The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tunisia’s parliament just cast a vote against democracy

Tunisians take part in a demonstration on Sept. 16, 2017 in Tunis to protest the parliament’s passing of an amnesty law for officials accused of corruption. (FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)
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Fadil Aliriza is an independent journalist and politics researcher based in Tunis. Ouiem Chettaoui is a Tunisian public policy expert.

Tunisia enjoys a unique status as the only country to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 as a genuine democracy. Last week, however, Tunisia’s democratic experiment experienced a major setback that is certain to deepen popular disillusionment with its elected government.

On Sept. 13, the Tunisian parliament passed a bill pardoning corrupt ex-officials. The so-called Reconciliation Law stipulates that any current prosecutions of relevant cases must be dropped. It’s not immediately clear who will benefit from this amnesty, but it applies only to cases predating the 2011 revolution —  suggesting that it will mostly affect officials from the authoritarian Ben Ali regime, which was notorious for nepotism and corruption, and which killed hundreds of Tunisians who defied it during the uprising six years ago. Some observers say the law is a way for the ruling Nidaa Tounes party to pay back campaign donors; others contend that the party’s very reason for existence is to rehabilitate the old regime members that make up its ranks.

The passage of this law could well mean the beginning of the end for Tunisia’s democratic transition. The dissonance between the agenda of successive Tunisian governments and the popular political, economic and social demands that drove the revolution has been growing since 2011. Now this process has reached its logical culmination. The Reconciliation Law is the only bill that the president’s office has presented to lawmakers — a law it initially proposed two years ago and which it has since been trying to pass despite the vociferous objections of peaceful protests, social movements, civil society groups and opposition forces.

Faced with this popular outcry, the government could have scrapped the bill and focused instead on issues that matter to Tunisians: regional development, profound economic and political imbalances, job creation and genuine transitional justice. Yet the government, and specifically the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, has plowed ahead as if the one-party system never ended.

The government’s single-minded contempt for popular demands isn’t the only thing tarnishing the idea of Tunisian democracy. The political and legislative processes, too, have been anti-democratic. Parliamentary leaders violated the legislature’s rules to rush the vote, while indefinitely postponing more urgent laws affecting local elections and local government. The government’s scorn for formal procedures is not entirely unexpected. President Beji Caid Essebsi and key figures in the ruling party have been publicly criticizing the 2014 constitution — the crowning achievement of Tunisia’s transition — as too restrictive on executive power. Some have even gone so far as to suggest launching a referendum to amend the constitution and change the political system.

In a highly symbolic move, opposition party deputies boycotting the law left the legislature to join a group of young protesters outside. The police responded with a violent crackdown. This image of political and social opposition relegated to the margins and peaceful protest provoking state repression is disturbingly reminiscent of Tunisian politics in the Ben Ali era.

In another ominous sign, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed — who gained popularity for openly declaring a war on corruption several months ago — formed a new government in a ministerial reshuffle days before the passage of the reconciliation law that includes Ben Ali’s finance minister, Ben Ali’s education minister and other second- and third-tier officials from the former ruling RCD party.

Fortunately, all is not lost for Tunisian democracy. Despite the deep sense of betrayal and anger young Tunisians are expressing, the reality is that the two-year battle against this law has resulted in the rise of a versatile, dynamic and intelligent street protest movement (Manich Msameh –“I will not forgive”). This decentralized and diverse grass-roots movement has brought together several civic organizations and interest groups into a highly vigilant, active coalition that pushed legislators to water down the bill and remove amnesty for businessmen and those who committed financial crimes. In the best case, their experience with this law will help Tunisians better tackle future projects that threaten the democratic transition.

Now is the time for young Tunisians to draw on this energy and translate it into institutional power by running for office. The government keeps postponing municipal elections, but it isn’t yet too late to fight for them. The reconciliation law’s passage is already acting as a spark to activism, and Tunisian youths are organizing on social media and gathering to discuss options for running for office.

It’s also time for Tunisia’s international partners — who have more influence on Tunisian politics than they would care to admit — to focus on supporting fresh ideas and faces rather than maintaining a dubious status quo in the hope of achieving economic stability. Tunisia’s partners often express their desire to see the country become an investment-friendly environment where public administration rises above nepotism and cronyism and the principle of rule of law is upheld. If that’s what Tunisia’s lenders, donors and partners really want, then they need to take a firm stance against the old-new political regime.