Tunisia: “Civil Society Optimistic Yet Vigilant”


Human Wrongs Watch

Foundation for the Future* – On January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Ben Ali fled after a month of protests and popular uprisings that would sow the seeds of a political “tsunami”, the Arab Spring.

**Image: Rais67 | Wikimedia Commons

While Tunisia is celebrating the end of the “year zero”, where the entire political system has been overhauled by a process of democratization and the election of a Constituent Assembly, it is interesting to explore the perceptions of one of the major players in this transition, civil society, according to a survey.

Tunisian civil society demonstrates cautious optimism when gauging the achievements of a first year of democratic transition,” reveals the survey, which was conducted by the Amman-based Foundation for the Future (FFF) between December 22, 2011 and January 7, 2012.

Civil society members have themselves taken an active role in the various episodes of the transition – demonstrations, dismantling of the Ben Ali regime, institutions of transition, elections, etc. – It makes sense then that optimism is the first and dominant reaction.”

The poll builds on a successful similar experience in Egypt in August 2011. For this purpose FFF invited representatives of NGOs, associations, unions, etc. to take part in a voluntary and web-based survey.

Greater Freedom

This context of optimism is also marked by greater freedom of expression and space for action for civil society. “This is an important result, as a civil society free of its words and opinions is both a sign and a precondition of a viable and tangible democratic process.”

As one of the survey participants put it, “we live fully our freedom on all fronts”. A majority of respondents noted a significant improvement in their environment and context of action: in fact, indisputable progress is perceived by the respondents on each of the six main factors of constraint or restriction (censorship, libel, imprisonment, harassment, logistical or administrative constraints).

Optimism, But Some Frustration and Doubts

In other words, the January 14 Revolution has opened a more conducive context for CSOs to act. A clear example is that of censorship: it was, according to 73.9% of the respondents, the main constraint before January 14; it now impacts their work less than material and administrative obstacles.

However, it is a concern that nearly 1 in 3 respondent states that the administrative and logistical constraints, as well as defamation and harassment, continue to be barriers in their daily activity.

Like the Tunisian population itself, civil society interviewees do not hide, beyond a more positive perception of the events of 2011, their disappointment, frustrations and doubts.

Only 58% believe that the results of the transition are up to mark with the commitment of Tunisians in the Revolution and respond to their demands: insufficient and slow progress, post-election concerns, behind-the-scenes political deals seem to feed this disappointment.

Warning: Insufficient Place for Youth, Women

Two findings also sound as a strong warning: the place of youth and women in the democratization process is widely viewed as insufficient considering the level of engagement of these categories of population in the popular protest movement which has led to the departure of President Ben Ali, the survey reveals.

A factor of hope, however: in the present context, 95.6% of respondents stated “[that] as a member of civil society, [they feel] more likely to be a factor for positive change for Tunisia”.

They are even over 68% to “agree completely” with this statement.

Civil Society, “Catalyst of Change”

Signs of trust between authorities and civil society, and consultation efforts during the transition have placed civil society in a position of influence vis-à-vis the government. By perceiving itself unanimously as a “catalyst of change”, civil society takes a conquering and confident attitude in the transition.”

It sees itself as a “political educator” of citizens (98%), champion of human rights (97%) and sentinel of democracy (90%). So it’s no surprise that civil society wants to be associated or have a role in drafting the new constitution (91%).

On this matter, opinions are determined and strong, says the survey.

Rights and Freedoms

The respondents expressed a strong attachment to constitutional principles of “safeguard” such as the establishment of a Constitutional Court, a supra-constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a formal recognition of the democratic nature of the State in the text the new Constitution.

Independence of the judiciary, freedom of press and information, and balance of powers are the main “constitutional absolute priorities” for civil society.

This can be interpreted as an attempt to assert formally the role of the “counter-powers” (Justice, media) and place above it all the principle of popular sovereignty by specifically demanding the adoption of the Constitution by referendum, in contrast to the recent vote of the Constituent Assembly on the subject.”

Religion

Finally, on another hot debate of the moment – the place of religion in Tunisian society and politics – civil society expresses “a clear preference for a political and constitutional system that is fundamentally secular,” thus being in clear antagonism with the general population if one considers the results of the elections of October 23 and various opinion polls.

91.5% of respondents agreed that there must be a clear separation between religion and politics, and religion and government, and that the separation must also be mentioned at a constitutional level. 74.6% think that secularism is an “absolute constitutional priority”.

The preference for a secular system does not stop there, as more than 9 in 10 respondents do not agree with the fact that political parties could have a “religious” color, the survey adds.

Constitution, election, transition, politics, and religion: all issues of major importance.

Economy

However, civil society does not forget that if the Revolution could take place it is also because it was fueled by the frustrations and economic exclusion of large segments of the population.”

On civil society’s public policy agenda, the survey revealed that the economy dominates: there is a unanimous understanding around the fact that job creation, employment and sound economic development should be the number one priority for any future government in Tunisia.

Without claiming victory, Tunisian civil society approaches the end of the first year of transition with a constructive attitude, ready to be a driving force and an incubator of ideas in a country that is reinventing its institutional and political identity,” it concludes.
*The Foundation for the Future is an independent, multi-lateral and not for profit organization, created in 2005 and fully committed to promoting democracy, Human Rights, the Rule of Law and reforms through supporting Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs) relevant initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at large. Go to Original.  Read the Foundation survey on Civil Society in Egypt: Egyptian Civil Society: “We Need a Secular State”.

**Image: Rais67 | Wikimedia Commons

2012 Human Wrongs Watch

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