How One Country Emerged From the Arab Spring With a Democratic State | The Nation


How One Country Emerged From the Arab Spring With a Democratic State

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Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki holds the constitution after signing the new document into law in Tunis, Monday, January 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Two other significant factors easing Tunisia’s metamorphosis to democracy have been its deep history of progressivism and its strong institutions. Though the founder of the post-independence republic, President Habib Bourguiba, was no democrat, his development model allowed for the emergence of a sizable educated middle class that is arguably one of the preconditions for democracy. Women’s rights likewise took a great leap forward with Bourguiba’s 1956 Code of Personal Status, and those gains have been consolidated this time around, with some additions. For example, gender parity in Parliament is enshrined in the new Constitution, meaning Tunisian women—conservatives and liberals alike—will continue to play a larger role in political life than in most Western countries.

Bourguiba also had the foresight to keep the military small and well away from politics, a tradition that has been mostly respected. While Egyptian citizens have been conditioned to regard the military as their savior, Tunisians praised their army for its neutrality in the chaos of early 2011.

Tunisia broke decisively with the strongman-led police state of the country’s past in large part thanks to the work of the civilian commission that drafted the road map for the first stage of the transition. Political scientist Alfred Stepan of Columbia University has described the 2011 commission led by legal expert Yadh Ben Achour as “one of the most effective consensus-building bodies in the history of ‘crafted’ democratic transitions.”

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The transition has not been without serious, even wrenching tensions. When two Tunisian secularist parties agreed to an alliance with the Ennahda party after the October 2011 elections for Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, many denounced them as traitors. The troika brought together Ennahda, which had won just over 40 percent of the seats, with Mustafar Ben Jaafar’s Ettakatol party and the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR), founded by Moncef Marzouki. What followed were two of the most politically jarring years in Tunisia’s post-independence history.

While the Ennaha party was able to retain all of its MPs, its coalition partners shed members frustrated by the subordinate role their parties played within the alliance. The CPR started with twenty-nine MPs; today it has only eleven. The Ettakatol party fared slightly better, losing seven out of twenty seats.

The much-maligned troika finally had its moment in the sun on January 27, when outgoing Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, a member of the Ennahda party, was joined by his secularist allies, Speaker Ben Jaafar and President Marzouki, to put their three signatures to the new Constitution.

The mood in the Assembly was one of shared victory. After more than two years of conflict, frustration and sometimes ridiculous moments, the Assembly finally had something to be proud of. Marzouki, who has often been derided for his political awkwardness, was looking particularly cheerful as he gave the V-for-victory sign after signing.

“Those who called us traitors are in the process of reconsidering their analysis,” Bennour says. He notes that joining the alliance was a difficult choice, but it has been crucial to “saving democracy,” in his words, paving the way for a consensus by helping keep dialogue open. At the same time, the troika’s political opponents played an undeniable role in shaping the final document, waging a lengthy power struggle to win major concessions.

“The troika is finished—it’s a mess,” says Mongi Rahoui, head of the leftist Popular Front. Like many secularists, he criticizes the troika for using the Ben Ali–era system of patronage to its own advantage rather than reforming it. There were many accusations of interference in the judiciary; magistrates protested an attempt by Ennahda MPs to pass legislation they perceived as undermining judicial independence. The opposition argued that the government was firing regional governors to replace them with appointees based on their loyalty to the movement, just as Ben Ali had done.

The troika also mishandled the ongoing social unrest in the volatile marginalized regions, with key figures in the Ennahda party accusing union leaders and leftist activists of manipulating strikes and protests to wage what they disparaged as a “counterrevolution.” Tensions were high throughout 2012, rising even more after security forces violently suppressed protests over social injustice in the northern town of Siliana in November 2012.

The anti-government anger erupted after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a grassroots leader and lawyer, on February 6, 2013, outside his home in Tunis. A radical secular leftist, Belaid had been a fierce critic of the Islamists and was at the forefront of the uprising against Ben Ali. The killing led to some of the biggest nationwide protests in the country’s history, with demonstrators calling on the troika to step down.

As a result, the first Ennahda prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, did resign. When the party’s Ali Larayedh, who had been interior minister in Jebali’s government, became the new prime minister, it was perceived as a further provocation by many in the opposition. Larayedh had clashed publicly with Belaid in the months leading up to his death and was seen as having been responsible for the violence in Siliana.

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