Where next for Tunisia? > Souhayr Belhassen – Lemonde.fr - Monday January 17, 2011

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What is the current situation in situ?

Souhayr Belhassen: In terms of law and order, the most important thing is that there is the impression that the people are regaining confidence. From what I could see in the suburbs in the north the shops are open. There are long queues for milk distribution. The bakeries are open, people are starting to buy food again.

Yesterday we could clearly hear shooting, especially in Carthage, where the presidential palace is located, the support base for the presidential guard, which used to be called the “black guard”, which took refuge in one of the wings of the palace. There was a great deal of shooting and apparently a severe clash with the army. Army helicopters were flying all night, probably to check on the district where an army arsenal is located.

The presidential guard, which seems to spearhead the counter-insurrection, knew where the weapons were - near La Marsa stadium and in the districts too, especially in Bizerte, where the French garrison used to be before 1956, the date of independence. There are probably weapons in these areas and in other border areas in the south or the west.

Regarding the growth in confidence, company bosses were spreading the word about going back to work today and opening their businesses, large or small. There were constant text messages.

We saw the Tunisians going back to work this morning, which is a sign of confidence. It really shows the Tunisians’ sense of citizenship.

The members of the vigilante committees that are guarding the neighbourhoods are of all ages and from all social groups. They are cleaning up the streets this morning. The Tunisians are supplying their vehicles to collect rubbish where damage is still visible. They are rolling up their sleeves to get rid of the signs of the clashes that took place yesterday and the day before. This morning is characterised by mobilisation to bring the city back to life.

Why is the Prime Minister still in post, in your view?
Souhayr Belhassen: The revolution took place in the street, that’s clear, we’ve seen it. It’s a fantastic popular movement.

Should he have been left in charge the country? With inexperienced people at the head of the government? This transitional solution has been organised constitutionally: a President has been appointed according to the terms of the Constitution. He could have appointed a new Prime Minister. He has kept the old one, who is marked by the Ben Ali regime, it’s undeniable, but the new government knows how the land lies. He was not a politician but a technocrat and he has never had political pretensions.

Of course, the more you have, the more you want, and he is an important figure in the RCD, the sole governing party. But the opposition has agreed to the principle of making the transition with him, since a transitional government is being formed in which the main opposition political parties will be represented.

Don’t you think that the revolution is being stolen from you with the RCD still present in the government and the recall of the Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs?

It’s a real revolution! Quite simply, the Tunisians are proving that they don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, they are being extremely vigilant. The Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’Homme - LTDH), whose steering committee meeting I was able to attend yesterday (as LTDH Vice-President, I am still a member), has, through its president, Moktar Trifi, been able to report to us his discussion with the Prime Minister.

What the president of the League reported is what civil society is calling for today. One of its first concerns is for the dead and those who have been injured. There should be serious investigations into that very quickly. He communicated the pain and the worry of the families of the people who have disappeared: today there are people who can’t be found, or whose whereabouts are not known. The release of journalists or political representatives who have not yet been freed. And above all, proclamation of a general amnesty. What seems vital to us are obviously the details of the reforms that are going to be put in place, all the freedom-destroying codes.
Regarding FIDH, of which I am president, a delegation is meeting the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva today to request an international investigation and to send special rapporteurs on freedom of expression, the independence of judges and magistrates, on defenders, and especially, a special rapporteur on summary executions.

Finally, what the League, with the assistance of FIDH, will certainly get under way is a body that represents the greatest possible number of associations and representatives of civil society from all sides of the spectrum in a forum for “truth and justice”.

Personalities such as Ghannouchi, Kallel, Morjane, Mbazaa or Friaa are figures from the former regime of the Ben Ali dictatorship. What guarantees are there that they will later answer for their collaboration with this regime?

Souhayr Belhassen: I have partly answered this question. Concerning the associations, we expect that impunity not to be the rule. Each person, whether it’s Ghannouchi, Kallel or Friaa, must answer for the atrocities committed during the Ben Ali period. But their responsibilities are not the same and Mr. Abdallah Kallel, who was Minister of the Interior at the time when repression was terrible and when opponents, especially the Islamists, were literally decimated, has far greater responsibility than does the new Minister of the Interior, who is an honest man, who dealt with the technical ministries and also higher education.

Which parties can form the new government, what do we know about them? Have they been able to develop any programme when they have been systematically silenced by the government?

