North Africa, West Asia

The surprising success of the Tunisian parliament

Surrounded by the pressure of Islamists and civil activists, Tunisia’s deputies have managed to achieve something unique in the Arab world: making the parliament the centrepiece of political discourse and power. The failure of Egypt – as perverse as it might sound – was another factor that strongly contributed to Tunisian success.

Jan Völkel Riham Bahi
30 January 2014

Tunisia is back on track. The last days saw the enactment of a new constitution, the successful instalment of a caretaker government, hence ending the political crisis that lamed the country in the second half of 2013. Many observers like Michael Meyer-Resende and Geoffrey Weichselbaum have analysed the constitution's content and next necessary steps.

Here, we have a look at the "institution behind the constitution," the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Though having almost no parliamentarian tradition, Tunisians have succeeded in creating, defending, and pushing their interim assembly that, despite major problems, transformed into a real parliament. Surrounded by the pressure of Islamists and civil activists, Tunisia’s deputies have managed to achieve something unique in the Arab world: making the parliament the centrepiece of political discourse and power. 

Under the eyes of civil society, the NCA approved the new constitution. Jan Völkel & Riham Bahi. All rights reserved.

The beginning was promising, but then the prospects quickly darkened. When longtime autocrat Ben Ali was removed from power on January 14, 2011, almost all political groups had the same idea about Tunisia’s future political system. Being fed up with his all-encompassing ultra-presidency, having a group of people running politics seemed quite attractive to almost all.

However, the strong support for a legislative chamber quickly experienced major setbacks after the unexpected victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in the parliamentarian elections of 23 October 2011. With 37% of all votes, Ennahda clearly bypassed the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) of state president Moncef Marzouki (8,7%) and Ettakatol led by NCA president Mostapha Ben Jafaar (7,03%) and secured more votes (1.5 mio.) than all other parties and independent candidates in parliament together (1.26 mio.). (Source)  

This result, surprising as it was, led to two consequences. The secularists understood that they could not exclude the Islamists from the political process, but that they had to take up the struggle, try to include them into the discourse and bring them down politically. Second, the Islamists understood that they do not have a majority that permits them to rule the country alone; in a painful internal process, Ennahda developed its ability to compromise and to join alliances with non-Islamist parties.

Some external observers speculated that Ennahda’s leadership formed around Rachid Ghannouchi would be rather happy not to govern alone, but were content if they could keep the radical forces within the party under their control. In the event, the troika coalition that sprung as a new government out of the majority situation, with Ennahda in coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol, the party of NCA president Mostapha Ben Jafaar, brought the moderate forces within Ennahda into leading positions. 

This particular majority constellation provided the foundations for the successful work of the NCA. Sure enough -  not everybody among the elected 217 deputies had the appropriate experience in politics or boasted the appropriate parliamentarian behaviour. In particular, the repeated one-man theatrical stand-up routines which which Brahim Gassas from southwestern governorate Kebili regaled the public in parliament and on TV, gave rise to a somewhat sceptical evaluation of the NCA’s overall performance, leading to the prevailing image of “overpaid clowns.” 

But the reality looked rather different. In fact, the income of 1,000 € meant financial loss for at least some of the deputies, especially those who came from outside Tunis and were obliged to rent an additional apartment in the capital. Despite radically different attitudes and levels of experience, deputies from all factions took their task overwhelmingly seriously and debated in an open and fruitful atmosphere. The time factor was decisive here. Though criticised by some as “lengthy” and “not efficient”, the fact that the NCA took two and a half years (instead of one as planned) contributed to the creation of cross-party trust – which became one of the “secrets” behind NCA’s success. 

Also, the constitution, as Moncef Cheikh Rouhou, member of the Democratic Alliance in the NCA, has explained, could have been finalised as originally scheduled in December 2012. But then, “we would have received only 70% support, but we wanted to have almost all people agreeing to it.” The “we” includes the Ennahda representatives, who agreed to renounce Sharia as the principle source of legislation and to preserve women’s full equality – not complementarity – to men.

And, when 65 opposition members temporarily pulled out of the NCA meetings in summer 2013, “Ennahda and the troika could have moved on, but there was hesitation to do it without the opposition,” comments Radwan Masmoudi from the Tunis-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Unity for the constitution was the guiding principle.

The failure of Egypt – as perverse as it might sound – was another factor that strongly contributed to the Tunisian success. The events around Mohamed Morsi in June/July 2013 were a strong warning sign for Tunisia’s Islamists not to overplay their attempted influence on society. Clearly the Tunisian army does not hold similar political ambitions as the Egyptian military, but the scenario as in Egypt was also not fully plucked out of the air. It also brought secularists who opposed the strong majority of Islamists back to their senses. The implications of the message from Egypt of, “Who needs a constitution, and who needs dialogue, if one big demonstration and a referendum of 48 hours is enough to topple a full political system” (Radwan Masmoudi), also became very clear in Tunisia. The blatant failure of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt brought all the opponents in Tunis back to the table.

With this scenario in mind, the NCA has grown into the central institution of Tunisia’s transformation process – mainly because of Ennahda’s ability to compromise. They accepted having 89 out of 217 seats (41%) though having more than 50% of the votes in parliament. The smallest independent list in parliament, the “Faith to the Martyrs”, got 2,540 votes and procured themselves one seat for that; if Ennahda had been accorded one seat on the same ratio, they would have ended up with 591 seats, instead of 89.

The enduring contribution of external players constituted a third factor that contributed to the NCA’s success. Particularly the influential UGTT trade union, not least with the inclusion of the Employers’ Association UTICA, the League of Human Rights LTDH, and the Bar Association of Lawyers in the “National Dialogue” roundtable meetings, who pushed for keeping talks about the 149 constitutional articles ongoing.

Besides, hundreds of NGOs engaged in debating certain aspects; the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, for example, organised some 20 workshops between July 2012 and July 2013, where civil society representatives were in close contact and intensive debate with NCA members. At the end, the political institutions were obliged to follow the road map, which was elaborated by the Quartet in late 2013, with the passing of the torch from former Ennahda prime minister Ali Larayedh to technocrat Mehdi Jomaa in January 2014.

The successful work of the constitutional assembly in Tunisia is pretty respectable, especially in view of the fact that the country concedes that it has almost no parliamentary tradition. The Chamber of Deputies under Ben Ali acted as a pure rubber-stamp of an institution for government policies. According to Radwan Masmoudi, not one single legislative initiative sprung from the parliament itself. But despite this, the Tunisians have succeeded in keeping their parliament active and alive, even over the long phases of crises and stagnation.

Demotix/Mohamed Krit. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Mohamed Krit. All rights reserved.

Now, the future will show whether this was just of temporary relevance, or if democracy will really prevail. After the unexpected victory at the 2011 elections, Ennahda remained the only party that continued to favour parliamentarism, while almost all other parties supported semi-presidentialism. A directly elected president, with the major say in foreign, security and defence policy, should counterbalance the prime minister and his cabinet who gain legitimacy from their parliamentary majority. The first is to be expected a secularist, while the latter most likely will be a political Islamist.

This compromise, called by some observers “typically Tunisian”, may be the logical consequence of both ideas, but bears the high risk of permanent conflict between the head of state and the head of government.

In any case, to consolidate a democracy, it is the next elections that will be key, showing whether stable institutions on the legislative and executive level bring the different attitudes of Tunisia’s population together and help the society at large to politically mature.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData