JF Briefing 5 January 2015

Welcome to the first JF Blog of 2015! While the new year is usually quiet on the news front, that certainly hasn’t been the case in Tunisia – negotiations over the formation of the new government have kept media and analysts busy speculating as to the likelihood of a national unity government, a Nidaa-Afek-Moubadara coalition or Nahdha-Nidaa coalition and who will be named in the new government.

Below we summarise for you the latest developments in the Tunisian political scene and review the latest international analysis.

Political Developments

Mondday finally saw the announcement of the new Prime Minister – Habib Essid nominated by Nidaa Tounes. Essid, aged 65, is a veteran of Tunisian politics, serving as security advisor to the Jebali government in 2011-13, interior minister under Essebsi’s interim government in 2011 and having held several posts under former dictator, Ben Ali, including in the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Agriculture. Essid has the task of forming a government and presenting it to the parliament for approval within one month.

Much has been made of Nidaa’s choice of an independent figure – Essid is not from within the Nidaa Tounes party, which may make it easier for him to work across party lines. Mohammed Nacer, senior Nidaa Tounes official and President of the National Assembly said, “we have chosen Essid because he is independent and has experience in the areas of security and the economy”. According to media sources, this choice has angered some Nidaa leadership who had expected Taieb Baccouche, secretary general of the party, to be named Prime Minister.

Imed Hammami, Ennahdha Party spokesperson, confirmed in an interview with Assabah newspaper that Ennahdha supports the idea of a national unity government if consensus is reached on the government’s programme. However, no official offer has been put forward by Nidaa Tounes as yet, according to Walid Bannani, a member of parliament for Ennahdha.

The Yassine Ayari affair has also occupied headlines – the young Tunisian blogger was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison by a military tribunal for insulting the armed forces and defaming senior military officials. Ayari was not even informed of his indictment until he returned to Tunisia and was arrested at Tunis airport on 24 December. He was brought before a military judge the following day and informed that a military court had convicted him in absentia on November 18 of “defaming the army” and “insulting senior military officials” in statements on his Facebook page.

He is now being prosecuted for a separate charge of revealing military secrets and imperilling the external security of the state. International NGOs including Reporters sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch have issued statements condemning the trial as a violation of freedom of expression. Lucie Morillon, head of RSF’s Advocacy said, “(The charge of) attacking the honour of the army, the main accusation against Yassine Ayari in the military court, represents a dangerous and draconian legal instrument against freedom of expression, one of the main achievements of the 2011 revolution”.

Human Rights Watch has also condemned the trial – Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said, “in a single day, Tunisia’s military court imposed prison sentences on a union leader and a blogger for speech offenses, even though neither was present for his trial. This is not worthy of the new Tunisia.”

HRW points out that “the prosecution of persons for defaming the army or other state institutions is incompatible with Tunisia’s obligations under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)”, and that Tunisia’s new constitution protects the right to free speech, under article 31. The trial of a civilian before a military court also represents a violation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Principles and Guidelines on the right to fair trial and legal assistance which state that military courts should not “in any circumstances whatsoever have jurisdiction over civilians.”

Ayari is being prosecuted under article 91 of the Military Justice Code of 1957, a broad provision that outlaws all statements, photographs or other depictions or acts that insult the “dignity or morale of the army”, criticise the conduct of senior army officials or “weaken military discipline”.

While Tunisia’s new constitution introduces far-reaching protection for freedoms, including freedom of expression, it did not eliminate the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians but left it up to lawmakers to amend existing law on this point and bring domestic law into line with international standards. This has preserved, for the time being, very broad powers for military courts to exercise jurisdiction over civilians under the vaguely worded provisions of the 1957 Military Justice Code.

Ayari is appealing the verdict.

The Commission on Truth and Dignity has run into trouble again in the latest in a series of obstacles to the transitional justice process. Sihem Ben Sedrine, head of the Commission, revealed that her team had been barred from accessing Presidential archives. The Commission’s representatives had arrived at the Presidential palace on 26 December with six removal trucks to transport the archives and were blocked by members of the union for Presidential security officers.

According to Ben Sedrine speaking in a television interview on Alhiwar Attounsiyya on Sunday, the transfer of the archives had been agreed with the Presidency in a series of talks stretching back to July of this year. Official written authorization had been given to transfer the archives to the building of the National Tunisian Archives. She said it was the union for Presidential security officers, acting without the permission of the Office of the Presidency, that physically barred the Commission from transferring the files, blocking the road with their vehicles.

The Office of the President confirmed this version of events in a press release and confirmed that it had given its unconditional authorization for the Commission to transfer the archives.

The union, for its part, said it had acted within its powers – its secretary general, Hichem Gharbi, said in an interview on Shems FM that the union takes full historical and collective responsibility for keeping the archives until the Presidential handover.

As Aymen Gharbi writes in an article on the Huffington Post Maghreb, the incident highlights the danger of the political manipulation of the Presidential archives, particularly during this sensitive phase of the transfer of presidential power.

International Analysis

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Vance Serchuk, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, calls forTunisia to be given more support by the US as it enters “a difficult and potentially perilous new phase”. Serchuk argues, “easily the most significant question facing Tunisia concerns its new elected leadership and its commitment to democratic principles, human rights and inclusive, tolerant governance” and asks “Will Tunisia’s secularists practice the restraint, tolerance and inclusivity that its Islamists demonstrated?”

The Economist analyses Tunisia’s recent political developments, highlighting the internal tensions that emerged in the recent elections, including “the gulf between the poor south and the richer north” with 80% of voters supporting Mr Marzouki in the five southernmost regions, and the challenge of addressing the history of human-rights abuses, made more challenging by last week’s prevention of access to the Commission on Truth and Dignity to archives in the presidential palace.

With economic concerns playing a central role in negotiations over the new Tunisian government’s programme, Rami Ayyub of International Policy Digest examines Tunisia’s prospects for economic revival. The country’s economic problems are, he says, “largely a result of the policies of the former Ben Ali regime” and have yet to change since the democratic transition. Significant political commitment and a “willingness to embrace the opposition” are needed to change the patronage-based economy, which closes “dozens of sectors to any meaningful investment or competition”.

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