Voices of concern have been growing louder in Tunisia as the Islamist party, Ennahda, which won a relative majority and is presently leading the interim government coalition, is acting as though it is planning to stay a while longer than its allotted one year. Several Tunisian commentators have therefore begun wondering aloud whether the country has just switched from one dictatorship to another.
On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held the first free and democratic elections in the history of the country. Tunisian voters were called upon to elect 217 members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), whose task was to appoint an interim government, to draft a new constitution within a year, and to prepare the country for general election.
Recently, however, the media outlet africanmanager.com published an article by Khaled Boumiza, comparing the present Ennahda-led government to that of the former Tunisian dictator, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, to outline the authoritarian turn the country has been taking. "Ennahda resembles more and more the Ben Ali couple's regime … we can see that their [authoritarian] approach is the same and also the means that they use. Similarities are striking between the two."
According to Boumiza, one similarity is the "non separation between State and Party." Ben Ali was the president of his party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy [RCD], and also the country's president, whereas the secretary-general of RCD became prime minister. Similarly, Hamadi Jbali was secretary-general of Ennahda before and after the revolution, and now that he is the prime minister, he still holds that position.
There is also the assumption of all the powers. One of Ben Ali's first acts was to amend the Constitution to concentrate all the powers in his hands. Likewise, Jbali, in assuming the position of PM, concentrated in his hands all the powers previously held by Ben Ali. The only difference is that now the strongman of the regime is the prime minister and not the president as it had been in Ben Ali's era.
Further, there is the threading of party representations throughout the country. Ben Ali had created a well-knit network of RCD party offices in the different regions of Tunisia in such a way that RCD became "the best social elevator of the country." This strong presence not only eliminated all possible political opposition, but at the same time promoted those people considered reliable by the regime. When Ennahda came to power it immediately dismantled all RCD structures, but it soon replicated them almost identically in all the cities and towns of Tunisia.
The RCD also had created the so-called "district committees," a form of security services that allowed the party to be informed about what was going on in the country. Likewise, Ennahda's Interior Minister has sent a letter to all governors and delegations to revive the "district committees." At the same time, the prime minister has created monitoring cells within all ministries. The idea, as in Ben Ali's time, is to place everywhere the "party's eyes and ears."
Another feature in common is the use of militant groups to sustain power. In the Ben Ali era, the RCD used to organize cheering crowds anywhere the president went. Whether there was a public speech or an "improvised" visit, the party sent buses loaded with supporters to cheer the president and deter any possible opponent. Likewise – according to Boumiza -- groups of Ennahda's supporters have been used to disrupt strikes and sit-ins by policemen and strikes or to counter anti-government rallies.
Silencing unfriendly press is yet another of these features. In 1987, when Ben Ali became president, he immediately started to apply censorship to journalists who were not aligned with the policies of his regime. A blacklist of unfriendly journalists was prepared, effectively silencing any sign of dissent. Similarly, a few weeks after his appointment as prime minister, Hammadi Jbali started a campaign against the media.
Boumiza concludes his article by saying that all these similarities reveal that after Ben Ali's departure, the culture of power is not dead. The present leadership has gone through a series of blunders, the most outstanding of which was evoking the establishment of a Caliphate. Ennahda has still to demonstrate that the democratic way in which the Islamist party was elected is also the way Tunisia is going to be governed going forward. So far it is not.