Three days after the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya, neighbouring Tunisia held elections for a constituent assembly. In an interview with Eva-Maria Verfürth, Ralf Melzer of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation discusses the political situation in both countries
Will the election in Tunisia have an impact on developments in Libya?
Ralf Melzer: Libya's National Transitional Council is closely monitoring the transition process in Tunisia and it plans to hold elections for a constituent assembly too. However, the process will be a good deal harder – and take longer – in Libya because this country does not have the institutions that supported the process in Tunisia: political parties, non-governmental organisations and independent trade unions.
The Ennahda party scored a resounding victory in Tunisia, winning more than 40 % of the vote. Why is this party so popular?
Melzer: Many Tunisians had a strong desire to distance themselves from the old regime. That helped Ennahda because it was banned under Ben Ali. The party probably also benefited from the baffling multitude of competing parties, many of which only had vague political platforms.
Ennahda describes itself as a moderate Islamist movement, yet some sections of Tunisian society fear it will restrict liberties. What kind of policy can we expect from Ennahda?
Melzer: That is still hard to say. Before the election, the party stated it would not seek to establish an Islamic state and would not change existing legislation on personal status. Whether it actually pursues that policy remains to be seen. There are certainly also radical currents within Ennahda – and even more so outside it.
Ennahda will have to form a coalition with other political forces; the Congress for the Republic (CPR), Al Aridha and Ettakatol did particularly well in the election.
Melzer: Perhaps the greatest surprise of the election was that the CPR emerged as the second-strongest group in the assembly. The CPR is seen as a secular centre-left party, although it has not yet developed a clear political profile. This also holds true for the third-placed Al Aridha of the London-based businessman Hachemi Hamedi.
Personally, I am particularly pleased at the success of the social democratic Ettakatol party, led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, who was a widely respected opposition politician even during the Ben Ali era. In the eyes of the Pôle Démocrate Moderniste (PDM) – a coalition of civil society groups and centre-left parties – it is disappointing to have won only five seats. However, I believe that the composition of the new transitional government is not that important. What really matters is drafting the constitution, which must become a success.
Who will lead that process?
Melzer: A lot now depends on how the parties work together. It is good that no party won the kind of absolute majority that permits unilateral decisions, although Ennahda is a massive bloc, of course. The first signals sent out by Ennahda after the election, however, indicated a willingness to cooperate.
In recent weeks, there have been reports of protests by radical Islamists and of anti-Ennahda riots. What role do Tunisians think Islam should play in politics?
Melzer: Tunisian society is divided, so it will not be easy to build a consensus for the constitution-making process. I think the violence outside the Ennahda office in Sidi Bouzid was an isolated incident. The protesters demonstrated against a decision of the electoral commission to cancel seats won by Al Aridha – a decision that has now been widely reversed again.
What many Tunisians really worry about is the growing number of religiously motivated assaults – like the attack in late June on a Tunis cinema showing the secularist film Ni dieu, ni maître or the protests over the airing of the film Persepolis, which paints a critical picture of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. But even seemingly trivial incidents in daily life – such as the verbal abuse of women in Western dress – are serious problems. Some Islamist groups want to force their ideas upon everyone else.
Does that kind of behaviour increase their influence?
Melzer: The political process is strongly institutionalised in Tunisia. Matters are not decided in the streets. Now that Tunisians have got rid of Ben Ali, they will not embrace a new authoritarian regime. It helps that the country has a high level of education, a large middle class and a vibrant civil society.
It is a different story in Libya, which has neither established political institutions nor independent organisations in civil society. What are the chances of a peaceful transition there?
Melzer: There is a chance, but there are also many disruptive factors. The political system that existed under Gaddafi is history, and no one knows what will take its place. Libyan society is very tribal, and the various regions compete for oil revenues. It will not be easy to achieve an equitable balance of interests. The first and most urgent challenge, however, is to get the economy going again. If the government manages to ensure that this challenge is tackled in a peaceful setting, that would smooth the way to transition. But if major mistakes are made – concerning the distribution of oil money, for example – things may deteriorate fast.
Does the National Transitional Council have sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people?
Melzer: Its legitimacy stems from the success of the anti-Gaddafi movement. It has no historical roots and will not necessarily last. But it does enjoy a certain level of trust for having overthrown Gaddafi.
The National Transitional Council has announced that Sharia law will be the main source of legislation in Libya. What does that mean?
Melzer: Sharia forms the basis of law in many Arab countries, but there are huge differences in the way it is interpreted and applied. Tunisia, under its 1959 constitution, is one of the few Arab countries in which Sharia law is not recognised.
In Libya, the problem is that no constitution exists at all that might provide a frame of reference for the transition. So optimists can interpret the talk of introducing Sharia as an attempt to create a legal framework temporarily. On the other hand, it may well be a sign of radical Islamist forces gaining strength, and Libyan politics being significantly shaped by religion in the future.
Has NATO involvement improved the West's reputation?
Melzer: As other Arab nations, Libyans are very sensitive about possible Western interference. On the other hand, the anti-Gaddafi movement would probably not have succeeded without NATO support, so the countries that participated in the NATO mission have indeed been looked on more favourably thanks to their coordinated action with Libya's rebels, especially during the battle for Tripoli.
Europe and the USA should use their enhanced standing to pursue a prudent policy and offer advice without imposing ideas on Libyans. In Tunisia, at any rate, I found there is keen interest in international advice and expertise.
Interview conducted by Eva-Maria Verfürth
© D+C Development and Cooperation 2011
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de