Tunisia - Political background

According to the 1 June 1959 Constitution, revised 12 July 1988, Tunisia is a republic in which power is shared by a strong president who is elected for five years (except for Habib Bourguiba, the first president of independent Tunisia, who nominated himself for life) and a unicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies (Majlis al-Nuwaab), whose members are directly elected for a five-year term. The president nominates a prime minister who is responsible to him; he can dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call for new elections. He is an important initiator of legislation.

From Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 until 1987, the Tunisian political system was dominated by Habib Bourguiba, a heroic nationalist leader, and his Neo-Destour Party (later known as Constitutional Democratic Rally— Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, RCD). Under 31 years of Bourguiba's presidency, Tunisian politics alternated between one-man authoritarianism and relative liberalism with only one party in power. In December 1974, the Chamber of Deputies, controlled by the RCD, made Bourguiba president-for-life. Multiparty politics was then a remote possibility and the system moved toward stagnation and intolerance of opposition.

By the mid-1970s, opposition movements started to form at home and abroad to oppose the rule of the aging president and his prime minister, Hedi Nouira. The Popular Unity Party (PUP), led by Ahmed Ben Salah (former minister of agriculture) was formed in Europe, and former minister of interior Ahmed Mestiri created the Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS). Both were banned in Tunisia and many of their sympathizers were arrested. More important challenges came from the General Union of Tunisian Workers and Islamic fundamentalist groups. The labor confederation organized a major strike in January 1978, which was followed by street rioting across Tunisia. In retaliation, the army killed around one hundred people, arrested hundreds more, including the Labor leader Habib Achour. The Islamists, led by Le Movement de la Tendance Islamic (MTI) expressed its first challenges, both verbally and with violence, by the late 1970s, which resulted in the arrest of its leaders.

As the political and economic situation continued to erode, the Tunisian regime moved by the early 1980s toward the liberalization of the system by accepting independent candidates in elections and by releasing political prisoners. Opposition parties such as the MDS, the PUP and the Communist Party were recognized. Only the Islamist group, MTI, was not given legal recognition. However, all these parties were too weak to compete with, or unseat, the RCD, which maintained its dominant position. New nationwide rioting took place in 1983 and 1984 after the announcement of an increase in the price of semolina and bread and other economic austerity measures. Many people were killed and many more arrested by the governmental forces. Bourguiba, who was then 81 years old, finally reversed the price increase decision and calm temporarily returned. It was in this context that the current president of Tunisia rose to power and overthrew Bourguiba with a bloodless coup on 7 November 1987.

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Hamza Shezad
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Sep 30, 2012 @ 5:05 am

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