Tensions still running high in Tunisia

Tunisian riot police face protestors in Tunis on May 6 AFP

Four months after Tunisia’s revolution tensions are high as protestors fear the interim government may go back on its promise to help lead the country to democracy.

This content was published on May 16, 2011 - 15:56

On Saturday the authorities eased a curfew in the capital Tunis, a week after it was imposed following four days of unrest during which 600 people were arrested.

Preparations are under way for a general election on July 24 to elect a 260-person body to establish a new constitution.

But on May 12 Yadh Ben Achour, president of the body overseeing the election preparations, echoed earlier comments by Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi that the vote could be delayed.

Hasni Abidi, a Swiss Arab expert with the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, said there seemed to be moves afoot to undermine the revolution.

“It’s premature to talk about the beginnings of a counter revolution but we can see an unspecified clash between the forces of change and those wanting to maintain the status quo – or see the transition fail,” he told

Sihem Bensedrine, spokeswoman for the Tunis-based “Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie” human rights organisation, confirmed this development.

Power vacuum

“The main figures from the former regime are trying to protect themselves. As there is a certain vacuum at the head of the revolution, which has not yet placed its men in power, the elite from [ousted President Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali’s regime are trying to save some of their privileges, or even regain political and economic power,” she noted.

Bensedrine pointed the finger at the judicial system and the security forces, in particular the former political police, who are allegedly still controlled by people close to the former regime.

Abidi’s analysis was more nuanced.

“The interior ministry has changed, just like the director general of the national police force.  But you cannot transform the police culture, which was forged by Ben Ali from the time of [former President Habib] Bourguiba,” he noted.

“This force was built up by and for the former regime, developing a culture of infiltration, manipulation and torture. In this context the recent curfew didn’t help as it encouraged the police to continue these methods developed under the dictatorship.”

Protests infiltrated

Bensedrine feels the violent repression of demonstrators has specific motives.

“The scenario is always the same. Peaceful protests are regularly infiltrated by violent rioters and criminals and then spiral out of control. This leads to the arguably legitimate intervention of the security forces.”

“But the people who are arrested are not the rioters. The police, especially the political police who are always present and under cover, take advantage of the violence to arrest young activists who are making political demands, filming the repression and sharing it on the internet. Some are released from prison but many remain locked up accused of violence.”

Bensedrine, who has been an opponent of Ben Ali for years, believes that even in prison the members of the former regime and their networks are able to blackmail the caretaker government.

“The violence started the day after the government decided to maintain the political ineligibility measure affecting members of the former regime,” she noted.

“They exert a kind of blackmail over the population and the government, saying, ‘if you want freedom you won’t have security. If you attack us, we will burn this country’.”

Army’s credibility

For Abidi, blame partly lies with the interim government, which has obvious weaknesses.

“It is neither legitimate nor does it have the means to carry out the changes needed to pursue the transition towards democracy. It is overseeing an unmanageable situation,” he said.

“The army remains the only guarantee for this transition. This is why the recent comments by former Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi are dangerous, as they question the army’s credibility.”

On May 15 the popular reformist, who served briefly as interior minister in the early days of the caretaker government, was forced to issue an apology after warning ten days earlier that the army was prepared to take power if Nahda, the country’s main Islamist party, won the July 24 nationwide vote.

The instability meanwhile comes as the economy flounders, unable to tackle problems like high youth unemployment.

“The economic slump is making the political situation even more fragile,” said Bensedrine.

“This is especially true in the regions where the revolution started. Young people continue to suffer as a result of the overemphasis on the capital practised under the former regime. Everything happens in Tunis.

“In most instances the former regime’s go-betweens, governors and delegates haven’t changed. So economically the people don’t see any changes and politically the symbols of the former regime continue to take the decisions.”

Swiss foreign ministry - Tunisia

The foreign ministry has initially promised SFr12 million for projects and measures in North Africa and the Middle East in the areas of humanitarian aid, migration, structural reform, economic development and the fight against poverty. 

For 2011 and 2012, SFr20-30 million from the budget of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation has been earmarked for development cooperation in the southern Mediterranean area. 


The foreign ministry and Swiss ambassadors from North Africa and the Middle East recently met in Tunis to further develop the Swiss strategy in response to the Arab Spring uprisings.

The focus will be placed on economic cooperation, the return of stolen funds and migration.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey recently gave figures on how much money linked to North African potentates was currently blocked in Swiss accounts: about SFr60 million ($69 million) from the Ben Ali clan, about SFr400 million from the Mubarak clan and some SFr360 ​​million from the Gaddafi clan.


Switzerland is currently negotiating a cooperation agreement with Tunisia’s international cooperation ministry. Other projects are also underway such as those strengthening civil society and promoting participation in the electoral process. In the medium term Switzerland wishes to help consolidate the Tunisian judicial system.


Switzerland responded to a request by the Tunisian commission for political reforms by making available an expert on political transitions. Tunisia is also interested in collaborating on reforming its security sector and receiving logistical and financial support for the organisation of elections.

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