Maya Jribi, the first woman to lead a political party in Tunisia, passed away in the coastal town of Rades on May 19 after more than three decades as a champion of civil society and political participation for women. She was 58.
The exact cause of Jribi's death was not released by her family, but it has been reported that she was suffering from a form of cancer, which forced her to step down as leader of the Republican Party in 2017.
Her funeral last Sunday in Ben Arous, south of the capital Tunis, attracted thousands of supporters. Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi praised her “honesty and loyalty” in serving the country and her lifelong support for “the values of democracy, justice and equality”.
Jribi became known internationally after the 2011 revolution which toppled long-time leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A tireless supporter of women's rights and democracy, Jribi represented the kind of politician that a new generation of Tunisian voters yearned for: direct, even confrontational when necessary, and relentless in pursuit of her values, she appeared a significant change from the faceless men making cosy backroom deals who characterised politics under Ben Ali.
In public appearances and TV interviews, Jribi was forceful and always well-informed, with a historical perspective that came from decades in politics. She sometimes gave the appearance of being rather grave, a serious woman at a serious moment for the country. Rarely did she seem to celebrate the fall of Ben Ali, rather she spoke and worked with a sense of urgency, a feeling that this brief political moment could end rather rapidly were it not properly cultivated.
Perhaps that was because the post-revolutionary period was only the second act in a long political career. Jribi had entered politics at another moment of significant change three decades earlier.
By the early 1980s, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's revolutionary leader, had been in power for over two decades and was almost 80 years old. Tunisia was effectively a one-party state, with no other political parties legalised, but in response to the succession battles, Bourguiba allowed new political parties from 1981.
It was in this opening up of Tunisia’s politics that Jribi founded the Progressive Socialist Rally with Ahmad Nejib Chebbi in 1983 and began advocating for liberal and secular values. It would be five years before the government legalised the party.
For decades, the RSP existed in a twilight zone of politics. The ruling party repeatedly used the security services to intimidate, harass and marginalise all political opposition. From 1989, the first election that Jribi’s party contested, until 2009, the RSP struggled to make inroads into parliament, rarely reaching even a single-digit share of the vote despite its ability to organise sizeable street protests. For the last two elections before the revolution, Jribi simply boycotted the polls.
In 2006, Jribi took over as head of the RSP, now renamed the Progressive Democratic Party, making her the first woman to head a political party in the country. The harassment never stopped, however, and the following year Jribi became known internationally after she went on hunger strike to protest against an attempt by the Ben Ali regime to marginalise political parties by moving the PDP's headquarters outside of the capital. The regime backed down.
The 2011 revolution brought about a seismic shift in Jribi’s political fortunes. She became a national figure almost overnight, becoming not merely the face of the PDP — with her image staring down from billboards around Tunis — but seen as part of Tunisia’s secular future by foreign media.
Jribi understood that the PDP had to change rapidly. She said the party had been “a party of resistance” and that she was preparing to change it into “a party ready to assume national responsibilities”.
When I met Jribi in Tunisia after the revolution, she predicted that the Islamist party Ennahda would not utterly dominate any democratic election — a major fear for secularists at the time. She was right. Despite the decades of cultivated opposition to religious conservative parties by Ben Ali, the years after 2011 have shown Tunisian society is more sophisticated than such a binary fault line.
On the contrary, support for political parties has not fallen along religious nor even class lines, but has fluctuated depending on policies and personalities — as would be expected in a democracy. The issues that were expected to become fault lines after the revolution — such as the hijab, a topic journalists, including myself, asked Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Jribi about — faded away, lost in the more vital details of creating a functioning economy. Ben Ali not only lied to his own people, he lied to the world about what Tunisians were like.
That political sophistication was a double-edged sword for political parties and at the last parliamentary elections in 2014, Jribi's party collapsed to just her single parliamentary seat.
Yet Jribi was always bigger than the party she led and her influence on Tunisia's politics continued. She had spent decades fighting for civil society, first seeking to carve out a space in the repressive era of Ben Ali, and then pushing against religious conservatives to ensure that space continued to exist. She believed strongly in local democracy, seeking to ensure the top-down decision making of Ben Ali's era remained in the past. She was similarly forceful about female representation in politics, arguing for quotas at a local level to ensure a gender balance.
Above all, it was the political process that mattered to her, not any particular result. Having lived through two seismic shifts in Tunisian politics, she understood better than many of her contemporaries that politics was an active process of renewal. It was the political system, the mechanism for social change, that had to survive, even as individual politicians passed from the scene. The day after Ben Ali was toppled was merely the end of one long political fight, and the beginning of a new one. Others will now have to continue her work.