SHAFAQNA – As Beji Caid Essebsi was sworn in as Tunisia’s president on Wednesday, human rights advocates expressed concerns that Tunisia’s fledging transitional justice process might suffer as a consequence.
Essebsi, 88, held high-ranking positions, including minister of interior and president of the parliament, in the regimes of Tunisia’s two former dictators; Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
While many argue that he earned his democratic credentials as interim prime minister after the 2011 revolution, his political rhetoric has emphasised focusing on the future.
At his final campaign event before the run-off election, Essebsi told supporters; “We must smile and be hopeful again and not talk of the past.”
But human rights activists disagree. “We cannot move on without holding people accountable for what they did,” 27-year-old activist and blogger Aya Chebbi told Al Jazeera.
Chebbi says that while her fears of the police have now subsided, her anger at those who ordered the violence against protesters during the 2011 revolution – and the years that followed – still persists.
For Amna Guellali, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Tunisia, Essebsi’s statements raised a red flag. “Some of the signs he’s giving are not very encouraging,” she told Al Jazeera. “Definitely, there are concerns and there are fears that there will be a backsliding on the transitional justice process.”
Opponents have also criticised Nidaa Tunis, which controls a plurality of seats in the new parliament, for the prominence of figures from the Ben Ali era in its ranks.
“This is problematic, to have a government and a presidency that is in the hands of the old regime,” said Mabrouka Mbarek, a former MP from Moncef Marzouki’s party, the Congress of the Republic (CPR).
Mehdi Zaoui, a member Nidaa Tunis’ executive bureau, rejected the claim that the party’s success indicates a return of the old regime. Nidaa Tunis, according to Zaoui, came together from five main currents; secularists, leftists, trade unionists, businessmen and former members of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD.
The diverse interests in the party will likely be a source of balance when it comes to transitional justice, according Rim al-Gantri, the head of Tunisia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
However, for victims of the old regime, like 28-year-old Ossama Awadi, the association with the past is still too close for comfort. “We are afraid because Essebsi was working before under the old regime,” Awadi told Al Jazeera at a demonstration outside of the prime minister’s office in Tunis.
Awadi’s mother was imprisoned for her involvement in an Islamist movement. Her punishment was extended to her children, who were barred from seeking employment with the government, a major provider of jobs in Tunisia. Awadi is a machinist with a university degree, but has struggled to find a job.
The roughly 30 protesters from all over Tunisia shared similar stories. All of them had been imprisoned or faced other forms of marginalisation and oppression under Tunisia’s two previous regimes.
Their crimes ranged from involvement in an Islamist or leftist political groups to working with human rights organisations that were critical of the government, according to protester Ali Tabib, 55, who was imprisoned for his work with the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
The protesters’ stories are not isolated cases. “The violence of the dictatorship started since independence in 1956,” Halim Meddeb, a legal advisor at the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.
The regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali employed systematic torture, political killings, unfair trails, forced exile and punitive economic practices to instill a culture of fear and quash any opposition to their rule, Meddeb explained.
One of the first acts of the post-revolution government was to issue a blanket amnesty for former political prisoners and promise restitution.
Nearly four years later, the protesters outside the prime minister’s office were still waiting for their situations to improve. Many of them carried papers they submitted to Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), the body created by constitutional decree that is responsible for investigating and prosecuting past crimes.
Launched in June 2014, the TDC has a broad mandate, lasting for four years with a possible one year extension. It is tasked with looking into political, social and economic crimes committed since independence in 1956. After spending six months establishing the internal structure and by-laws, the commission began accepting cases from victims on December 10.
“The particularity of the transitional justice system in Tunisia is that it involves not only truth telling and fact finding, but also prosecutions,” Guellali, from HRW, told Al Jazeera.
The ability of the TDC to prosecute individuals for their involvement in past crimes has raised fears of a witch-hunt against individuals involved in the old regime.
“What we are against, as Nidaa Tunis, is the systematic persecution, or at least group persecution, of the people who have been in the ruling party,” Zaoui explained.
For Guellali, individual responsibility is important in order break the system that allowed for abuses to take place. “It’s a cycle, so if you don’t break it it’s going to continue,” she said. “We will never have an end to these abuses because those who commit them will consider themselves as being immune.”
If Essebsi, and Nidaa Tunis, are not fully supportive of the transitional justice process, Guellali and others fear that they may use their power in the new government to limit its effectiveness.
“The risk is that they will try to hamper the work of the Truth Commission by cutting down the budget, not giving it enough support [and] preventing it from accessing the archives,” Guellali said.
But, according to el-Gantri, the transitional justice process won’t be stopped altogether because it is protected by the constitution. Politically and strategically, it would also be a bad move, el-Gantri added, because Tunisia’s new, robust civil society supports the process.
Still, there is a possibility that the TDC’s work could be significantly hampered. “Everything hinges on political will. Once this political will is not there, then they are going to have a very difficult time fulfilling their mandate,” Guellali told Al Jazeera.
“[Essebsi] doesn’t say … that transitional justice is a big lie,” she added. “He’s more clever in the way he is attempting to undermine it.”
The commission’s work has been more politicised and less straightforward than Nidaa Tunis would have liked to see so far, according to Zaoui. Guellali and others in the human rights community share this criticism.
“They have our full support, at least for now,” Zaoui said, of the TDC, and then added; “They can count on us to give them any support they need to reach their aim without interfering in their work.”
Chebbi, the blogger and activist, views Essebsi, and Nidaa Tunis’ rhetoric, as focused on reconciliation instead of accountability. “When people want accountability, they say they are dividing Tunisia,” she said. “If you hold people accountable that doesn’t mean we are not working together … that’s also part of the democratic process.”
Transitional justice for al-Gantri is not just about revealing the truth and prosecution. “The ultimate goal would be to build confidence between people and their state,” she said.
Victims, such at Awadi and Tabib who are still living with the consequence of past crimes, are waiting to see if Tunisia’s new government will allow that healing to finally take place and for justice to be served.