Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Tunisia’s Transition Continues

by Isobel Coleman
October 23, 2012

Supporters of the ruling Al Nahda party shout slogans during celebrations on the first anniversary of the country's first free elections in Tunis on October 23, 2012 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).


Today marks the one year anniversary of Tunisia’s first free and democratic election. Last October 23, some ten months after Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali fled the country, Tunisians flocked to polling stations to vote for members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). The assembly was tasked with forming an interim government and writing Tunisia’s new constitution. The historic moment was filled with great hope for Tunisia’s future.

The assembly moved quickly to approve guidelines for the country’s governance during its transition and then to elect an interim government. The assembly’s other mission, the drafting of a constitution, has not progressed as smoothly, and the NCA’s legitimacy is in danger of fraying.

To be fair, the constitution drafting process is ongoing, with a draft of the constitution released in August. Nonetheless, the assembly is far from consensus on several profound issues related to governance and identity. These include the role of the judiciary, the structure of the government (a parliamentary versus a presidential system), the language that defines women’s rights, and protections of free speech and religion.

Last week, a National Dialogue Congress convened to find agreement on some of these very same issues. This essentially parallel body sought to resolve questions about the type of government Tunisia will have, the date of elections, the electoral law, and an oversight body for the elections. Some fifty political parties and civil society groups met under the auspices of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to reach agreement on how to move forward with the transition because the National Constituent Assembly is at an impasse. Tunisia’s president and prime minister both attended the national dialogue, but their respective political parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Al Nahda, boycotted the session.

This curious contradiction seems to stem from the participation of Nida Tounes, a political party whose name means “Call of Tunisia,” in the national dialogue. Nida Tounes was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister under Ben Ali and an interim prime minister between Ben Ali’s ouster and last year’s election. When I was in Tunisia last month, I heard several senior Al Nahda members criticize Essebsi as a dangerous remnant of the old regime. Essebsi has led a campaign that claims the National Constituent Assembly’s legitimacy expires today, a year after its election, because it promised to complete a constitution by this date.

Perhaps because of Essebsi’s pressure, the Troika – the majority coalition in the National Constituent Assembly, Al Nahda, CPR, and Ettakatol – announced before the national dialogue that they had finally agreed on a schedule for elections. Presidential and parliamentary elections are now slated to be held on June 23, 2013, and Tunisia will have a mixed parliamentary system with power shared between a directly elected president and the parliament. The national dialogue itself ended without consensus on these questions, but did manage to agree on rejecting the Troika’s plan to hold elections on June 23, 2013.

As I’ve written previously, at stake in the writing of Tunisia’s constitution are basic freedoms and respect for the rule of law. These are not theoretical issues: last week, concerned journalists demonstrated across the country for the implementation of laws to protect freedom of speech. Amnesty International released a report today saying that the draft constitution, “fails to fully uphold freedom of expression as it includes provisions criminalizing attacks against religion and ‘sacred values.’” Earlier this month, a woman who was allegedly raped by police officers was charged with indecency. Sporadic political violence is another concern. Last week, a member of Nida Tounes was killed in Tataouine, a southern city, in a clash with a group of Salafists.

Among Arab states, Tunisia has led the way in its transition so far, but the drafting of the constitution is clearly bringing to a head the cultural, ideological, and political differences that divide the nation.

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  • Posted by Nader Habibi

    A similar constitutional debate is also underway in Egypt at present. An important cultural fact to keep in mind in both countries is that majority of people are religious and would support the implementation of Sharia rules. The challenge for the secular minority is to convince the majority that respect for individual freedoms is more important than adherence to Islam. It is very likely that in both countries the secular freedoms will be constraint inn the short run under popular pressure.

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