Analysis: Should Tunisia go the Polish way?

In October 2014 Tunisians went to the polls for the legislative elections (Photo credit: Ahmed Medien)
In October 2014 Tunisians went to the polls for the legislative elections (Photo credit: Ahmed Medien)

One could easily argue that Tunisia and Poland are too different historically and politically to ever be compared with one another. Yet, the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe after 1989 led to various political similarities with the Arab Spring: a political compromise, the transformation of the old establishment and the place of religion in the public sphere. Could Poland inspire Tunisia?

By Katarzyna Mortoń

On the southern seaside of the Mediterranean, Tunisia, the smallest country in the Maghreb region of North Africa, has just taken a few big steps towards democracy. The Tunisian people elected Beji Caid Essebsi as president in December. A coalition government was formed, comprising the secular party Nidaa Tounes, the Islamist party Ennahda, the Free Patriotic Union and Prospects for Tunisia as well as the National Front. The elections and creation of a national unity government, together with the recently adopted progressive constitution, a new parliament and significant signs of consensus amongst political elites, seem to prove that today democracy has fully institutionalised itself in Tunisia. A remarkable result, especially considering the way revolutions went in Syria, Libya or even Egypt.

Still, some Tunisians and international observers worry that the victory of Essebsi, a politician who served under the autocratic regime of Ben Ali as a parliament speaker, does not embody prosperity, but instead a rather weak and possibly ill future for the country. Additionally, a number of events, like assassinations of anti-Islamist politicians Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013, but mostly the latest gunmen attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis proved that the jihadi threat in Tunisia is a real obstacle on the way to stability.

In the meantime on the European continent, a former prime minister of the Republic of Poland, Donald Tusk, from the Civic Platform party, has just taken office as the president of the European Council. This institution of the European Union (EU), which gathers the heads of state and government of the 28 EU member states. Tusk’s nomination took place on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War, which had divided Europe into two separate areas for almost 45 years. Back then, democracy reigned on the West side of the wall, while the authoritarian regimes influenced – at least partly – by the Soviet Union were situated on the East side. Due to this division, Poland was part of the Eastern authoritarian block from 1945 until 1989. However, now, 25 years later, it is a successful model of a democratic transition.

While in fact Poland and Tunisia are totally different culturally, politically, geographically and socially, the main thing they actually do have in common gives both countries and their comparison a truly unique place in world’s history: both countries initiated a motion of political and social changes that spilled over into neighbouring countries, influencing their respective regions.

The revolutions were marked by difficult economic situations in both cases. In Tunisia the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17th became a catalyst for the protests that toppled former dictator Ben Ali.  In Poland, the catalysing spark came from a trade union movement called Solidarność (Solidarity), which had been founded in 1980 under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. The movement was first considered an illegal opposition group and was therefore politically repressed. But after years of resistance, the movement got included into the so-called Round Table Talks in 1989. These talks, held between the Polish communist regime and Solidarność, resulted in the first semi-free elections, which took place on June 4th and 18th of the same year.

Political consensus and parliamentary elections

Both countries have worked out a political consensus in order to institutionalise a growing democracy. The first free parliamentary elections in Tunisia in October 2011 brought victory to the Islamist Ennahda party. Shortly after, the Tunisian constituent assembly elected human rights activist Moncef Marzouki for president. The stability created by these elections was soon challenged by protests against the Islamist-led government. Luckily Ennahda agreed to hand over power to an independent government, to maintain peace and the country’s security. New elections took place in October 2014: Nidaa Tounes secured 85 seats and Ennahda 69 seats. Finally, in February 2015 a new multi-party government was composed in which previous opponents created a coalition.

Going back to 1989, to the first semi-free elections in Poland, the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) and its satellite parties – from the old establishment – were guaranteed 65 % of the seats in the lower house. The elections to the upper house and the rest of the lower house were free and the Solidarność coalition won almost all of those seats. The PZPR’s leader, General Jaruzelski, was elected as president by the National Assembly (lower and upper house). Interestingly (and ironically), Jaruzelski was the one who imposed a martial law in 1981 to control any illegal opposition back then, which was made mainly of parties affiliated to the Solidarność movement.

