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Communists vs. Salafists: fostering a culture of democracy in Tunisia

A photo report of an encounter with the people of Revolution cities Thala and Regueb.

In a country which does not has an established culture of democracy, how to promote dialogue between different parts of society without having people at each other’s throat? A relevant question for the people of Tunisia who are in some way divided but nevertheless striving for inclusive and participatory democracy. With a small group of fanatic salafists, a large islam-inspired electorate, some communist pockets and progressive ‘secular’ Tunisians, the political debate in Tunisia is often heated.

After last year’s successful elections, Tunisia faces the challenge to spread the democratic values and practices in its regions. The culture of debating, setting up constructive dialogues and getting to compromises – on the local, regional and national level – are essential practices to get to an effective inclusive democracy.

EU Ambassador Adrianus Koetsenruijter visited several ‘revolution’ cities at the occasion of the start of the Revolution one year ago. The public meetings he had with the population were the opportunity to see to what extent an effective dialogue has been initiated between the different parties at the local level. In this week’s blog a photo report of the visit.

The three-day visit started with a visit to Thala (see map). Exactly one year ago, the youth of Thala took the streets after small clashes with the local police. The demonstrations took the form of large protests turning into battle fields. The 8th of January 2011, six young Thalois were brutally killed by armed forces. Now, one year after, the people of Thala are morning their martyrs and celebrating the revolution. Leftover and symbol of the Revolution is the former police station, completely burned out and now serving as a place of protest. Just across the street is the town hall where different national political leaders hold speeches this day. The despair among the people is bigger than ever and they expect quick improvement of their living conditions. One of the banners says: You see but are not looking, you hear but are not listening, you know but you do not understand. Typical for the unchanged mistrust in local and national governments.

The EU Ambassador was invited to a meeting with representatives from civil society organisations. As was the case in previous visits, people tend to have extremely high expectations of the presence of the EU representative. Although the EU is doing everything to support Tunisia and the poor regions in specific, suchlike visits do not deliver tangible results for the hosts: “we do not come here with a big bag of money” tends to be the Ambassador’s opening line. The visits yield a lot of publicity for the regions (and for the EU) and are the opportunity to hear about the region’s necessities and opportunities.

The EU delegation then went on to the cemetery where some of the martyrs are buried. A 10-year old boy met us there and explained frankly about the atrocities security officers had committed during the last days of the revolution.

The second day of the visit was dedicated to the martyrs of the small city of Regueb, which lost 6 of its youth during the uprisings. In a very moving ceremony, the massively flocked people recited prayers for the martyrs and the national anthem, after which Adrianus Koetsenruijter spoke some words of tribute to the martyrs. One year after the revolution, the events are still fresh in the mind of the people. In such a small city, fifty thousand inhabitants, almost everyone has directly assisted to the revolt and many have suffered from the hard repression. Frustrating is the fact that no one has been held responsible for the excessive use of violence. The martyr families have been compensated but justice has stayed out.

Most impressive of this week’s visit was the meeting with the Regueb people. In a large conference room, people had the chance to fire questions at the EU Ambassador. Difficult, because of the sometimes very sensitive questions, personal reproaches and emotions running high. The debate developed into an eruption of fiercely defended opinions of all kinds. A communist activist reproached the EU to be supporting the Islamic party Ennahda in seizing power in Tunisia, being a complot against the Tunisian people. Ennahda supporters in the hall screamed out against this communist perspective, denying any tie with the Europeans. A cross-fire of shouts followed which was somehow alarming because of the absence of security guards. The quarrel was settled and a former anti-Ben Ali fighter took the parole. He declared to be before all happy that the former president had been chased out of the country and ended his speech by burning a picture of Ben Ali on stage (!). Then it was up to the Salafists. During the conference some 10 Salafists had entered the hall. Known for there aversion to debate and democracy in general, one of the traditional believers took nevertheless the parole. He declared that Islam is the only way to follow and that people should not astray. He added to this that as Islam was seeking for peace, so would an Islamic Tunisia seek for peace with its neighbours.

Although the debate was far from constructive, the first signs of a multiparty dialogue were present. The fact that parties with divergent views were able to aboard difficult questions in an open debate is a revolutionary event an sich. Communists and Salafists were heavily prosecuted until one year ago. Now they are talking freely about Tunisia’s relations with Europe.

Local and national authorities play an important role in the reunification of different parts of the Tunisian society to deliberate about the country’s challenges. The EU can play a minor role in this as well. By going into these regions and speaking with people in an open way, the citizens are given an example of how dialogue can lead to better understanding and how it can yield result. Several international NGO’s are setting up assistance programs to improve multiparty democracy in Tunisia. They offer training to young political leaders and engage political parties in workshops on creating consensus.

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