Last week, the Tunisian parliament passed a new law granting amnesty to corrupt civil servants, triggering a new national wave of protests in Tunisia. The law — giving amnesty as long as civil servants did not personally benefit from embezzling public funds — is a watered-down version of a former bill toned down in reaction to public opposition. Backlash was swift: along with national protests, international media and human rights organizations called this law a step backward in the Tunisia’s democratization process, and a sign of the reinforcement of the old regime.
In an effort to change the narrative, the following day, on Sept. 14, President Béji Caïd Essebsi announced he would repeal a 1973 law that prevented Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men.
The contrast between these two pieces of legislation reenacts an old script used by Tunisian rulers since the country’s independence in 1956 that pits identity against class, cultural modernization against social justice. Women’s rights — rather than gender equality or sexual freedom — historically played a central role in Tunisian government’s effort to showcase the country as modern and forward-looking. But women’s rights have always been left to the president’s discretion. State-led feminism has contributed to the stifling of grass-roots women’s movements. And women engaging in associations that did not fall in the rubric of good secular state feminism were harassed and tortured.
Last week’s amnesty law comes across as deeply offensive to the memory of the 300 dead and more than 2,000 wounded of the Arab Spring. While Essebi that the law is necessary to create a context of trust that may help bringing back investors, the law is widely perceived as a means for Essebi’s political party, Nida Tounes, to “pay back” the business leaders that supported its campaign in 2014.
The law also removes credibility to the public relations campaign against corruption launched by the government in August 2016. And it comes just one week after a government reshuffling that brought back figures of the Ben Ali era and close to the President’s circle. In a TV interview on September 18, the president called for a reform of the 2014 constitution, which many see as a landmark achievement of the transition, to strengthen the prerogatives of the presidency.
The repeal of the directive that banned Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men comes a month after Essebsi announced his intention to change laws about gender inequality in inheritance. This proposal was lauded as bringing about a necessary legislative reform, but also criticized as an attempt at revivifying the modernist-secularist divide in the country.
But the Islamist party Ennahda didn’t take the bait. It refrained from publicly opposing the reform of inheritance law and the repeal of the 1973 marriage law. Whether or not the president’s objective in proposing these changes was to force Ennahda to take a stance against “progress” and gender equality, this strategy did not work. Ennahda has refrained from opposing any of these so-called modernist projects.
As to the amnesty law, 31 of the 117 deputies who voted for it were from Ennahda. While this conflict avoidance attitude may cost Ennahda the loss of a significant amount of its grass-roots support, it also fails Nida Tounes’ attempt at revivifying identity-based polarization and at pitting secular modernists against religious conservatives.
Another important site where the identity and class divide is made obsolete is civil society itself. The social movement Manich Msamah (I will not forgive) — which mobilized and organized against the various drafts of the amnesty bill since 2015 — is composed of young Tunisians who share a common interest in social justice, but hold very different attitudes toward religion and marked by significant political disagreements. However, movements like Manich Msamah and civil society organizations have successfully turned into platforms for reciprocal learning, where calls for dignity, social justice and rule of law take precedence over the old narrative opposing class and identity.
An essential challenge for the divided forces of the opposition is to leave the old script behind. It is tempting for political opponents to promptly conclude that the former regime is back and that the counterrevolution has won. But it hasn’t — yet. And while it is true that the nexus of corrupt business elite, police and government media is winning back significant power, the vote of the amnesty law has also triggered a unique display of protest and resistance that was utterly unimaginable under Ben Ali.
Resistance promptly emerged on three fronts: in the streets, with the widespread mobilization of Manich Msamah protests; in parliament, with 38 deputies petitioning against the law to the country’s provisional constitutional court; and among political parties, with attempts at organizing an alliance of parties against the law.
But many questions remain. Will Manich Msamah be able to sustain mobilization? Will the provisional constitutional court have the power to overturn the law? Will political parties succeed in organizing a sustainable coalition front? No matter how these questions will be answered, the present reaction of Tunisian youth, civil society and political opposition to the current legislative battles suggest that while the old regime tactics remain active in Tunisia, the collective public energy of the 2011 revolution is still alive.
Nadia Marzouki is a political scientist, and a research fellow at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. She is the author of Islam, an American Religion (Columbia University Press, 2017).