Tunisia’s interim regime having second thoughts about elections

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Jumada' al-Akhirah 28, 1432 2011-06-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah

The Tunisian people who triggered the mass protests that have swept much of the Muslim East may be denied their basic rights after all. The interim Prime Minster Beji Caid Sebsi said in a televised address last month that elections scheduled for July 24 may be postponed. He cited “technical” reasons for the possible delay raising fears that the Tunisian establishment was beginning to back peddle on promises made to the people following the ouster of the long-ruling dictator General Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011.

The July 24 elections were to elect an assembly to draw up a new constitution. In his May 8 address, the 80-year-old moth-eaten Beji Caid Sebsi said: “If the reform committee says there would be technical difficulties that would be another probability to look at.” His announcement came after four days of protests by Tunisian youth that have grown wary of and concerned about the regime’s back sliding as well as fears that despite its temporary nature, the regime is resorting to the same brutal tactics that were characteristic of the old regime.

The interim regime imposed over-night curfew in the capital Tunis and its surrounding areas following the pro-tests. In a move reminiscent of the former regime, riot police clashed with protesters and attacked the media, local and international, covering the event in central Tunis. “The police reaction is too extreme against the people. It’s true there are criminals among the protesters, but the reaction is still too cruel. It is a return to the days of Ben Ali,” Reuters quoted a protester as saying. The demonstrators were demanding the resignation of the transitional government that still includes several figures from the Ben Ali regime. Clashes broke out amid calls for a new revolution. Several protesters were killed.

There have also been warnings of a possible coup by those loyal to the former dictator. Farhat Raihi, who briefly served in the interim government, warned of a possible counter-revolutionary movement led by Ben Ali loyalists. He said in an interview published on an internet social networking site that forces loyal to Ben Ali would resist al-Nahda, the Islamic Party that commands the most popular support in the country, from taking over the government after the July 24 elections. The counter-revolutionaries also seem to enjoy the support of western governments and their intelligence agencies. The West favours democracy when it likes the winner.

Such fears are not misplaced. In the early 1990s, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria won the first round of elections in December 1991 and was poised to sweep the remaining seats in the second round, the military was unleashed. A brutal civil war followed in which the military slaughtered an estimated 350,000 people. The winning party, FIS, was decimated and many of its leading figures were gunned down by the military; its top leadership was arrested and incarcerated for many years while tens of thousands of its cadres were butchered, thrown into dungeons or forced into exile. The US and other Western countries did not object to the cancellation of Algeria’s elections and suppression of the people, citing fears of an Islamic resurgence in the country and the region. In fact, they actively encouraged the slaughter of innocent people.

Will Tunisia repeat the example of Algeria? It cannot be ruled out because the Tunisian military has not shown its hand clearly but if the example of other militaries in the region is any guide, one should not repose too much faith in their sincerity. The people of Egypt are beginning to realize that their hopes in the military have been dashed. Tunisia, which set in motion the chain of events that has engulfed much of the Muslim East, may also become the first to subvert such a process. This once again underscores the fact that movements without leadership and without a clear directional course are prone to being sabotaged because there are vested interests and groups that have too much personal interest at stake to allow a genuine expression of the people’s will to take hold.

As these internal dynamics are playing out, an external dimension has also been added to the argument: the Tunisian regime is using the presence of refugees from Libya as an excuse to postpone elections as well as alleging that Libyan forces are carrying out attacks inside Tunisia. In the clearest indication yet that Tunisia’s interim rulers were having second thoughts about elections, they issued a public warning to Libya on May 17 to desist from attacking rebels inside Tunisia. The significance of such a public call was not lost on the protesters in Tunis or on observers familiar with such tactics.

If the interim regime cannot control the internal situation directly, it can always raise the bogey of an external threat. In this, they will have the full blessings of the West, especially France, Italy, Britain and the US. While they intensify their attacks on forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, they also see the potential threat of allowing a genuine expression of people’s will that would propel the Islamic party, al-Nahda into power. This should also be a warning to al-Nahda and any other Islamic party or movement that harbours illusions about coming to power through elections. The entrenched vested interests working in tandem with their foreign masters will always find excuses to frustrate the will of the people and will not allow any Islamic expression to take power in a Muslim majority society.

The lesson is obvious: the only way to liberate a society is through an Islamic revolution led by a muttaqi leadership. This requires demolishing the old entrenched system completely and replacing it with new institutions. Half measures have never and will never work. Events in Tunisia are once again making this clear. The youth struggling for their rights should have learned this lesson from neighbouring Algeria of two decades earlier. It is not too late to understand the reality and take appropriate steps.

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