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Elections, Islamists and the role of the EU in Tunisia

In my first posting I wrote about the sometimes heated discussions in Tunisia’s daily life. This week, two subjects attracted a lot of attention from the public.

Thy shall marry young

Ennahda, the political party which represents most of the so-called Islamists in Tunisia, presented its party program for the upcoming elections. Under the regime of Ben Ali the party was banned, after the revolution however, it has regained strength and its vocation. Ennahda says to use Islamic values as a departure for its ideas, which is appealing for many Tunisians (20% of the votes, according to the latest sounding).

Western diplomats follow these developments with interest, as does the EU Delegation. Often it is thought that an eventual Islamist power-base could bring in danger the recently gained freedoms in Tunisia. In the end, aren’t it those countries with self-proclaimed Islamist rule, in fact only Iran and Saudi-Arabia, where individual liberties are most limited? A large share of the Tunisian population thinks likewise. There exists quite fierce resistance within the public debate against the mixing of religion and politics. But of course, there have been times during which Christian democratic political movements in Europe put religion above the state as well; maybe the long suppressed expression of religious opinions and sentiments simply need some discharge. Tunisia has a far more modern society than the above mentioned countries, and it seems to me that she will be able to manage a possible (process of) Islam democracy. It might be comparable to Turkey.

The presentation of the Ennahda party program was surprisingly professional and even seemed a bit modernistic. Conscious of resistance from secular parts of the society, Ennahda presented a quite social democratic program with the least possible reference to Islam. Betraying its religious fundaments, there is a program article proclaiming to ‘make an end to the trend of postponing marriages’.

Elections and what then?

A second largely debated subject which released a wave of reaction concerned the mandate of the Constitutional Council, to be elected 23rd of October. Although it is clear what the role of the Council is to be – see my previous post – a whole set of questions remain unanswered. How long may the Council take for writing the new constitution? Is it sensible to combine both the legislative and executive powers in the hand of one group of people? Who is to take place in the interim-government? These questions motivated several political parties to plead for a referendum, in which the citizens would decide on the Council’s mandate. Discussions between supporters and opponents of such a referendum flared up during the past week. In the end a compromise was reached. The members of the High Council who advise on the transitional process, agreed on a post-election road map: the democratically elected Council will elect a President as soon as possible, the president will appoint his Prime minister, who will on its turn compose an interim-government.  The Council is bound to a timeframe of 12 months for its duties. A good compromise that will bring stability and calmness over de country.

A Tsunami of aid

The Tunisians seem to handle well. Without any external assistance, they managed to get rid of their dictator, and in the consequent chaotic period they embarked in a transitional process without suffering too much damage. People are deliberately institutionalizing the freedoms for which it fought for.

So what is the role of the EU in the upcoming elections? Do the Tunisians actually need the offered assistance, or do we impose it on them (as is often plead in the Development debate)?

Many donors, NGOs and think tanks have found their way to Tunisia to offer a helping hand in the process of democratization. Some papers even spoke of a Tsunami of foreign aid. The EU is part of this Tsunami, although it is trying to steer the whole of aid missions and maximizing its effectiveness. Together with the African Development Bank and the UN (UNDP), the different initiatives are being coordinated. This is necessary because of the variety of donors and executive bodies. The short and long term goals are discussed among each other as is information shared about support to Tunisian NGOs.

Besides, the EU has set up a ‘Task Force’ aiming at orienting all heads in the same direction on the highest level: EU bodies, International Financial Institutions and the Tunisian ministries.

The EU is itself one of Tunisia’s biggest donors. This manifests itself not only in spending money, which is too often the image of development assistance. For example, the EU participates in the Electoral Assistance Team, which advises the Tunisian government on the organization of the next elections. Together with the Tunisian authorities, the EU works on improving the competitiveness of the Tunisian economy and the transparency of the government bodies. Of importance for both the EU and Tunisia are the negotiations about the advanced partnership, a status Israel and Morocco e.g. already have. A suchlike partnership, the so-called statut avancé, contains agreements on terms of trade, working with European guidelines, respecting human rights and mobility between the countries.

From Economic cooperation to Democracy and Human Rights

Europe is especially abroad much more than just a 27-country Union. Europe signifies an important economic unity and welfare, democracy, and values corresponding with the latter such as freedom of expression and the rule of law. This whole of ideas makes the EU an economic and political factor of importance on the global scale. This makes it much more persuasive towards third countries and gives it more effectiveness in its actions. The EU foreign policy is therefore no longer aimed at economic cooperation – the EU is working all over the world to promote democracy and human rights. By means of development assistance the EU is trying to scale up weak economies (somehow ironical in view of the pitiful state if some European economies!). The EU is assisting in the development, stability and security of its neighborhood and the rest of the world, and thereby contributing to a safer and peaceful world for European citizens.

To perform these different responsibilities, the EU has a permanent representation in 136 of the world’s countries. Therefore, the EU has its own delegation in Tunisia from which it coordinates its broad cooperation program. About €110 million will be spent on different projects and budget support in Tunisia for 2011.

Next week I will elaborate on these cooperation programs, explaining about the forecasted results and its relations with the recent revolution.

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