Interview with Tunisian human rights activist Bochra Belhadj Hamida

"Demonised, insulted and threatened"

Bochra Belhadj Hamida is a lawyer and one of the most prominent human and women's rights activists in Tunisia. She is now running for parliament for Nidaa Tounes, a new party that brings together a range of political viewpoints. She discussed the current situation in Tunisia in an interview with Martina Sabra

Almost four years after the overthrow of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, public security is still not guaranteed. In the wake of politically-motivated murders, various Islamist groups continue to pose threats. They attack people and cultural monuments. Sometimes, the police and security forces are abusive. Would you have thought, in early 2011, that the period of instability would last this long?

Bochra Belhadj Hamida: No, I did not. At first, we believed the state would keep on functioning in spite of everything. Unfortunately, we now know that there were terrorists operating within the state apparatus, and that other civil servants supported them. Certain forces wanted to weaken rather than strengthen the state. Two things were particularly disastrous:

– The government run by the Ennahda party, which is considered moderately Islamist and is affiliated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, failed completely to ensure public safety and fight terrorism. It took Ennahda two years to bring itself to call terrorism by its rightful name. I don't want to suggest that the party was complicit in terrorism, but it did not fulfil its responsibilities.

– Once Ennahda was in power, it did whatever it could to marginalise others.

One consequence is that many Tunisians now wrongly believe that everything was better under Ben Ali. They want to return to the past and ask what freedom is good for if they can't even meet their basic needs.

There are thousands of Salafi fundamentalists in Tunisia. Fighters from Tunisia are among the largest foreign group within the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Why is that so?

Belhadj Hamida: Well, it's not surprising if you consider what happened after our first free election on 23 October 2011. The ruling Ennahda party completely conceded to the Salafists. The fanatics were presented to Tunisians as people who had the right to spread their "culture". In the mosques, radical imams were allowed to openly call for jihad in Syria for over two years. The interior ministry, the police, everyone knew that jihadists were being recruited and where the money was coming from. The recruiters worked right under the police's noses. They were well funded and used professional methods. The would-be fighters were vulnerable young men with psychological, social and economic problems.

Ennahda supporters in Tunis on 20 March 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Is Ennahda's popularity unbroken in Tunisia? Bochra Belhadj Hamida doesn't think so: "The people have learned their lesson. Many of those who voted for Ennahda in 2011 are now critical of the party," says the Tunisian human rights and women’s rights activist

What must be done to improve security and facilitate a more peaceful transition to democracy?

Belhadj Hamida: There are many external factors that we only have limited influence over – including especially the chaotic situation in Libya, our neighbouring country. But at home, we can do a lot if we all work together. We need to reform the police and the judiciary. Some action has already been taken, but not enough. The establishment of the Temporary Judicial Council (Instance Provisoire de la Magistrature) was postponed for months because Ennahda opposed the term "independent judiciary" when the law was drafted. It insisted on "representative judiciary", which was completely unacceptable. Fortunately, dedicated lawyers, members of the legislature and civil-society actors were able to prevent that, and the procedure for appointing and reassigning judges is now more or less transparent. The police, on the other hand, need rather simple things, such as equipment and decent pay. A young police officer barely earns more than the minimum wage in Tunisia today. He can hardly get by and he certainly cannot start a family. Such a setting creates the perfect conditions for corruption.

In October and November, Tunisia will elect a new parliament and a new head of state. What will happen if Ennahda wins the most votes once again?

Belhadj Hamida: I hope that will not happen. Ennahda won't help Tunisia out of its economic or security crises. Instead, it would damage state and society even more. The citizens have to ensure that we don't end up with an Ennahda majority government.

Given Ennahda's influence over the state bureaucracy and the media, can the elections really be free, equal and secret?

Belhadj Hamida: The elections will surely not be as clean and transparent as we would like them to be. Ennahda has made every effort to put its people in key positions at all levels of the election system. But the progressive parties are working hard on documenting instances of fraud and manipulation in order to reduce them to a minimum. I hope that the majority of Tunisians will choose well this time. At stake is the future of the only country in the region that has managed, in spite of many problems, to continue along the path towards democracy after overthrowing its long-time dictator. I have high hopes for these elections.

Photo symbolising the parliamentary election in Tunisia (photo: Bilderbox/AP/Montage DW)
Litmus test for Tunisia's young democracy: last June, Tunisia's constituent assembly set the date for Tunisia's parliamentary election at 26 October 2014. It will be followed by the first round of voting in the presidential election on 23 November. It is hoped that these elections will mark the end of the political transition process that began with the uprisings of the Arab Spring in January 2011

One problem with the election of the National Constituent Assembly in October 2011 was the splintering of the political parties. Furthermore, the election law meant that many votes for small parties were ultimately lost, and that served Ennahda. Since then, the party landscape has consolidated, but the election law has not been fundamentally revised. Do you expect there to be renewed polarisation and even more tension?

Belhadj Hamida: No, I don't. The people have learned their lesson. Many of those who voted for Ennahda in 2011 are now critical of the party. Besides, the party landscape is entirely different today. In 2011, Ennahda was the only big-tent party. Now there is a second one: Nidaa Tounes, the party I belong to.

Your party has been accused of bringing together supporters of the former regime. Moreover, there are rumours that Nidaa Tounes would form a coalition with Ennahda after the election in order to come to power.

Belhadj Hamida: Tunisia has passed a law forbidding certain people from participating in politics or limiting their political engagement because of their involvement with the former regime. That said, there are indeed representatives of the former regime in all of today's parties. Ennahda has become home to a particularly large number of members of Ben Ali's former ruling party, the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique), and the up-side of this fact is that no one is trying to revive the RCD in order to reassert control over Tunisia.

