Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi

By Neji Ali Dhakouani,

Like all Tunisians I have been closely watching recent developments in my native country. While many questions remain unanswered , recent reports of the decision to call only on certain opposition parties to form an interim unity government raise serious questions that require immediate answers.

It is clearly impossible to speak of a true unity government where only three opposition parties have been called to negotiate with the interim prime minister, Mr Mohamed Ghanouchi. And let us not forget that Mr Ghanouchi was part of the old regime, a member of the very political party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), against which the Tunisian people rose up in order to make this transition to democracy possible. Equally outrageous is that the current foreign and interior ministers will retain their posts during this “interim” period.
The following reasons have been given for limiting involvement to only three opposition parties:
• Securing the country’s stability trumps all other political considerations.
• This is a transition, interim government that will have a known and limited agenda and mandate, and it will be dissolved in six months
• All opposition parties without exception will be invited to take part in the discussion about the future of the country and the election in six months.
• The Tunisian revolution was a spontaneous popular movement and no political party or movement can claim legitimacy from the will of the people.
• The three opposition parties are simply asking those who were not invited to trust that the unity government will truly represent the will of all Tunisians.

In our opinion these arguments are not convincing and miserably fail the truth test. Let us examine these arguments one by one then demonstrate the true impact of excluding all opposition parties

Stability trumps everything else:

Tunisian democracy is at most three days old and is now taking its first infant steps. Indeed, some would argue that it is still being born. It is true that a state of lawlessness reigned after the departure of Ben Ali and that unknown individuals or groups are terrorizing residents. However, I fail to see how excluding opposition parties will enhance security. Bringing all opposition parties immediately to the table might even give more legitimacy to the unity government and thus quell any possible disenchantment and distrust.

In my opinion, unless those who argue for security and stability show a clear reason to exclude the other opposition parties, this argument is a red herring cleverly used to distract from the real reasons – reasons that the unity government does not dare to state openly.

The unity government is a transition phase

To the credit of the three parties involved in the negotiations, they are unequivocal in stating that their involvement is limited in purpose and duration. But this does not address the reasons for the exclusion. Whether it is limited in its time and scope has no bearing whatsoever on why parties who spent the last 23 years in opposition to the regime have not been invited to the table.

Furthermore, excluding those parties sends the wrong message to the Tunisian people who clearly expressed their view on the street and called for openness and an end to the policy of excluding dissenting opinion.

I cannot speculate on the inner thoughts of those who chose to exclude some opposition parties but the decision has tremendous impact on the political environment. It may also imply that the decision is politically motivated. More on this later.

All opposition parties will have their voice heard even if they are not represented in the coalition government:

It was argued that the excluded parties have nothing to fear. Although they will not form part of the unity government, they will have a chance to express their views to a committee (yet to be formed) that will be responsible for organizing a general election in six months. This argument is troublesome. It is misleading and dishonest to make vague promises to set up a committee (of unknown authority, with an unknown agenda) while putting the concrete institutions of power in the hands of just three parties.

If we are even to consider this argument we must at least know what this committee is and what powers it will have.

No political party can claim popular legitimacy:

With the exception of labor unions, most political groups merely tagged along at the beginning of the uprising and increased their involvement only as the revolt gathered steam. As no party instigated the uprising, it is indeed true that no party can claim popular legitimacy. However, that includes the three opposition parties now negotiating with the prime minster. For them to use this argument against the other parties is pure hypocrisy.

Trust us:

Trust is key in this transition from dictatorship to democracy. All political parties in Tunisia must work together in order to achieve true democracy, but trust is a two way street. In order to be trusted one’s actions must show that one is worthy of trust. The unexplained exclusion of most political parties from the negotiation table does not foster trust.

What it really means to exclude certain opposition parties from the unity government.

Whether innocent or with deliberate ill intent the exclusion has dire consequences on the direction of the young Tunisian democracy. The exclusion is a continuance of the Ben Ali regime and gives a de facto unfair advantage to the three parties involved.

Continuing with a rejuvenated Ben Ali regime

According to various news outlets the unity government will have representatives from three opposition parties, labor unions, prominent civil society figures, and the current foreign and interior ministers from the RCD. There is no official statement about the reasons for maintaining the foreign and interior ministers in their positions. Perhaps an attempt is being made to retain these two ministers as technocrats who are needed to deal with the day to day issues of governing a nation (interior ministry), or perhaps to lessen the fears of worried foreign governments (foreign ministry), or perhaps they are seen as “clean” individuals who literally have no blood on their hands.

Whether or not they are clean technocrats the simple reality is that the regime of Ben Ali is alive and kicking. Perhaps this will indeed be only for another six months, but the old regime is currently represented in the key positions of the interim president, the prime minster, the minister of the interior, the foreign minister, and a well structured and funded political party: the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD).

On January 14th 2011, the Tunisian people were bravely chanting for freedom not only from Ben Ali but from his regime. I would not be surprised to see the unity government and its allies from the old regime wake up in the next few days to find the street chanting for their departure too.

Unfair advantage

The three opposition parties (at least the most vocal ones) are trying to make light of their involvement in the unity government by stressing its temporary nature. Such argument overlooks the fact that, by participating in the unity government, these three parties gain a platform from which to trumpet their opinions and “glorious” past. The excluded parties will not benefit from such a platform and this will be very much to their disadvantage in the election scheduled for six months from now.

It is a fact that, for the last 65 years, Tunisia has known a one dominant political party (the RCD), a few “straw man” political parties recognized by the government, and a multitude of unrecognized opposition parties. While the RCD dominated the radio and TV waves for all of the 65 years the “straw man” political parties played a figurative role in the political scene but none the less enjoyed some coverage in the media. It is interesting to note that these parties were called to participate figuratively again in the negotiations for the unity government but to my knowledge were not offered a position in the unity government. This fact in itself cast further doubt on the unity government and may even imply that the entire negotiation is merely an orchestrated photo-opportunity rather than true democracy in action.

I am optimistic and have faith that the Tunisian people are our only hope and in fact our only system of checks and balances. However, those parties who were excluded must now show great resourcefulness if they are not to be eclipsed by the parties of the unity government.

Neji Ali Dhakouani