Tunisia, the country where human rights standards were the highest in the Maghreb region, is now confronting with the challenge of building a modern, democratic society maintaining its Islamic roots. There are signs of a move in an increasingly Islamic direction, in the political-institutional environment and in some levels in the society, although the majority of people oppose these moves at both levels. Many refer to Tunisia as the leading country in the aftermath of the Revolution, because of its primacy in starting last years protests, in holding democratic elections, in having an overall institutional structure devoted to the guarantee and defence of human rights and the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms. The current political turmoil highlights unresolved tensions that the Revolution has unveiled and issues that must be solved to make any transitional justice effort fruitful.
Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM) and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) launched an initiative on transitional justice and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Tunisia, under the framework of a bigger project they’re conducting. From 25 to 28 September 2012, a series of events with Tunisian civil society, judges, lawyers and officials from the International Criminal Court has been held. A precious occasion to collect information and thoughts from the field and from experts, to have the feeling on the current situation. Two main issues arose.
The Constitution and the elections. The mandate of the transitional government is expiring on 23 October, but it was recently announced that elections will be held in June next year, to provide for enough time for the drafting of the Constitution. This is badly perceived by the population, who is aware of the reluctance of the government to relinquish power. The President of the Constitutional Assembly, Ben Jafar, stated on 10 October that in 2 weeks a draft Constitution will be ready. Yet, there are several problems to be discussed: the non engagement of civil society organisations in the drafting, the refusal of the Assembly to include references to universal human rights in the draft, the proposed complementarity clause on gender issues, and various debates on the role of Islam.
Religious extremism. After the revolution, Salafis became more and more visible and vocal, being (allegedly) supported by the Government. This kind of indirect support (ex. failure to act to stop them attacking the US Embassy and school) must be put in a broader political context. The Government tries to picture them as the enemy (because they’re often involved in violent protest) but at the same time it guarantees them a certain degree of freedom in order not to loose votes from the radical electorate and not to create conflict with other Islamic movements. This ambiguous attitude, this constant shift between Islamist and democratic stances provokes tensions that become protests throughout the country, often left undisturbed by the police. Many incidents occur because Salafist groups harass people (mostly women) trying to impose their ideas, finding strong resistance by their targets. Moreover, the majority of mosques, a typical centre for social congregation, are in the hand of extremists. Yet, the ruling Ennhada party keeps on reassuring Tunisians that it won’t impose a Muslim moral code on society.
During the KADEM-NPWJ event participants stressed the need to implement the Rome Statute to provide a proper legal base for transitional justice, an in-depth training for law professionals and people involved in the work of relevant national institutions to guarantee consistency, given that most of the times international human rights law is not implemented due to a lack of specific knowledge. Although the main concern of Tunisians is unemployment, a recent survey shows that the level of confidence in the transitional process is decreasing: compared to the 79% of respondents in January 2012, only 30% currently think Tunisia is heading in the right direction.
The drafting of the Constitution is thus a momentus event in Tunisian and regional political scene. If properly managed, Tunisia could eventually continue to play the role of a positive model to follow in the wake of the Arab Revolution.