What is your response to the coalition rumours?

Belhadj Hamida: We will never serve Ennahda, neither politically nor programmatically. We are going to forge an alliance with all progressive parties.

The revolution cost 300 people their lives. Thousands were wounded. Many have disabilities and will need assistance for the rest of their lives. Prior to the revolution, Tunisia was run by an oppressive regime for decades. Has enough been done to compensate the victims?

Belhadj Hamida: Tunisians have a right to know what happened – from Ben Ali's rise to power in 1987 to his overthrow in early 2011 and on to the events that followed. As a society, we have to uncover the truth. At the moment, we are still far from achieving this goal. Up to now, there has been a strong tendency to manipulate the past for political purposes. I hope that the new Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité) will tackle the two real issues: remembrance and reconciliation. We must remember, so Tunisians know what each individual citizen did, did not do or could have done in order to stop Ben Ali's abuses. And we must come to reconciliation so we can shape the future of our country in a sense of co-operation without being haunted by the desire for revenge.

Tunisia's constituent assembly agreed on a new constitution for Tunisia in January 2014 (photo: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi)
Slow, but steady progress: a new, ground-breaking constitution came into force in Tunisia this year. "Tunisia's civil society, political parties and citizens passed the best constitution that was possible under the given circumstances," says Bochra Belhadj Hamida

The Truth and Dignity Commission was convened in early September. Some say, however, that it is understaffed and lacks clear oversight mechanisms. The legal basis for the commission is the transitional justice law, which was passed in late 2013. Does it need revision?

Belhadj Hamida: This law was discussed for a very long time, and it remains controversial. In my opinion, it does not meet Tunisians' expectations. It contains many contentious and even dangerous provisions. For instance, it violates the constitution because it allows a person to be tried twice for the same crime. That provision breaches universal human rights. More­over, the law criminalises actions that were not illegal when the alleged crime happened. That also does not agree with internationally recognised legal norms. If this law is actually applied, it can trigger dangerous conflicts. Hopefully, the new commission will act diligently and not allow itself to be instrumentalised for political purposes.

So the future Tunisian parliament should revise the law?

Belhadj Hamida: Yes, that will be one of its most urgent tasks. The justice system must become an instrument of reconciliation. If I am elected to parliament, my top priorities will be reconciliation and the protection of human rights. It is essential that we address these issues. Today's society is marred by too much hate and too much settling of personal scores. That is standing in the way of our national interests.

So far, we have primarily discussed problems. But progress has also been made. In January 2014, the new constitution was adopted. At present it is by far the most democratic constitution in the Arab world. What is the source of Tunisia's democratic potential?

Belhadj Hamida: Tunisia's civil society, political parties and citizens passed the best constitution that was possible under the given circumstances. However, you shouldn't compare Tunisia with other Arab countries, but rather with Europe. Our country has always been fortunate enough to have extraordinary elites. And the new constitution is of course also the achievement of committed women: all the women who repeatedly took to the streets to show that they would never give up their rights. Everyone recognises that progressive women played a very important role.

Tunisia's women's movement (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
According to Bochra Belhadj Hamida, Islamists have done all they can to force the women who fought for freedom and democracy in Tunisia off the political stage over the past three years: "They claimed that we were women without morals and without cultural identity. We were lumped together with the old regime because the Islamists vilified Tunisia's comparatively progressive family law, which permits divorce and forbids polygamy, as being the work of the former dictatorship."

Who holds the key to more peace and security in Tunisia today?

Belhadj Hamida: The Tunisians themselves hold the key in their hands if they act in solidarity with one another. The next parliament, government and president will hopefully be democratic and prioritise the country's interests instead of their own. Above all, we need economic development. The state has to take the initiative and create the right conditions and the necessary infrastructure. Neoliberalism and socialism have both failed. Unfortunately, we also have to take the situation of our neighbouring countries into account. We are in an environment that isn't necessarily conducive to internal and external peace in Tunisia. Algeria is fortunately supporting Tunisia in the fight against terrorism, but the situation in Libya is extremely chaotic and dangerous.

What do you think is the key to peaceful relations between the Arab world and Europe?

Belhadj Hamida: We have to treat each other as equals. The people living south of the Mediterranean are not fundamentally different. Once Europe accepts that fact, we can have a real dialogue.

In September you were awarded the Anna Lindh Prize. What does that mean to you?

Belhadj Hamida: The prize is first and foremost associated with Anna Lindh herself, the former Swedish foreign minister. Her assassination showed us where fanaticism, mental illness and misogyny can lead to. Second, the prize encourages me and many other committed women who are fighting for women's rights and democracy in Tunisia. We need that encouragement, because Islamists have done all they can to force us off the political stage ever since Ben Ali was toppled. We were demonised, insulted and threatened even though we have long fought for civil-society freedoms. They claimed that we were women without morals and without cultural identity. We were lumped together with the old regime because the Islamists vilified Tunisia's comparatively progressive family law, which permits divorce and forbids poly­gamy, as being the work of the former dictatorship.

Interview conducted by Martina Sabra

© Development and Cooperation 2014

Bochra Belhadj Hamida is a lawyer who worked for people who were facing political persecution regardless of their worldview in Tunisia before the revolution. She is now running for parliament for the big-tent party Nidaa Tounes. She recently received the Anna Lindh Prize, which is awarded by Sweden's Anna Lindh Memorial Foundation.

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