North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia takes steps on the road toward democracy

The Arab Spring has regained force in Tunisia as the country takes important steps towards the democratic foundation of the second republic, the most important of which are the peaceful transfer of power, the ratification of the constitution, and the formation of a technocratic government.

Anouar Jamaoui
1 August 2014

The peaceful transfer of power

It took Tunisians three years after the revolution to achieve their quest for peaceful coexistence and for civilised competition over power. So far, over a short period of time, six successive governments have been assigned the task of managing public affairs in the country. Each of them assumed political responsibility while respecting the requirements of the transitional phase and the priority of the new constitution.

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The Tunisian assembly approves the new constitution. Demotix/ Mohamed Krit . All rights reserved.

This phase witnessed the increasing pace of political violence and coordinated protests arising from urgent popular demands for social equality. It was during this very difficult yet crucial phase that the country had to confront social shocks and tackle an economic crisis. However critical the situation was, it culminated neither in the destabilisation of the structure of the state nor in the dismantling of the bond of national unity. On the contrary, the whole situation led political contenders to choose the track of dialogue.

It seems that Tunisian political actors did not treat authority opportunistically, as a means of profit that should never be relinquished. They took it as a mandate subject to renewal and delimitation. The Troika paid heed, for example, to popular protests against the state’s political, economic, and social programmes and ultimately accepted to transfer power in fulfilment of the requirements of Road Map proposed by the four parties overseeing the proceedings of the national dialogue (the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian General Union of Industry and Trade, the National Bar Association, and the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights). Owing to this choice, the Troika received support from the constituents of civil society and, likewise, from most political parties.

Ennahdah Movement presented itself in this context as the first Tunisian political party to accept handing over the presidency of Tunisia despite high representation in the constituent assembly (89 out of the 217 deputies). This marked an unprecedented political event in the history of Islamist policies with regards to political authority in the Arab region. The transfer of power reveals an ideological awareness that the experience of running state affairs is a mandate but in no way a means to achieve honour.

Generally, such a conception of authority as a provisional political exercise peaking either in potential success, or in potential failure contributed to severing the long-established historical link between the Arab state, ancient and modern, and the spectre of authoritarianism. It contributed, in addition, to the inauguration of new democratic era shaped by the peaceful transfer of power as a feature of a democratic politics.

A consensual and progressive constitution

The observer of political affairs in Tunisia in the post-revolution era may come to the conclusion that the drafting of the new constitution of the second republic was not an individual task, an elitist accomplishment or even the outcome of a patronising party. It was instead a collective and fruitful creation. The constitutional foundation of the democratic state necessitated granting the opportunity for citizens to debate its contents in constitutional blogs, thereby allowing them to contribute to constructing its sections, albeit indirectly. The platforms of dialogue diversified in the media and public squares.

This dialogue revolved around various contentious issues related to, among other things, the rights and duties of both the governor and the governed and to the modalities of their representation in the text of the constitution. The dialogue had a strong positive impact under the dome of the constituent assembly. The deputies who spent two years striving to surmount the differences and conflicts ensuing from their disagreement regarding the text of the constitution, finally had to take into account the points of view of human rights organisations, non-governmental organisations and trade unions simply because all these reflect public opinion. The consensus committee, which was composed of the heads of political blocs and the respective representatives of 22 parties contributed to bridging the gap between ideologies, thus overcoming the difference between the parties and converting that difference into consensus.

Thus today the spirit of the constitution is said to be reflecting the aspirations of most Tunisians to freedom, dignity, justice and the rule of law and order. Two hundred deputies voted in favour of the new constitution; twelve opposed it while four deputies abstained from voting. The results of the vote reveal in a way the unanimous popular support for this vital document which is itself the cornerstone of the construction of the edifice of the democratic state.

A careful reading of the constitution will show, from one angle, its comprehensive nature, and from another, its progressive character. It is made up of 149 sections distributed along ten chapters. It comprises clear references to the identity of the nation state, to its political system and to the differentiation between the executive, legislative and judicial authorities as well as to a variety of public and individual liberties. It includes overt references to the adoption of the principle of administrative decentralisation and regional development. Moreover, it requires the creation of numerous constitutional authorities such as the Independent Election Commission, the Good Governance Authority and the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, and indicates the fields and modes of their functioning.

