For Tunisia, its political transition is like its revolution: full of surprises. Less than a month ago, most local and international media asserted that the transition was stuck in place and facing an unsolvable problem. But today, most are praising the “Tunisian model.”
Compared with Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, Tunisia seems to be on the right track. The “national dialogue,” the concessions by the ruling coalition (the “troika”), international pressure, and civil society’s vigilance and actions regarding the splits and unrest that disappeared as fast as they appeared led to the Constituent Assembly going back to its proper work.
It looks like the constitution will be adopted before the end of this week. Moreover, the Islamist government formally resigned and a new government of “independent technocrats” run by former Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa has been named.
An independent supreme body was formed to supervise the upcoming elections. In such circumstances, we should not spoil the party or put pressure on painful points. But we should examine what looks like a miracle. What model are we talking about regarding the “Tunisian example”? Aside from the democratic transition rhetoric, which ranged from slander to praise, analyzing the revolutionary process that started in December 2010, it appears that political progress in recent months cannot hide the doubts about the dynamic that was started by people calling to bring down the regime. This progress represents a solid foundation for a new social contract whose basic pillars are the state and representative institutions.
Toward a democratic Tunisia
Adopting a new constitution was a central demand for the Tunisian revolution, as expressed during the second Kasba events (February-March 2011), during which the movement was joined by the General Union of Tunisian Workers and some political parties, including Ennahda, demanding the departure of the interim government, dissolving the Democratic Constitutional Rally (President Ben Ali’s party) and the formation of a constituent assembly.
The new constitution is supposed to organize power distribution, the relations between the public authorities, and to identify the basic rights and freedoms in accordance with the revolutionary spirit that produced the Constituent Assembly.
It’s good that the new constitution provided for the freedom of opinion and expression, the freedom of conscience, the freedom to publish, academic freedom, judicial independence, equality between male and female citizens (which is not quite the same as equality between men and women), the right to work and the separation of powers.
All these provisions are effective guarantees for a democratic Tunisia where Tunisians have equal rights and duties, and where abuse of power and the law of the strong are prevented.
A modern and secular constitution?
But the Tunisian model did not adopt a modern and secular constitution. Despite the joy of secularist and progressive Tunisians and foreigners, who share a deep hatred of political Islam, it doesn’t matter whether the constitution proves its “modernity” or “traditionalism” (noting that both are fake concepts), or whether it ensures the neutrality of the state in religious affairs. The media’s focus on referring to a religious text or Sharia in the constitution, or its equivalent, i.e., the debate about women’s rights, ignores the social reality of Tunisia and the Arab world. It is also an artificial palliative for the fears and imaginations about the “Islamist devil” and its allies.
Focusing attention on individual freedoms, especially for women, restores, whether consciously or unconsciously, former leader Habib Bourguiba’s simplistic ideas about Tunisia. (Bourguiba was supposedly “the builder of the new Tunisia and the emancipator of women,” according to the official slogan, while in fact he was the founder of the authoritarian regime.) This is a way to hide the abuses practiced by the Ben Ali regime and women in the name of secularism and universal values.
That regime is the one that created inequality between men and women in inheritance, in the Personal Status Law of 1956. In fact, that “Green Tunisia,” which the “modern” Bourguiba built, is discriminatory and unfair toward women and toward the weak and disadvantaged classes.
The frustrated hopes for a social democracy
The constitution by itself is but one of many revolutionary demands. Economic and social rights and protecting vulnerable groups are still the least important part of the ongoing process of making a new constitution, despite the fact that those were basic demands in the first days of the revolution.
Perhaps this explains why many Tunisians from the lower classes are uninterested in the work of the Constituent Assembly, just as they are uninterested in the negotiations that preceded the national dialogue. For them, the text produced by the political elite did not achieve the social democracy they aspired to and whose importance and meaning they very know very well.
They also know that without the political will of the establishment for fair and democratic institutions, the constitution will remain just ink on paper. They know that adopting such a constitution will by itself not change Tunisian society, which has multiple splits and is founded on an exclusivist economy.
Thus, finding jobs for unemployed university graduates, comprehensive social security and providing protection for social risks — in short, a state that protects the people — is still a fantasy as long as there is no serious public debate about them. In the same token, transitional justice and holding former torturers accountable have so far been done with a lack of professionalism and with political calculations, despite recently adopting a special law for that matter.
The Constituent Assembly is at the heart of the revolutionary process
In the face of all these objectives, the work of the Constituent Assembly was an occasion for the middle and upper classes to reflect their concerns, both real and fake. So it was not easy adopting a constitution that satisfies most political forces, both those represented in the Council and those outside it such as labor unions, employers or the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
Since Jan. 3, 2014, there have been debates about the constitution’s articles as they were being voted on one by one. These debates have been very enthusiastic, even violent at times. But they did reach some kind of agreement. This includes an agreement on the powers of the prime minister (Article 90) and the independence of the judiciary (Article 103 ), on which much was written.
The debates have shown that despite the lack of a sense of responsibility on the part of the political elite, both Islamist and opposition, which is ready to mobilize on minor issues and exacerbate tensions to the point of threatening the political transition itself, the Constituent Assembly was consecrated as the only legal framework for debate and for building the next social contract.
Publicizing the work of the Constituent Assembly in the media (the sessions were broadcast live) has fueled aggressive behavior and speeches by MPs. Despite that, the Council’s work was steadily gaining effectiveness. Its critics have long demanded its dissolution since October 2012. But the distribution of the specialized committees, namely the consensus committee, and the prior preparation for the different versions of the constitution, have shown that the Council’s work was monumental and that success was possible. This success, though not yet complete, enhances the confidence of Tunisians in their institutions and ultimately in the state, which for the people still represents both their main fears and hopes.
In conclusion, two lessons can be drawn from the Tunisian revolutionary experience.
The first is that this experience shatters the myth that Islamic and Arab countries are averse to democracy.
That myth, which is pervasive in the West and among the Arab authoritarian elites, has been revived by the frustrations experienced by the revolutionary movements, especially in Egypt and Syria. On the contrary, the peaceful transfer of power, ensuring freedom of expression, even if violent at times, respecting legal institutions, although their legitimacy is incomplete, and adopting rules of the game that are fair and respected by all, are entrenching a culture of democracy in Tunisia.
The second lesson is that we should not forget that political progress in recent months has been limited to the political field. Much work remains in order to translate the words “jobs, freedom, and national dignity” into something concrete that would form a coherent political program that the people would support.
Pending that, we must rejoice in the “democratic celebration,” with the hope that the road map set by the “national dialogue” will be respected by all the revolution’s components.
The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.
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