Souhayr Belhassen: To my knowledge, the new government has nearly been formed and ministries have been granted to party chiefs such as the President of the People’s Democratic Party, the General Secretary of the Ettajdid party, the former Communist Party, and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty (FDTL), Mustapha Ben Jaafar. Dr Ben Jaafar would go to Health, there will be a new Ministry of Regional Development, and Higher Education will go to Mr. Brahim, General Secretary of Ettajdid. Discussions are being held on Justice. The Interior will remain the same.

I suppose that negotiations are being held with the other parties that represent the two extremes, in other words the Islamists - the Ennhada party - and the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party (PCOT) of Mr. Hamma Hammami. These negotiations must be more difficult and more complicated.

Is an Iranian-style scenario likely in Tunisia in the medium term?

Souhayr Belhassen: I am basically optimistic after what I’ve seen in Tunisia. I’m revealing my sympathies in what I’m saying. The demonstrations that we’ve seen in Kairouan, the Muslim capital of Tunisia, have not shown any Islamist movement to be very present.

Tunisian society is now Muslim and it is true that any kind of Islamist movement will develop in its natural environment. The question is whether the Islamist movement may be a dormant movement, due to Mr. Ben Ali’s "I am the greatest Islamist of all" policy of returning society to Islam. Due to the liberalisation of policies, might it turn out to be stronger than we saw during the demonstrations.

Do you think that constitutional reforms are vital? If so, which ones?

Souhayr Belhassen: Yes I do. It has been announced that a reform commission will be set up. A talented jurist, Mr. Iadh Ben Achour, has been contacted to chair the commission.

Its goal is to propose reform of the Constitution, reforms of the electoral code and the codes that destroy freedoms. Above all, it seems vital to us that the reform commission should be a body that brings together as many sensibilities, specialists, of course, political stakeholders and civil society representatives as possible.

It must educate public opinion on the dismantling of the legal arsenal that attacks basic freedoms and pluralism. It must obviously work out the stages and the tools for transition.

Do you think there is a risk of military escalation and that the Tunisian chiefs of staff may take power?

Souhayr Belhassen: We have gone beyond that stage. As the days pass, the further we seem to have moved beyond that stage. And when you move around Tunis and see the discipline of the troops who are protecting civilians from the brutality of Mr. Ben Ali’s police, a security force that is a terrifying inheritance, which he left with the prospect of perhaps returning to power, this machine is in the process of being dismantled each day, by the military amongst others.

Here too, without demonstrating naïve optimism or ingenuousness, we must believe in what has happened during these insane weeks and that, since the Tunisian army is made up of Tunisians, it can only act, but from the position it holds.

Are any prisoners of opinion still being held behind bars?

Souhayr Belhassen: I think there are still some. And it is the work of the associations, the political parties, to make a very precise list of all those who have been arrested in recent years.

They must very quickly be released in accordance with the current laws. I say that because what we have seen happen in the prisons in Mahdia or Monastir, where one of them burnt down, where 44 people were killed, proves that this matter must be dealt with rapidly and very rigorously.

In your view, should the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Ben Ali’s party, be wound up?

Souhayr Belhassen: I don’t understand the term "wind up". For me, for the authorities to wind up a party is a way of taking an action that destroys freedoms. To ask a government to wind up a party is rather contradictory.
On the other hand, the premises that the RCD has taken with impunity, establishing themselves throughout the country, all of that, I think that’s a job that must be dealt with very quickly, but perhaps that should be left to the new government.

Is there a risk that the Tunisians will revolt when they realise that RCD members still hold key posts?

Souhayr Belhassen: They’re already revolting, quite rightly so. It is a problem that must be dealt with very quickly. First of all, the ministers who stay must make a transition, but they must leave the government, even if it means coming back with a party that exists on an equal footing with the others, with the same rights and the same obligations. The State-party must absolutely disappear.

Enough harm has already been done with the traumatism caused by the despotism that has existed over the last 23 years that must absolutely disappear if we want Tunisian society to function normally at political level.
Aren’t you afraid that there is a risk that the next elections will be “rigged"?
Souhayr Belhassen: It is really a matter of the Tunisians’ vigilance. If they are rigged, it will be because the Tunisians, whether they are in the opposition or from civil society, who are now actors and masters of their own destiny, haven’t shown themselves to be up to the job.

After fifty years of independence, there have never been free elections. The Tunisians will be mobilised and extremely vigilant in continuing the revolution they have started.

In your opinion, could there be a phenomenon of contagion throughout the Arab world?

Souhayr Belhassen: I hope so, with less damage done, it’s the best thing that could happen in the Arab world.

For Tunisia, with its ten and a half million inhabitants, this "jasmine revolution" is something fundamental if we take into account the stakes that are in play today in the Arab world. And between the Arab world and the West.

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