Direct presidential elections

In both countries, the direct presidential elections were held in order to complete the democratic transition. Lech Wałęsa became Poland’s new president in December 1990. In Tunisia the direct presidential elections, held in December 2014, resulted in the victory of Beji Caid Essebsi, former official in Ben Ali’s administration, who won 55,68 % of the votes. One might notice a significant difference here: in Poland the elected president was an opposition leader, whereas in Tunisia the first free presidential elections were won by an official of the old regime. A possible explanation for this different electoral outcome lies in the fact that there was a clear ‘us versus them’ situation in Poland: the Solidarność coalition versus the old regime’s coalition. As mentioned already in Tunisia, there is a third controversial political actor on top of ‘the regime versus opposition narrative’: a religious group. Even though in both countries, religion has been a powerful force influencing political moods, in Poland the Catholic Church had no direct political aspirations as such but played a uniting role in the country’s transition. It is quite the opposite in Tunisia. One might ask: are Tunisians more afraid of Islamists than of politicians from the previous regime? Will Essebsi’s win result in the comeback of the old order, or will various political factions within Nidaa Tounes that aim for a cooperation with Ennahda continue to pursue their agenda of national unity? Will actions of Islamic extremist strengthen the coalition or weaken it and how will they influence the public?

By looking at what happened further with the democratic transition in Poland, we might find some answers to these questions. Quickly after 1989 the PZPR transformed itself into a modern, pro-democratic, pro-Europe political force, rightly following its political instinct. In their opinion, a change was inevitable and playing along was more beneficial than remaining rigid. With a new name – the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – and focusing on the younger generation taking a lead in the party, the old establishment gained enough credibility to win a meaningful number of seats in the parliament, already in 1993 and in many elections after. They were also able to present their own candidate, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, for president in 1995. He lead Poland in two consecutive terms. Currently the SLD is in the opposition and its popularity has again been decreasing over the last few years. Nevertheless, the old establishment got consolidated into a well-functioning democracy.

Yet, the Polish political culture is still not free from its past. Politicians from the old regime becoming part of the democratic public sphere have always been seen as an obstacle in many political and intellectual circles, resulting in controversial situations. The polish Catholic Church even if not directly active at the political scene, still has and uses its informal yet powerful influence on a large number of traditional people in Poland, holding popular media outlets to voice their stands on various social and political issues.

A rocky road ahead

The aftermath of Poland’s transition to democracy seems positive, even though some might argue that the country could have done it better. However, it is important to notice that any system change is a long-lasting, multi-angled and multi-levelled process, often requiring choices to be made between conflicting imperatives. Therefore, Tunisia still has a rocky road ahead, and political compromises that gain the approval of Tunisia’s society have to be part of that bumpy road, especially concerning the external threat such as that of the extremism of the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, which does its best to support its allies in all countries worldwide.

The success of Tunisian transition will depend mainly on the tolerance and trust of the Tunisian people, but most of all on the will of political elites to transform, modernise and be legitimate in the eyes of their people. First of all, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda will have to continue their symbolic and pragmatic, yet extremely meaningful cooperation within the multi-party government of national unity. Secondly, Nidaa Tounes will have to keep reforming itself, showing no signs of sentiment to the practices of the old regime. Thirdly, Ennahda will have to get a good strategy on how to represent and voice Muslim communities in Tunisia. They cannot leave space for Islamic extremists to gain any sympathisers amongst them and assure secularists that their place is within the democratic state.

 

** This article will be followed by interviews with Tunisian activists.

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Analysis: The seven roles of social media in the recent #Gezi Park protests in Turkey by Billur Aslan.

What triggered the young Turks’ political awakening? menac invited PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations, Billur Aslan, to discuss the role of social media in this analysis of the recent Gezi Park protests in Turkey.

