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)

An even deeper political crisis was triggered by a second assassination on July 25, 2013, this time of opposition MP and Arab nationalist Mohamed Brahmi. The troika, the opposition argued, was clinging to power that it no longer legitimately held. The Ennahda party, meanwhile, heavily influenced by the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, derided the protest movement as a plot to force it from office.

But Rahoui, one of the most outspoken secularist MPs, explains that the opposition was able to win important concessions in the Constitution only thanks to its decision to take the battle outside the Assembly. The final version was improved in several respects compared with a draft from June 2013, he says: judicial independence and freedom of speech were reinforced; accusing someone of apostasy was outlawed; and changes were made to the structure of the constitutional court. “It’s true that the power was tilted in favor of the fundamentalists, but the democratic forces were able to unite, little by little,” Rahoui says. “We were able to change the Constitution to one that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society and is an expression of Tunisia’s pluralism.”

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Today, excitement over the constitution is tempered by economic hardship. Newly acquired political freedoms are widely perceived as having come at the price of economic stability and security. Unemployment has risen from 13 percent in 2011 to 15.7 percent by late 2013, and ordinary Tunisians are also hurting from rising food prices. “Tunisia is in a grave crisis, and the Constituent Assembly is one of the causes,” says Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as interim prime minister in the months leading up to the 2011 elections. Essebsi argues that the Islamists’ coalition partners failed to use their full clout to make the Ennahda party stay within the limitations of the mandate it had won.

But others stress the ground that Ennahda has been willing to cede—even when faced with resistance from its own base. Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader, is credited with having overcome opposition within his own movement to the process of national dialogue. “Now the vast majority of Ennahda are satisfied with the concessions made by the leaders of Ennahda, but in the beginning this satisfaction was not very widespread,” Ghannouchi says. The Ennahda leader’s political astuteness allowed him to build support within his party for a process some other prominent Islamists condemned as caving in unnecessarily to secularist pressure.

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“[Ghannouchi] has members who are less reasonable,” Essebsi acknowledges. “I think that now he has gained control over things.”

Yet the differences within Ennahda persist. McCarthy cites several examples of dissension during January’s debates over constitutional amendments. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the most conservative Islamist MPs oppose democracy, he adds: “I think Ennahda regards democracy as a guarantee—a way to prevent another wave of repression, as we saw under Ben Ali in the 1990s and 2000s.”

With the Constitution’s passage seeming to mark at least a temporary détente between Islamists and secularists over questions of national identity, many Tunisians are hoping their politicians will now begin to address the social inequalities that sparked the uprising in the first place.

Read Next: Sharif Abdel Kouddous on “A Voice for Democracy Against Egypt’s ‘Fascist Buildup’

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