Seen from another perspective, the constitution contains special chapters concerned chiefly with the amendment of its stipulations and others linked to the transition period provisions. The ratified text guarantees and protects freedom of thought and expression, and the right to access information, the right to publish and the formation of political parties, trade unions and associations, not forgetting the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration and the freedom of creativity and scientific and academic research.

The text also stressed the independence of the judiciary, equality between men and women, respect for political and cultural pluralism, as well as the delineation of the powers of the three presidencies (the president of the republic, the prime minister, and chairman of the constituent assembly). In fact, such delimitation incarnates the system of checks and balances while strengthening legal supervision over the ruler and the ruled. The constitution also reduced the influence of individual, partisan or class power and proceeded to establish a citizenship state in which decision-making has a participatory character and in which the actual authority belongs to the province of the people who choose their representatives in accordance with the edicts of democracy and national integrity.

A government of technocrats

On the occasion of the parliamentary session devoted to granting confidence to his government, prime minister Mahdi Jomaa (51 years old) delivered a speech marked by realism. It expressed his awareness of the historical juncture and the delicate process of democratic transition through which the country is moving. His speech summarised the criteria on which he had selected his cabinet. They are basically competence, efficiency, and neutrality. The new technocratic ministers, who have made a commitment to placing themselves at the same safe distance from all political actors, are university graduates, experts in their field of specialisation, in short, young people eager to work and to provide added value to governmental policies.

The selection of the cabinet members on the basis of a set of conditions offered a reassuring message to the constituents of civil society and overcame the polarisation splitting up the parties in power and the opposition. It encouraged the investment of all national efforts in erecting the democratic institutions of the new republic. The new government earned popular rallies across the country and won a comfortable majority in the constituent assembly (149 votes in favour, 20 opposed and 24 abstentions).

Mahdi Jomaa’s government team won the support of the four parties overseeing the proceedings of the national dialogue, foremost among them the Tunisian General Labour Union. The union, while it had no single objection to the cabinet reshuffle, promised a truce on the social issues, to reduce the various demands for wage increase in the next phase. In the same line of political developments, the sharp conflicts coming to the foreground in the media have been overcome. There was a transition from a provocative discourse to a speech encouraging national reconciliation.

This qualitative shift in the two stages of the democratic transition, that is, the constitutional and governmental phases, has had a direct impact on economy. In Tunisia, the stock index has improved very quickly. The international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank and the IMF, expressed their willingness to provide assistance to Tunisia by supporting the consensual policies marking the political breakthrough achieved in the country.

The aforementioned indicates a number of conclusions: the first is that Tunisia has launched a new phase of transition towards a democratic state. The actual bridge to that stage is founded on the acceptance of difference and dialogue and heavy reliance on consensus.

Secondly, in the post-revolution era, the exercise of power has become a political experience relatively open to transfer and subject to change, renewal and delimitation according to the requirements of the historical moment (economic and social conditions), which is circumscribed by the will of the Tunisian people.

Third, the constitutional foundation of the state in Tunisia's interim political experience was not the accomplishment of an individual or a given political party, but a collective and interactive creation. Various are the human rights organisations, trade unions and the constituents of civil society that contributed to the drafting and wording of the constitution.

Fourth, the shift towards consensual democracy and the acceptance of the participatory logic rather than a policy of predomination is not really arbitrary or a spontaneous act. Such a shift was the corollary of the awareness of the political, cultural and trade unions elite and the parties in power (Troika) that the acceptance of the logic of coexistence and peaceful competition for authority is not a choice but a compulsion.

Fifth, the Tunisian military institution maintained its impartiality, a fact that has greatly contributed to the continuity of the peaceful progress towards democracy.

Sixth, the experience of rebellion in Egypt and its repercussions, chiefly the military rule and the bloody power struggle, did not encourage Tunisians to change the regime by force. It prompted them to resort to dialogue as a substitute for violence. This guarantied the security of the peaceful transition of power and the gradual development of the culture of democracy.

Tunisia has cut the ties with the political history of the authoritarian state. Will the remaining states whose experience is often linked together under the umbrella term ‘the Arab Spring,’ follow the path of Tunisia and its political model? This is a question for another article.

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