The seven roles of social media in the #Geziparki protests
Of my generation in Turkey, born after 1980, most have never participated and not even seen any large and widespread protest in our lives. Our parents have always told us to stay away from politics and particularly from social activism since they witnessed the most bloody era of Turkey, through the 1970s period, which came to a halt with the military coup in 1980. This coup ensured prolonged de-politicisation of the Turkish society by banning political activists from engaging in political activities for 15 years. Moreover, 30,000 political activists had to leave the country and about 500 death sentences were pronounced (Pfannkuch, 2013). Therefore, the generation born after 1980, were educated to be reticent when it came to politics. Due to this long-standing reluctance of the young Turks to be involved in politics, the Gezi Park protests of May and June 2013 appeared as an unexpected and extraordinary face of Turkey. Even the young Turks themselves were surprised about the commitment and the active presence of their peers in the protests. From a small group of 50 people who claimed their public park, the rally grew into wider anti-government protests. What made the non-political and non-activist young people of Turkey start organising spontaneous and widespread protests?

The provocative acts and messages of the government
Turkey has experienced the growing strength of the moderately Islamic government in recent years. While the confidence of the government has been rising, it has gradually wiped its rivals off the political map (Amani, 2012). Particularly with the last election in 2011, the votes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased to nearly 50% of the electorate. With these political gains, the tone of the government turned more authoritarian (for example: its attacks on the women’s reproductive rights and its imposition of the alcohol-free zones). This authoritarian tone was one of the most provocative factors that increased the social tension in the Gezi Park protests. Prime Minister R. Tayyip Erdogan’s speech regarding the government decision on the cutting of the trees in Gezi Park was an explicit example of this. Erdogan said to the protesters that “Whatever you do, we have made our decision and we will implement it“. This statement could be perceived as an indicator of the diminishing level of tolerance to alternative voices. Another significant cause that gave way to the protests was the boost in the repression level. The disproportional use of force by the police against the protesters on Worker’s Day (1 May 2013 demonstrations) had been repeated during the Gezi Park protests as well. Police repression triggered the events and stimulated participation. Young people who saw their peers resisting against water cannons and tear gas took the streets.

Turket 5 An iconic photo of the Gezi Park protests. Source: OccupyGezi Facebook page.

Undeniably, these factors verify the theories of social movement scholars who would emphasise the changing state structure and the high level of repression to be the generating factors of the protests. Yet, what particularly differentiated the Gezi Park uprisings and mobilised the young dissidents was the silence of the conventional media and as a motivational source, the presence of the new technologies.

The influence of social media in the absence of conventional media

1. Growing political awareness among youth 
While the conventional media in Turkey lost its critical and objective standing, social media have become a crucial source from which young Turks learn about breaking and unreported news. This informative role of the social media was particularly noticeable when the Gezi Park protests began to enlarge on Friday, 31st of May. While the TV channels opted to remain silent on the growing protests and showed cooking or competitive reality shows instead,  social media was full of shared images and posts from the Gezi Park protests (Occupy Gezi page in Facebook and #direngezi in Twitter was the main information channels of the protesters). I personally have never seen my friends talk about a political event to that extent. As people could not watch the protests on their TVs, they became excessively active on social platforms. They tweeted, posted images on Facebook or shared their videos on Youtube in order to inform others and ask for help.

Turkey3 Similarly to other networked movements such as the Tahrir protests of 2011, the photos of graffiti spread all over the social media, Source: tumblr:  http://duvardakisesler.tumblr.com/

2. Motivating people to participate
What particularly made the social media significant for the Gezi Park protests was also the huge presence of Turkish people on these new platforms. Given that 70 percent of the population is under 35, Turkey ranked the 4th largest in global usage of Facebook and 8th largest on Twitter (Voice of America, 2011). Thanks to the “personalised communication” that brought a “connective power” to the movement (Bennett et al., 2011), young people influenced and motivated each other to join the demonstrations.

3. Increasing the number of citizen journalists 
Social media, once more, reminded us of how many journalists are among us. As everyone turned their attention to social media, users competed with each other to post their comments and to determine the narrative of the protests.

