Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tunisia: Trial caught country’s attention but only served as a brief diversion from the faltering reform process and economy

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Ben Ali Conviction Euphoria Passes Quickly

Trial caught country’s attention but only served as a brief diversion from the faltering reform process and economy.

There are mixed feelings here over the conviction of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi for theft and their sentencing to 35 years in prison.

Lots of people were excited about the trial and crowds came from the suburbs of Tunis and in fact from all over the country to the courtroom. I heard that people inside the court were interrupting the lawyers and judges, telling their personal stories of their suffering at the hands of Ben Ali’s regime, the loss of their property and theft of their land.

There were many Tunisian media outlets there, and it got a lot of coverage, which is positive. One of the main demands of the revolution was to make Ben Ali and his family accountable for their crimes, and for this country to have an independent judiciary. So this trial seemed like an answer to both demands.

But now the excitement has died down a little; people are very quickly realising that this trial was just for show. Ben Ali was not there, and his lawyer was not in court. His lawyer gave a speech on a news channel denying all the charges – which included possession of a huge amount of foreign currency, gold, drugs and weapons - but he wasn’t able to defend him in court. As for the verdict itself, I don’t know whether it’s even legally correct or possible in any way to carry it out.

There are fugitives from the Egyptian regime listed on the Interpol website, but not Tunisians; we think maybe we went about it in the wrong way. People are angry that the transitional government hasn’t done enough to close down the Ben Ali family’s businesses and bring the funds back to Tunisia. And maybe it would have been a better result if Ben Ali could have been brought before the International Criminal Court, ICC.

Right now a new protest is growing in central Tunis. It’s known as the Destiny Sit-In, and it started on June 15. There aren’t many people there at the moment, only around 50 protesters, but it is expected to build up in the coming days and weeks as there is still quite a lot of anger and resentment at the way the revolution is progressing. The sit-in’s demands are for the election to be held on October 23 and not delayed any further; for further judicial reform; and for the committee to protect the revolution to be reformed to include more young people and more militants who fought against the old regime.

At the moment, it’s not getting much attention in the mainstream or online media but the political parties are beginning to show interest. Presidential candidate Moncef Marzouki has already addressed the gathering there and more political groupings are going to give their support, because there is an awareness that they don’t want to be seen as too close to the transitional government, as it has no legitimacy.

And as the summer continues, it is very noticeably quieter here in the tourist areas. Most of the shops are closed. I was hanging out with an Italian friend who came to visit and he was shocked by how dead it was when we went to the tourist areas. People were chasing us down the street, desperate to sell some of their goods to a foreign visitor.

This downturn will definitely have an effect on the election.

I have read about a huge tourism campaign that the government is rolling out in Europe, trying to promote Tunisia as a safe and fun destination again. Hopefully it will work. If not, the worst case scenario is that we face an economic crisis – which doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Kacem Jlidi is a blogger and activist from the city of Kairouan.