Middle East

Tensions high as Tunisia marks year since first free elections

Supporters of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party shout slogans and gesture during celebrations on the first anniversary of the country's first free elections, in Tunis October 23, 2012. (REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

TUNIS: Tunisia’s leaders Tuesday sought to defuse tensions as the country marked a year since the election of the National Constituent Assembly, amid divisions and violence that have muted the celebrations.

“We can build nothing on the basis of hate and the challenging of others,” President Moncef Marzouki told a special session of Tunisia’s interim Parliament, calling on parties to stop “demonizing” each other.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali urged the different factions to assume their “historic responsibility” and not “push the situation toward crisis, escalation and violence.”

The anniversary of Tunisia’s historic elections comes at a time of heightened tensions between the coalition government, led by Jebali’s Islamist party Ennahda, and the opposition.

Critics have attacked the Islamists for failing to improve living standards since the revolution that ousted former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, for a deteriorating security situation and for curbing civil liberties.

Numerous opposition MPs boycotted the session in protest at what they say are the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling Islamists.

Tunisia’s main trade union, the UGTT, tried last week to organize a “national dialogue,” inviting political parties to cooperate in thrashing out the details of the delayed new constitution, held up by disagreement over the future political system.

But Ennahda and Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic boycotted the meeting, which ended with those parties that did attend rejecting a government proposal to hold elections in June, and no agreement on a timetable for adopting the new charter.

Hundreds of pro- and anti-government protesters gathered outside parliament Tuesday, with opposition activists calling for a new revolution, and Ennahda supporters denouncing opposition leader Beji Caid Essebsi, who they see as a remnant of the ousted regime.

Eventually the crowd dispersed, with no incidents reported.

Essebsi’s Call of Tunisia party has argued that the government loses its legitimacy on Oct. 23, a year after the assembly’s election, because it was committed to drafting a new constitution within 12 months.

“The voices that speak about the end of the government’s legitimacy are the voices of chaos,” Ennahda’s veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi told AFP, after attending parliament.

Beyond the tensions within the legislature, violence on the ground has multiplied in recent months, with Tunisia’s Salafists blamed for a wave of attacks and Ennahda accused of failing to rein in the fundamentalists.

Salafist leader Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, also known as Abu Iyadh, who is wanted over last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis, accused the government of being in thrall to “foreign powers,” in a video posted on the Internet.

“Today you are starting to feel, to touch the reality of the secular currents that are subject to the control of foreign powers, which want to force you into apostasy,” said the leader of the radical Ansar al-Shariah group, addressing the Tunisian people.

Security has been beefed up for the anniversary of the elections, with large army and police deployments across the country, where a state of emergency that gives police special powers of intervention has been in force since January last year.

Amnesty International expressed doubt about the government’s commitment to reform, saying it had “rolled back” progress on human rights that followed last year’s revolution.

“Recent months have seen increased restrictions on freedom of expression, with journalists, artists, critics of the government, writers and bloggers targeted under the guise of maintaining public order and public morals,” it said.

The rights watchdog also criticized the “unnecessary and excessive use of force” used to disperse protesters who frequently take to the streets across Tunisia to express their anger over the slow pace of reform.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2012, on page 9.




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