Tunisia's Struggle for a Constitution

If the Islamists and the rest can make a deal, Tunisia could be an Arab Spring success story. If they can't, decline awaits.

Tunisia is the last hope for a successful transition arising from the 2011 Arab uprisings. Egypt has regressed into open authoritarianism and military rule; in Morocco, the palace has again outmaneuvered the government, sidelining the Islamist Party for Justice and Development even though it nominally controls the government; the new Yemeni government resembles the old one and faces the same problems of economic collapse and regional separatism. Libya got rid of Qaddafi only to fall in the hands of rival militias that out-power the fledgling political institutions; Syria is engulfed in a vicious and seemingly endless conflict. In Tunisia, rival parties are mired in bitter political battles as they all seek to maximize their political advantage, but as long as the battles remain political there is hope for a long term democratic outcome. If all parties wanted, the impasse could be resolved in a few weeks, on the basis of a road map to which all parties have agreed, but only kind of.

Fortunately for Tunisia, a solution to the present impasse can only come from an agreement among the major political actors. The intervention of a deus ex machina is unlikely. There is no indication that the military—apolitical ever since Tunisia became independent—will intervene, as it did in Egypt. The security forces are more of a question mark, but their intervention still seems unlikely. There is no king to maneuver behind the scene and implement his own solutions, as in Morocco. And outside actors cannot impose their will, as the GCC countries did in Yemen. Tunisian politicians will have to work out a compromise solution among themselves. This could be the beginning of democracy. Conversely, it could be the beginning of a protracted period of instability and economic decline.

The Transition Saga

After the fall of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia appeared to be off to a promising start. Within weeks, Beji Caid Essebsi, an old-time politician who had occupied a variety of important positions under President Bourguiba, became interim prime minister. Working with the High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition, a body whose convoluted name denoted the difficult coexistence of organizations with different goals, Essebsi managed to steer the country successfully to the election of a constituent assembly in October 2011. The assembly was expected to complete its work in one year.

Two years later, the constitution has not yet been approved, although the third and final draft has been “almost completed” for at least six months. Participants in the process blame each other’s perversity for the delay. To an outside observer, it is clear that both structural obstacles and political choices account for the problem. There is no magic bullet to solve the structural problems and Tunisians will have to learn to live with them. Political choices, on the other hand, could be reversed rapidly, as part of a grand bargain among the parties in the negotiation that started on October 23.

A Clash of Ideologies and Elites

The major political groups in Tunisia do not trust each other, and the mutual suspicions are very deep. There are three such groups: the Islamists, represented by Ennahda and by Salafi factions of different degree of radicalism; a centrist, secular, but extremely fragmented and poorly structured coalition best represented by Nida Tounes and its leader Beji Caid Essebsi; and the left, represented by the small parties in the Popular Front and, at present, the leadership of the UGTT, the labor union federation.

Ennahda won 37 percent of votes in the 2011 elections but it remains an outsider to the political establishment, which is still dominated by the political elite that emerged after independence under President Habib Bourguiba. The party is dominated by its moderate wing, which has made many concessions on the constitutions, including dropping all references to sharia. But it is still an Islamist organization and as such it is deeply distrusted by the old political establishment, which tends to dismiss moderate statements as doublespeak. The presence of a more radical Salafi trend within Ennahda and the somewhat fluid boundaries between Ennahda and more radical Salafi groups do nothing to assuage fears.

The centrist coalition represents Tunisia’s secularist tradition, embodied in the 1959 constitution, and in the personal status code of that period, the most progressive in the Arab world. It also represents the country’s political elite, in control of the country since independence. Its supporters are truly afraid that an Islamist party could reverse this tradition, but they are also resisting the rise of a new political elite. Centrists accuse Ennahda of seeking to turn the clock of modernity back on Tunisia and particularly its women, although they cannot point to concrete evidence. The accusations must be understood in both contexts: genuine fears that the party will undermine cherished values and a way of life; and a very politically motivated desire to suppress unwelcome competition not only by a new party but by a potential new political elite.