Tunisia: Understanding Conflict
On Friday, the Johns Hopkins, SAIS Conflict Management Program hosted a discussion titled “Tunisia: Understanding Conflict.” The panelists were students who spent a week in Tunisiainterviewing leaders and members of international organizations in Tunisand in Kairouan about the situation in Tunisia. The objective of the trip was to gain a deeper understanding of the roots the Jasmine Revolution, to evaluate the conflict management efforts that have taken place; and finally to present recommendations about how best to advance the process of long-term conflict resolution and peace-building. Students discussed their findings and presented their report. The discussion featured Jennifer Fishkin, student, Amy Hamblin, student, Rebekah Chang, student, Anna Wilson, student and Karim Mezran, adjunct professor of Middle East Studies in SAIS. The panelists were moderated by Terrence Hopmann. The discussion was introduced by William Zartman, Professos at SAIS.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
William Zartman introduced the discussion with the importance to consider Tunisia in the Arab Spring wave, despite that the attention has moved to Egypt or Syria.Tunisia was the first country to begin the revolutions. Zartman stated that the outcome of the events can happen positively according to a few conditions:
- the army does not fire on people
- old and illegitimate autocrat tries to extend its mandate illegally
- members of the old order agree to negotiate with a new order
- a sense of requirement of legitimacy in institutions that people trust. The Tunisians were accustomed to voting every five years since Tunisian independence, but the elections were corrupted.
Zartman referred to the Tunisian conflict which relied on an opposition between the old order, which is associated with modernity, carried by former President Bourghiba calling for a secular county looking toEurope; and the new order, associated with the resurgence of Islamic movements, not tolerated before.
Jennifer Fishkin referred to a conflict between the modern and the more conservative Tunisians that can be located geographically in the country. The seculars tend to live on coastal areas identified themselves as Mediterranean, while the Tunisians living more in the West and in the centre of the country are more conservative and claimed an Arab identity. Considering last year events, Fishkin referred more to a “successful civil disobedience” than to a Revolution. Fishkin also identified groups with different perspectives regarding religious issues: the secular-laic and the religious-secular. The seculars refer to the laicite, introduced by the French, seeking a complete absence of the government in religious affairs and the full withdrawal from the public sphere. According to Fishkin laicite is not sustainable in Tunisia. The religious-secular have a more tolerant and pragmatic view on the presence of religion in the public sphere. She introduced Ennhada as a group closer to the religious-secular, as they promote religious freedom and expression and are not willing to impose an Islamic regime like in Iran. However, Fishkin noticed that the Salifists may embarrass Ennhada as they will force the party to clarify some of its positions. Ennhada is also regularly criticized for not sanctioning some Salafists acts. Fishkin made some recommendations.Tunisia has to preserve its unity on religious questions. The secular-laic should compromise. Ennhada should try to integrate the Salafists in the society.
Amy Hamblin focused on political challenges regarding the legitimacy of institutions. The Jasmine uprising was a political explosion that a year after has brought uncertainly that worry Tunisians. The civil society became much more vivid and the number of organizations and parties multiplied but it is difficult to tract them and to give them credit. Hamblin believed that the government should address the lack of legitimacy of institutions. The Constituent Assembly is both in charge of drafting the Constitution and voting on laws. Hamblin added that the Assembly also serves MPs interest in their campaign to be reelected at the next parliamentary elections. Hamblin said the Assembly work should be more transparent. Finally, the government should reduce the tendency of polarization on some sensitive issues, mostly on identity and religious affairs.
Anna Wilson addressed security reform issues.Wilson stated that the army enjoyed a good reputation among the Tunisians which was not the case with the police. She recommends that the police received new training, fromU.S. or other partners, to address human rights issues, become more professional, accept accountability of its acts and end corrupt habits.Wilson added that the salaries should be raised to reduce the risk of corruption; this could be achieved by reducing the number of police officers.
Rebekah Chang reminded the audience of the causes of the Tunisian upheaval. Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide on a public square triggered the uprising. He represented unemployed youth with a future which was limited by a corrupt regime. People also contest the lack of accommodations the price of food or of oil. However, Chang mentioned that only 30 percent of eligible voters voted in October 2011. This drop of interest expresses a lack of confidence from the people into the political process that was being set.Tunisia is also facing economic issues because of the drop of tourists coming to Tunisia and the economic difficulties of the two most important partners Europe and Libya. Chang recommend implementing policies that engage with the youth and adapting education to provide more technical and engineering skills, and ease access to the private sector through internships. Parties should also create youth branches within their structure. The government also has to tackle corruption to provide an appealing environment for foreign investments.
Karim Mezran gave an overview of the current political situation in Tunisia. He agreed on the conflict, which William Zartman referred to, concerning the opposition between Bourghiba, “looking to Europe” and Ben Youssef lobbying for a more Arab development. Bourghuiba won the challenge and started to modernize the country but implemented an autocrat regime once Algeria met with the rise of Islamist groups. Ben Ali continued the modernizing but under a strict regime. However, since the revolution the political scene has dramatically changed and the West has to deal with Islamist parties. Mezran believes that Tunisian foreign partners should let Ennhada implement its policy and use economic if the party would implement laws within the framework of a democratic regime.