Tunisia's Struggle for a Constitution

October 24, 2013 Topic: DemocracySociety Region: Tunisia

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.

Ennahda is also fearful and distrustful of anybody with ties to the old regime. It has good reasons: a large number of Islamists, including Ennahda’s top leaders, were jailed for long periods or forced into exile after Ben Ali cracked down on the party after it won 17 percent of the vote in 1989. In fact, it is not surprising that Ennahda tried to enact a law excluding from political life individuals tainted by association with Ben Ali; rather, it is remarkable that it agreed to drop the law in order to facilitate the transition. Still, Ennahda fears that a victory of the secularist parties could usher in another period of anti-Islamist repression

The parties of the left trust neither the secular centrists nor the Islamists, and in turn are not trusted by either. They are secular, of course, but also militantly socialist, still speaking the language of the old European left. But they are also small and much less threatening to both Ennahda and Nida Tounes. Right now, the left is to some extent making common cause with the center against Ennahda, but it is a fragile alliance of convenience, dictated in part by the fears that Ennahda is gaining support among the labor union’s rank and file, the traditional support base of the left.

The Political Game

Tunisian politicians are in agreement about what needs to be done in order to complete the stalled transition: approving the constitutions; forming a new “politically neutral” government to lead the country until the elections; and organize both parliamentary and presidential elections, which entails three steps: forming an independent election commission, writing the election law, and setting the polling dates.

But they disagree profoundly about the sequencing and timing of the steps for reasons of political strategy. Ennahda insists that the present government, which it heads, will not resign until the constitution is approved, the election commission and the election law are ready, and the election dates have been firmly set in early 2014. The opposition parties, on the other hand, want to follow the roadmap proposed by a quartet of mediators, including the labor unions and the employers’ federation, which in reality is close to the opposition. The roadmap calls for the formation of the election commission in two weeks and the writing of the election law within two weeks of the beginning of the final negotiations or national dialogue; resignation of the government within three weeks and the completion of the constitution and setting the dates of elections within four weeks. Ennahda fears that once the government has resigned the opposition will stall on the constitutions and the election dates—indeed, members of the opposition are saying openly that elections should be postponed long enough to give time to the new government to get rid of Ennahda’s appointees in bureaucratic positions. The opposition argues that if Ennahda gets everything it wants before the government resigns, the resignation will never take place.

All major parties signed to roadmap on October 5, but confusion remains whether Ennahda accepted the proposed deadlines or still insists on its own sequencing. The national dialogue started on October 23 amid street protests, highlighting the tension that surrounds the project. There are many problems to surmount, raising questions whether the proposed deadlines are realistic. The choice of a prime minister all consider neutral will be arduous and the parties will bicker on the composition of the election commission, the details of the election law, and the election dates. What they will not bicker about at this point is ideology. The most contentious ideological issues in the constitution have been settled and the major remaining point of disagreement concerns the respective powers of president and prime minister in the hybrid parliamentary/presidential system—an important issue, to be sure, but hardly an existential one.

The real point of disagreement is not ideology, but politics. The date of elections will undoubtedly affect election results, for example, although it is difficult to know for sure how. Ennahda is better organized and thus ready for elections at any time, while the opposition is still divided; on the other hand, the little cohesion of Nida Tounes depends on Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old man in fragile health, and postponing elections might backfire on the opposition. An interim government that remains in power for a longer period might be able to undo some of Ennahda’s appointments but would also open itself to criticism and hurt the opposition. Rival parties, in other words, are threatening the success of the transition by playing political games that may not even benefit them.