democratic system and we see no reason to doubt it,” said one diplomat. “There are accusations that Ennahda engages in a double discourse — but many politicians say one thing to supporters and another to the public.”
Politicians and analysts say the electoral process is likely to be threatened more by other sources, including the remnants of the RCD, who are pushing back against the reforms still under way, or the military, should it decide Ennahda has become too powerful and threatens the secular nature of the state.
That’s exactly what happened in neighboring Algeria, which is emerging from nearly two decades of conflict between security forces and Islamists that has left an estimated 200,000 people dead.
Many Tunisians fear a repeat of Algeria in their own country, even though the new proportional representation system prevents a single party gaining a majority.
So why, in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has voter registration been so slow? Just over half of Tunisians had registered by August 14, but only after the deadline was extended by two weeks and registration centers began to open at night and through weekends. A snazzy television campaign to explain why and how elections were important did little to speed things up.
Politicians say the original process — which involved ensuring voters had an up-to-date ID card that they had to register at the place they planned to vote — was too confusing. Alarmed at the slow start, the electoral commission has since said Tunisians can show up on voting day with their old national identity cards.
A low turnout would undermine the legitimacy of the constituent council and expose the constitution it drafts to attack. But a May opinion poll by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems found that, despite the confusion, the overwhelming majority of Tunisians intend to cast a ballot.
In the whitewashed villa that houses the offices of the new Maghreb Liberal Party, Mohammed Bouebdelli argues that Tunisians should get to vote on two issues on October 23: the party of their choice and whether or not the mandate of the constituent assembly should be limited to no more than a year.
Such a deadline would pressure elected members to overcome their differences and hold new elections for a full-term legislative assembly, he says.
The owner of a series of private schools and colleges, Bouebdelli came to blows with Ben Ali and wrote a book criticizing the former dictator shortly before the revolution. He said building a democracy in Tunisia would take time.
“You need 30 years to become a real democracy. Tunisians, for 55 years, did not know what voting meant. Whether they voted or not, it made no difference — the result would be 120 percent like all the Arab countries,” says Bouebdelli, leaning forward on his chair, his mobile phone buzzing on the desk behind him. “Now we have many parties and this is a healthy indicator.”
Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith