Despite new constitution, 'Tunisia is not out of the woods yet'
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More than three years after the Tunisian Revolution, which resulted in the toppling of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s National Constituent Assembly will vote Sunday on a new constitution.
In order to be adopted, the text needs to be approved by two-thirds of the 217 members.
However, after months of fierce debate, the political class seems to have reached a consensus, in a bid to end the political crisis and facilitate the organisation of legislative and presidential elections this year.
To shed light on Tunisia’s democratic transition, FRANCE 24 interviewed Vincent Bisson, a political analyst specialised in the region.
F24: More than three years after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia is on the cusp of adopting a new constitution, despite political divisions. Are you surprised by the fact that a consensus was finally reached, despite Ennahda’s dominance?
VB: I’m not surprised, because if there was one country involved in the Arab revolutions that could realistically aspire to a consensus, it was Tunisia. Indeed, Ennahda had to rein in its ambitions, since the leaders of the Islamist party understood that they couldn’t impose their constitution on the country. Remember that 63% of the electorate did not vote for them, so the balance of power was not the same as in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in imposing their constitution in December 2012. So that’s why Ennahda had to make certain concessions.
Moreover, the evolution of the movements in the region – be it the coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the chaos in Libya – also pushed Ennahda to negotiate. The longer the political crisis lasted, the more tensions were exacerbated and a confrontation was imminent between the Islamists and the opposition, which consisted of secular, liberal and leftist elements. Political assassinations also profoundly traumatised Tunisian society, which is deeply pacifist and not used to such violence.
We must remember, too, that a constitution is only a text, and the important thing is its subsequent interpretation. Certain parts of the text give Ennahda some wiggle room. For example, article 1 stipulates that “Tunisia is a free country, independent and sovereign; its religion is Islam”. Consequently, Ennahda can interpret that as meaning that it is no longer necessary to include Sharia [Islamic] law in the text, since the Constitution formally recognises Islam as the reference for Tunisian society. So we should definitely expect future legal battles and debates among constitutional experts.
F24: Is it imaginable that Ennahda regains control of the country?
VB: The goal for Ennahda now is to win the next elections. Ennahda may get fewer votes in the next legislative elections than it did in 2011 because of a loss in credibility, but the Islamist party could remain Tunisia’s main political force since the opposition is so divided. To remain in power, Ennahda’s leaders have developed a strategy that aims to retain as much political capital and legitimacy as possible. Their actual record is not good, since they didn’t succeed in dealing with the political crisis or satisfy the socioeconomic demands of the population – even if I don’t think any party would have done better in the post-revolution context.
Ennahda also made a serious mistake in focusing on moral issues in Tunisian society, rather than guiding the country through a transition period, putting a constitution in place and organising elections. Now they have only a few months to improve their image and re-orient themselves as the opposition, which has always been the most advantageous position for Islamists, since it spares them from having to be judged on their record. That’s why Ennahda has agreed to cede the government to technocrats; they realised that by holding on to power, they would end up losers.
F24: Is it fair to say, generally speaking, that of all the countries involved in the Arab Spring, Tunisia is currently in the best position?
VB: Indeed, we can say that, since the country has not slipped into chaos, and its administration did not crumble after the revolution. That said, even if a constitution was agreed upon, it’s only a first step. Tunisia is not out of the woods yet, and its economy is on the decline. Most of the work has yet to be done, the problems are still there, and new tensions should be expected. What’s most worrying is the widening gap between the political class and Tunisian young people, who were at the heart of the revolution. Young Tunisians don’t feel represented by the political elites – not even by the new politicians who emerged after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. When former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, an Islamist, resigned, the candidates replacing him were in their 80s; it was a caricature of the discrepancy between everyday Tunisian society and the ruling class. That disconnect between youth and the authorities is a serious threat to the future of the country, no matter what party ends up in power.