After standing up to beatings, imprisonment and snipers with orders to kill, Tunisia’s revolutionaries are facing a new threat on the path to democracy: confusion.
With elections less than two months away, residents in the cradle of the Arab Spring are showing signs of bewilderment in a revolution they had hoped would create jobs and ease poverty but which has instead spawned scores of political parties and a transition process with no end in sight.
“Overthrowing the president was not easy, but it was quick and we were united,” said Walid, a taxi driver. “But now I’m worried for this country. There are too many ideas, too many people running for office and no one is sure what to do.”
The 23-year rule of President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali ended abruptly when he fled in the face of widespread protests over unemployment, corruption and oppression — a spectacular success that sparked uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, Reuters reports.
But if you use the word “revolution” in Tunisia these days, people are just as likely to think you’re talking about the war in neighbouring Libya as the events of January.
Tunisia’s interim government set elections for October 23 in which voters will be asked to choose from among 80 political parties to form a 218-member National Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a constitution within a year.
It will be the former French colony’s first free vote since independence in 1956 and closely watched in a region seeking to replace dictatorships with democracy.
Analysts fear low public support for the process — which provides no timetable for presidential or legislative elections — will undermine the transition’s legitimacy, and could set off another round of street unrest.
Just over half of Tunisians believe the country’s transition is “incomprehensible”, according to a survey conducted by the Tunis Afrique Presse and the Institute of Opinion Surveys and Processing of Information Polls released on September 3.
And only just over half of the country’s 7 million eligible voters have registered to vote in October.
“It’s very messy. Things are not clear for anyone at the moment,” said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, analyst at London-based global risk consultancy Control Risks.
“The fact that so few people have registered to vote shows there is a general disillusionment among the population towards the transition process.”
A separate survey released in July by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems showed only 43 percent of Tunisian adults correctly identified the upcoming poll as a constituent assembly election.
Gallopin said the large number of political parties, many with unclear backers and agendas, along with a rash of crime in the capital that has so far gone unpunished had sapped the clarity of purpose that many Tunisians felt immediately after the fall of Ben Ali.
“People want to see the concrete impact of the revolution on daily life, and the issues of unemployment and socio-economic inequality have not been addressed yet,” he said.
TEST FOR THE REGION
Among Tunisia’s best recognised political parties are the Progressive Democratic Party and the Islamist Ennahda party.
Ennahda, a party banned under Ben Ali but which is believed to now have broad support, withdrew in June from the committee the interim government created to prepare the elections in a sign of protest.
A spokesman for Ennahda told Reuters he was not worried by low voter registration, saying he expected voters to register on the day of the poll and that final turnout would be high.
But the secretary general of the formerly banned party CPR issued a statement this week warning the country could not afford to allow the transition process to be derailed.
“If the formal transition process leads to disputes regarding the very legitimacy of the country’s institutions, there is a chance we could see rising unrest — particularly if influential parties like Ennahda turn to street politics,” Gallopin said.
Worries the interim authority — whose President is Fouad Mebazaa and whose Prime Minister is Beji Caid Sebsi — are intent on dragging out the transition in order to stay in power could pose a threat.
“It would be really surprising if the vote were to proceed smoothly,” said Kamran Bokhari, Vice President of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs for U.S. based global intelligence company STRATFOR.
“The fact that there has never been free and fair elections in the country alone raises serious questions about the possibility of smooth elections. Then on top of that we have the concerns of various opposition groups about the intentions of the military-backed interim authority,” he said.
Ben Ali took power in a bloodless coup in 1987 after post-independence President Habib Bourguiba fell ill.
In the Lafayette district of the capital, where trash is piling up in the gutters, flower-seller Mohammed says the Tunisian revolution has run into its problems. But he was still hopeful they could be overcome.
“There was a time when speaking of Ben Ali or the government could land you in prison or get you killed. The secret police were everywhere, listening to everything. No one could talk about the fact that the president was sweeping the poor under the rug,” he said.
“Whatever happens now, at least it will be better than that.”