Unlike conventional movements, the dissidents do not have to get the attention of the media in the Gezi Park protests. Thanks to social media, they became journalists themselves and expressed their grievances on these new platforms. For instance, OccupyGezi Facebook page criticized the mainstream media which blank out all and any news about the protesters.

4. Social media as organiser of the protests
Like the Arab Spring protests that spread over the Middle Eastern countries and the Occupy protests all over the world, the Gezi Park uprising was organised and mobilised via the help of the internet. Most people who joined the Gezi Park demonstrations were not members of any political or social organisation, they were part of the generation who avoided participation in political discussions. Thanks to the speed and easy connection facilities of social media, these non-activist young people have easily learnt to organise an uprising. The Occupy Gezi Protest in London, which was organized by few young Turkish people, was a great example of these connection facilities offered by social media. In one day, the group’s Facebook page reached  3,653 members who came to the protests in London for supporting the protesters in Turkey (https://www.facebook.com/events/597999976911525/?fref=ts).

5. Rising anger and activating non-activist youth
The photos in the social media which demonstrated the disproportional use of force by the police was very effective to mobilise young people. They felt the responsibility to say “I was also there”. Similarly to Egyptian bloggers who used Twitter to report news but also their own whereabouts (Papacharissi, 2011), young Turks frequently shared their locations and reported breaking news from there. A blog opened for protesters also enabled them to report any excessive use of force by polices towards protesters. (http://delilimvar.tumblr.com/).

Turkey 2 Source: Occupy Gezi Facebook page

6. Spreading instructions for protesters
If the dissidents planned to protest in specific parts of the city, they have logged into their social media accounts for information about the current situation in that area. A discourse spreading over Facebook was also containing the phone numbers of lawyers and doctors for the protesters. In this way, social media has taken a significant role to ensure the safety of the protesters.

7. Bringing world solidarity 
Probably one of the most important impacts of social media was to inform international society about the protests in Turkey and to activate them against the Turkish government. While the Turkish media turned its attention in other directions, Turkish people who live abroad felt the duty to organise events in their countries and showed their support to the protesters in Turkey. I should also add that contrary to silent Turkish media, the international channels have played a crucial role in the spread of news. One of the most popular videos, for instance, was a BBC video about the protests in Turkey (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x10fa2s_bbc-in-az-onceki-yayinindan-01-06-2013-04-00-tsi_news#.UaveatKc_tc).

The combination of  international media, Turkish citizens and social media together provokes a platform for the process of assembly.

Turkey 1 A photo from London shows the solidarity of the world people for the protesters in Turkey.

To conclude, it would be a mistake to claim that social media have replaced conventional media during the uprisings. In the absence of conventional media, a lot of false information was spread among the people and created panic and anxiety (i.e. the police is using real bullets, the chemicals inside the cannon water caused to faint ). Yet, the Gezi Park protests remembered us once more of the growing importance of social media in politics and its huge influence in the awakening and unification of a young population. In a speech on the Gezi Parkı protests, Erdogan said: “Social media is the worst menace to society”. As networked movements spread all around the world and topple governments, I wonder whether it is a menace to society or to authorities.

Billur Aslan
@billuraslan
billuraslan@hotmail.com

Bibliography:

Amani, A, 2012, “Turkey’s Democratic Short Fall: Is Prime Minister Erdoğan the Main Problem?”, OpenDemocracy, viewed in: 02.06.2013, Available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/aslan-amani/turkeys-democratic-shortfall-is-prime-minister-erdogan-main-problem

Bennet, L, Segerberg, A, 2013, The Logic of Connective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jones, D,  2012, Turkey Embraces Social Media, Voice of America, 26 April, viewed in: 02.03.2012, Available at: http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-embraces-social-media-149236475/370184.html

Pfannkuch, K, 2013, “Turkey’s Apolitical Generation”, Your Middle East, 29 April, viewed in:02.06.2013, Available at: http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/turkeys-apolitical-generation_13834

Papacharissi, Z, Oliveira, M, 2011, The Rythme of News Storytelling on Twitter, World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference, September, Amsterdam