Tunisia: Can a Constitution Make a Spring?

Only one day after the special session of the National Constitutional Assembly (ANC) dedicated to the signing of the Constitution, Tunisia’s political class abruptly ended its state of euphoria and reverted to a its habitual mode of jousting. The scenes of antagonists hugging and crying, after the signing of the new Charter, gave way to acrimonious statements by a number of legislators, warning that they might not give their vote of confidence to the new “technocratic” government of Prime Minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa.
For a while, political protagonists seemed to be returning to their old cantankerous selves. After approving the Constitution, many stopped seeking the least common denominator as a way to overcome divisive issues. During the Jomaa government confirmation process, legislators expressed reservations about a number of cabinet members. There was a heated debate about the choice of one of the new ministers over a past visit she made to Israel. But the controversy was short-lived as political harping on the issue ended up creating a wave of sympathy for the photogenic and highly educated “first-ever woman minister of tourism”. The hatchet of war was left buried.
Temporarily MPs behaved like potential candidates in a pre-electoral mode. They had the appearance of lined-up athletes tempted to start the race even before the referee’s pistol went off. But no-one seemed foolhardy enough to run the risk of being prematurely disqualified. The surviving “spirit of compromise” and awareness of public opinion trends eventually inspired legislators to vote for the confirmation of the Jomaa government, by a large majority.
Recent polls later showed that the legislators reflected quite accurately the mood of the population. The results of a survey released this week by the Sigma polling agency showed that 76.5% of the population wanted the Jomaa government to be confirmed. An eerily-close percentage ANC members (77.2%) had voted for the confirmation of Jomaa government. Desperately seeking “consensus”
During the previous phase of the “National Dialogue”, competitors “held their horses”. They desperately sought Compromises and concessions to clinch major agreements, on key issues such the setting up of an independent electoral body, the approval of the Constitution, and finally the appointment of Mr. Jomaa as new head of government. Political leaders were under pressure to appease national public opinion, which was growing dangerously impatient with political parties. Foreign “stakeholders” probably leaned on the main political leaders to clearly signal more “accommodationist” stances. The bloody events of Egypt, last summer, helped convince Tunisia’s Islamists of the merits of a peaceful exit. Ironically, the events convinced secularist leaders an “Egyptian scenario” was not likely in Tunisia. It was probably pertinent that regional and global powers seemed to favor a course of action in Tunisia other than secularist/Islamist confrontation.
Decisions about content of the Constitution allowed for coexistence between conflicting value-systems. There were many mentions of Tunisia being a “civil state” but “Arab Islamic identity” was also defined as the core value. The state was tasked with “protecting religion” but also with “guaranteeing freedom of belief and conscience”. Women were given full equal rights, but international treaties (which might have inspired a different interpretation of gender equality) were put on a level of authority lower than that of the Constitution. Content was essentially progressive, but ambiguities were left for civil society and the yet-to-be created Constitutional Court to sort out.
It was not surprising to see the ANC trying to keep away from deeply-controversial issues during the drafting of the Constitution. Hence, when the Assembly voted against banning “normalization” with Israel, legislators were more in tune with the own sense of reasonableness than with satisfying “foreign chanceries”, as some activists have argued.
There were occasions where just the potential for controversy was sufficient to kill amendments, such as the proposal to list the “Mediterranean dimension” as part of Tunisia’s identity. For some legislators, this amendment meant tacit acquiescence to dealing with Israel as part of “Mediterranean integration projects”. Even if the voiced reservations contradicted Tunisia’s economic need for stronger “Euro-Med” partnerships, amendment initiators felt it was not worth the battle. “I am not sure we have in the current ANC, elite which understands the meaning of Mediterranean identity”, explained Kamel Ben Younes, president of the Tunis-based Ibn Roshd Institute. Trying to reassure
Political leaders and legislators wanted the Constitution to reassure Tunisians and potential donors abroad. For that purpose, they had to make sure “ideological wars” were brought under control. During much of the last three years, such “wars” spun out wildly. Fanatical discourse often preceded acts of terrorism, which shook the country and shattered its international image. The number of terrorist incidents in 2013 was unprecedented. Assessing the security situation in Tunisia, the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies noted, noted in a just-released report, that “the total number of terrorist incidents reached 17, indicating a worrisome trend of insecurity in the country.” Despite the killing by security forces of seven terrorists, including presumed assassins of the two leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, the problem of terrorism is still a source of concern.
The constitution also consecrated a push towards inclusiveness, a trend at odds with previous legislative attempts at “political exclusion”. Even though Mehdi Jomaa described of the vote on the Constitution as “the starting point for a true national reconciliation”, it remains to be seen, however, whether members of the ANC will refrain from trying to pass a new legislation excluding members of the past regime from participating in next elections. Only events will tell if Jomaa’s statement was a rhetorical flourish or a founded prediction.
On a societal level, the constitutional debate was of tremendous didactic value. Poll after poll, large segments of the population have been showing reluctance to engage the electoral process. The majority of potential voters still do not know to whom they will cast their votes. But the intensive exposure of the public to many of the contentious issues during the debate could help change voter attitudes towards elections, scheduled for later this year.
Above everything else, the completion of the compromise-based Constitution and the confirmation of the Jomaa cabinet were crucial to reassure financial institutions and other potential donors, and convince them to help Tunisia get out of its economic morass. Hours after the vote on the Constitution, Chedly Ayari, Governor of the Tunisian Central Bank, was betting the farm that the IMF and other international institutions will be now more forthcoming in extending loans to Tunisia.
In his speech to the ANC, before his confirmation, Jomaa tried to further cement international confidence in the country by making security, economic reform and social peace his priorities. He told his national audience that already-achieved milestones, including the adoption of the constitution, “will boost our international credibility and help us recover the confidence of all our foreign partners.”
As expected, reactions from Western capitals have been very positive. President Obama proclaimed US support to countries such as Tunisia “who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy.” He also called the new prime minister to invite him to Washington. Financial institutions welcomed the turn of events. The Fitch Ratings agency expressed the view that “the adoption of the new constitution and the formation of a non-partisan, technocratic government suggest that political dialogue and compromise are still viable in Tunisia despite the increase in social and political polarization and terrorism seen in 2013.” The International Monetary Fund quickly approved the disbursement of a $507 million loan tranche to Tunisia.
One Constitution does not, by itself, make a Spring. But the adoption of the Constitution and the appointment of an independent new government have been the source of an unprecedented level of optimism in the country. They also showed the political class and society at large the results that can be achieved when zero-sum polarizations cease to be the name of the game. The true mark of success will be however in the expansion of the budding process of inclusiveness and reconciliation. Only that will pave the way for a sustainable return to security and economic prosperity, and for popular confidence in the electoral process and political engagement as the ways to effect change. Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian member of government and current columnist. His articles can be consulted in his blog: oussama-romdhani.com