Tunisia commemorates the fifth anniversary of the end of Ben Ali’s rule today, marking January 14 the date on which Ben Ali took flight into exile to Saudi Arabia, after the culmination of massive protests triggered by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2014. Attendance of ceremonies, official or otherwise, serve to illustrate how far the country has come since abandoning one party rule and embracing pluralism.
As 2014 closed Tunisia had been the Economist’s Country of the Year for 2014 after a year in which as noted by the Carter Center’s Final Report on the Legislative and Presidential Elections in Tunisia, Tunisia had “held three rounds of genuine and competitive elections in 2014, following the adoption of a new constitution.” This year it will remember the Nobel Prize awarded last year for the Quartet’s mediation of the political crisis which unlocked Tunisia’s stalled transition and led to those elections, but the mood will be more somber after a three major attacks marked 2015.
The economic situation has not quantitatively improved, it has in fact worsened. Two major attacks targeted foreign tourists, killing 60 at the Bardo National Museum in March and on the beaches of Sousse in June, and all but destroyed Tunisia’s vital tourism industry.
Unemployment is higher now than it was in 2011, due in part to the attacks but also to a generalized global downturn which preceded the revolution, and in Tunisia whose non tourism economy is primarily focused on exporting commodities whose prices have been declining for years.
The security situation became critical, not only for foreigners but for everyday Tunisians. In the same way some Parisians could rationalize their own personal safety after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks, provided they were not cartoonists or Jewish. Tunisians as shocked as they were by the Bardo and Sousse attacks could avoid seeing themselves as directly targeted, a myth perpetuated by the fact that in both attacks the three gunmen avoided shooting Tunisians.
In 2015 Mabrouk Soltani became the face of everyday Tunisians after the sixteen year-old shepherd was beheaded by militants belonging to the Islamic State affiliated Jund al Khilafa in the Governorate of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi lived and worked. A teenager in the interior of the country brought Tunisians a face to represent victimhood in a way foreigners can not. Both the second Paris attacks and Mabrouk Soltani’s murder occurred on the same day. Mabrouk Soltani did for Tunisians, what the November 13 attacks did for Parisians, it removed the psychological comfort of feeling removed from the previous victims, even with empathy for all victims.
The overall sense of security was profoundly rattled by a November 24 suicide bombing in Tunis which killed twelve members of Tunisia’s Presidential Guard and wounded twenty others. Also claimed by Jund al Khilafa, the attack was meant to demonstrate the group’s reach and prompted a nationwide crackdown by security and a return to the on again off again state of emergency which has persistently been reapplied since 2011.
The mood is far from celebratory after a difficult 2015, but despite political differences, of which there are many, there are no signs of nostalgia for the deposed kleptocrat. Ben Ali promised security and economic growth in exchange for obedience, harshly repressing dissent. Tunisians rather than reconsidering that myth are well aware that when stifled dissent turned to radicalism and wonder how much the economy could have grown in an economic system with accountability and transparency.
As Prime Minister Habib Essid noted in a statement on the eve of today’s observation: ‘Tunisia made a final irreversible break with authoritarianism and tyranny”
In Carthage, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi will be hosting the festivities for a second consecutive year, Essebsi was inaugurated on December 31, 2014, two weeks before the four year anniversary. Essebsi, like Essid began setting the tone yesterday when he decided to pardon 1609 prisoners, among them 885 who were sentenced under Law 52 which imposes harsh prison sentences on the use of cannabis.
Attendance at the official ceremony will be heavily scrutinized by political observers, as it falls one week after Mohsen Marzouk, the former secretary general of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, announced the formation of a breakaway political party. Defections from Nidaa Tounes which began with the January 6 announcement by Marzouk continued unabated even as Nidaa Tounes held a party congress in Sousse over the weekend. Marzouk also held a rival rally in Tunis on Sunday.
The ceremony in Carthage, in a sign that one-party rule is in fact totally defunct will be boycotted by some political parties, civil society groups and other individuals. Though for many who will be attending other observations it will not be a declared boycott but rather an exercise of their freedom to protest observe the day in a way of their choosing.
Ennahda is rallying its supporters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where many protestors gathered five years ago, will be closed to vehicles throughout the day. The avenue expects to see numerous rallies representing a broad spectrum of society, from smaller political parties to trade unions and other civil society organizations.
Amongst those who announced they were boycotting official observation, as opposed to simply holding independent rallies are:
The Popular Front who announced it would boycott the ceremony in Carthage as Ali Ben Jeddou, a member of the party’s executive office of the Popular Front told Tunisia-Live stating: “The Popular Front doesn’t see any reason why it should take part in the ceremony held at Carthage, it’s much more important to go in the streets and to protest in a peaceful way.”
Al-Irada (The Will), a new political party founded late last year by former President Moncef Marzouki, who held the office during Tunisia’s transitional period and was defeated by Essibsi, announced it would also boycott the official observations in Carthage.