Tunisia, Again A Regional Model For Democracy?

Tunisia, Again A Regional Model For Democracy?

Change is afoot again in Tunisia, with a new constitution, a new technocratic government, and a Parliament in full celebration mode. Three years after triggering a wave of popular upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East, marked by decidely mixed results, Tunisia is again offering a snapshot of democratic hope.

"Nothing can describe my pride," is how one Tunisian put it, with a tweet in English, when the new constitution was ratified late Sunday.

Even well-known enemies, like, Habib Ellouze and Mongi Rahoui, two men famously on opposite sides of the political and religious spectrum, exchanged a gesture of congratulations. ("Here's the photo of the year!")

La photo de l'année en Tunisie est ici! -:) #TnAc

— Taïeb Moalla (@moalla) January 26, 2014

It seems that over the past few weeks, a cautious optimism has replaced the unrelenting criticism and doubts that have dominated Tunisia's fraught post-revolutionary period. In another touch of positive symbolism, the constitution, finally approved after more than two years of debate, was accompanied by images of a newborn baby - her mother, a parliamentarian, got married when she assumed her official functions in 2011. Images of mother and child appeared on Tunisian television, a sign of new life and hope for the future.

Early on Monday morning, Shems FM, a popular Tunisian radio station, appropriately tweeted a whimsical play on words:

"Good morning the morning of goodness, the morning of Tunisia, the morning of the adoption of the constitution."

صباح الخير، صباح تونس، صباح المصادقة على الدستور

— ShemsFm (@RadioShemsFm) January 27, 2014

Afterwards Shems FM triumphantly played Queen's song, "We expand=1] Are the Champions."

The new constitution, which had gone through several rounds of drafts, includes some controversial measures - such as article 6, which while guaranteeing religious freedom, also makes it a crime to insult the sacred. Yet it also contains some articles considered revolutionary in the region, including one mandating legal equality between men and women.

Mention of Sharia law is notably absent from the constitution, an important concession made early on in the process by the Islamist party, Ennahdha, which strategically chose to avoid pressing for articles which would raise the ire of the frightened though vocal minority of Tunisian anti-Islamist progressives.

The new government of technocrats is another source of hope for Tunisians weary of the often incompetent and stagnant post-revolutionary governance. Staffed by technocrats with top-notch CVs, the caretaker government will remain in place until the next elections, tentatively scheduled for six to nine months from now.

Here's new interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa's declaration that a new government had been successfully formed.

Though Facebook and Twitter were overwhelmed with relieved and joyful posts from Tunisians and international observers, there was still some notable skepticism

One Kuwaiti twitter user warned Tunisians against returning to a trustful stupor, in light of the divisive and bloody road taken by its fellow Arab Spring country, Egypt.

"To the Tunisian people, beware of the enemies of the revolution inside and outside the country: the adoption of the constitution is not the end of the road… you are not as far from Egypt as you may think."

على الشعب التونسي الحذر الشديد من أعداء الثورة في الداخل والخارج، فإقرار الدستور ليس نهاية المطاف.. وما #مصر منكم ببعيد. #تونس

— عبدالرحمن بدر القصار (@bodeema) January 27, 2014

The twitter account of an apparent Islamist extremist also reminded jubilant observers that security issues remain, as jihadists generally refuse constitutions for "usurping" the divine authority of God. Referring to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the radical jihadi group wreaking havoc in Iraq and among Syrian jihadi rebels, this twitter user reminds us that the jihadi movement is alive and well in certain corners of Tunisia - especially the vast Sahara desert.

من صحراء تونس / ينشد بوبكر يابغدادي يامرهب الأعادي روعه #الدولة_الإسلامية_في_العراق_والشام

— أبو لادن (@aljabiri999) January 27, 2014
(Main photo after approval of constitution Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA)

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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