Sunday, December 18, 2011

Faces of Tunisia’s ‘sit-in’ protesters

Protesters of numerous political stripes demonstrate outside Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly in Tunis, Tunisia on December, 6, 2011.

December, 6th marked day six of a sit-in protest in front of Tunisia’s newly elected constituent assembly in the Tunis district of Bardo. Dozens have camped out in tents, while thousands from diverse groups with diverse political objectives have come to make their voice heard as the country’s newly elected governing body begins plenary sessions. Many of the demonstrators appear to be in agreement on at least two things: they want more checks on the power of the constituent assembly, and they want the government to tackle the high rate of unemployment.

“We want to prevent the imposition of a new dictatorship - the dictatorship of the majority,” says Wassim Meddeb, a recent university graduate and filmmaker.

Meddeb came to Tunis from the coastal town of Klibia and has been living in a tent adorned with political placards with fellow demonstrators for almost a week.

“We need a civil, liberal state, one that addresses unemployment,” says Meddeb, who has himself been looking for jobs for over a year.

The Islamist Ennahda party won roughly 40 percent of the votes in Tunisia’s historic October 23 election. They have since worked to create a coalition with the leftist parties CPR, which came in second in the elections, and Ettakatol, which came in fourth. Ennahda Secretary General Hamadi Jebali took the post of Prime Minister, CPR leader Moncef Marzouki is set to become President, and Ettakatol leader Mustafa Ben Jaafar is President of the Assembly. However, many are worried that the President’s role in decision-making may be limited, providing little check on Ennahda’s ability to govern without consensus.

“The other party leaders will become figureheads without real power,” says Sonia Dridi, an English student at Tunis’s High Institute of Human Sciences. “[The constituent assembly] has to divide power between the Prime Minister and the President.”

Other protesters held placards calling for a proper separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of power. Many say they want all legislation in the assembly to be passed with a two-thirds rather than a simple majority. Tlijani Hassane, a youth union leader who rooms with Meddeb in his makeshift shelter, believes that government ministers should not come from the ranks of the elected constituent assembly.

“We want a parliamentary system with precautions. If they combine powers, there will be one power that will dominate the system,” he says.

Others are calling for greater accountability and transparency by asking the government to televise all the assembly’s proceedings on a separate, national television station.

“We want parliamentary TV. We want to see with our own eyes,” says Dridi. “We don’t have confidence in our journalists. They are biased, with no critical views.”

The constituent assembly is tasked primarily with writing a new constitution and laying the groundwork for the next elections. At the same time, the assembly is also tasked with the role of creating an interim governing mechanism. Prior to elections, many civil society groups in Tunisia advocated for holding a referendum, parallel to elections, that would limit the assembly’s power and duration. The referendum was never held, but a group of 11 parties agreed amongst themselves to limit the duration of the assembly to one year before holding the next elections.

However many are concerned that the apparent lack of systemic checks on the assembly will lead to a concentration of power.

“There is no democratic system in the world that does not have a separation of powers,” says Mechergui Haifa, a medical student who is working as a volunteer at the Bardo protests.


Haifa, along with several other volunteers, has been visiting the tents, providing check ups and medicine to those spending cold nights outside the assembly. Most of her patients are unemployed, and she says that fears over unemployment, which according to the latest figures stands at 18 percent, run just as high as fears over concentration of power.

“The situation is miserable. We cannot work. Even doctors cannot find work,” she says.

One person at the sit-in that Haifa checks up on is Ridha Amara. Amara, a 35-year-old from the phosphate mining town of Gafsa, has been out of work for 5 years despite holding a master’s degree. He, along with dozens of other out of work miners from Gafsa, came to Tunis to join the Bardo sit-in a week ago.

“They have disputes over the next president, but we just want a job. They leave us here,” he says.

Mouldi Shanafi, an English teacher who also says he has been out of work for five years, has come to the Bardo protests three days in a row.

“They are simple people just defending their right to work, like me for example,” he says describing many at the protests.

However, he says there is second group among the protesters with a more political agenda.

“They want to break this victory of Ennahda and to win the presidential post in the next elections. They are preparing now for the next elections,” Shanafi says, pointing at what he calls the “election losers.”

But some, like Amara, are just sick of the whole system.

“We are here for a new revolution against a new dictatorship,” Amara says.

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