Tunisia divided on new political regime

21 March, 2012

Yesterday Tunisia celebrated the 56th anniversary of its independence from French colonial rule. But a little over a year since the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, it is no longer freedom from imperialism that defines the politics of this small North African nation.

The key issue now is what kind of constitution Tunisia will adopt after more than two decades of authoritarian rule.

As in nearby Egypt, the overturning of an autocrat has been followed by a tussle over the country’s new political identity, and in particular the role of Islam in the new regime.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, moderate Islamist parties returned the largest number of seats in the first elections to be held since their respective dictators were overturned.

In Egypt, a block of parties led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has grown out of the longstanding moderate Islamic movement the Muslim Brotherhood, won 235 of 508 seats in elections in December. Ennahda, the FJP’s counterpart in Tunisia, won 37 per cent of the seats in elections held on 23 October.

But in both countries the Salafist movement, which is championing the inclusion of Sharia law in the new constitutions of the two countries, is emerging as an influential voice.

The Salafist Al-Nour party in Egypt exceeded expectations by winning 25 per cent of the vote in the December elections. In Tunisia, the main Salafist political grouping, Hizb ut-Tahrir, was not one of the 112 political parties granted authorisation to participate in parliamentary elections in October. But the country’s Islamic fundamentalists are nevertheless striving to make their voice heard.

On Friday last week, as negotiations took place over Tunisia’s new constitution, thousands demonstrated outside Tunisia’s parliament demanding that any new political system be based on Islamic law.

Four days later, independence day celebrants took the contrary position, voicing demands for a secular state and waving banners demanding ‘Leave my Tunisia free’ and ‘Separation of Church and State’, according to a report by AFP.

There are those that are sceptical that the Ennahda party itself does not include fundamentalist elements that will seek to give the new constitution a religious bent.

Speaking at London’s Chatham House on Wednesday, Merhézia Labidi Maiza, an Ennahda member and deputy speaker of Tunisia’s constituent national assembly, acknowledged that the overturning of Ben Ali’s dictatorship has enabled some extreme views to come to the fore.

“We are witnessing a polarisation of the debate,” said Maiza. “There are excessive positions on the one side and on the other. Those who have chosen the medium way of legitimacy, elections and national debate are being challenged on the left and on the right.”

If these challenges gain ground they could pose a threat to Tunisia’s political stability at a delicate time for the country.

“We rely on the nature of the Tunisian people that they have proved over the centuries that they are not tempted by extreme ideas and extreme actions, that they are moderate,” said Maiza.

Merhezia Labidi Maiza, deputy speaker of Tunisia's constituent national assembly, speaks on the achievements and challenges of Tunisia's new political regime at Chatham House, London, on 21 March 2012 (Richard Nield)


In her speech, which took for its theme the achievements and challenges of governance in Tunisia in the post-Ben Ali era, Maiza conspicuously avoided mention of Sharia law and instead championed the principle of democracy.

“Our greatest achievement is the 23 October elections and the supervision of those elections,” she said. “This helped to restore the confidence and the trust of Tunisians in politics. For people who had been prevented from their right to choose in a clear transparent system this is a great achievement.

“People had their voice taken away from them by those who governed them. The greatest achievement is we have a voice and it is listened to, and those representing us are those we have chosen.”

Ennahda is expected to be the dominant party after the next parliamentary elections in Tunisia, which will take place following the completion of the new constitution. But Maiza insists that the party is not an overwhelming force in Tunisian politics.

“The October elections gave us a majority, but not a majority that allows us to dominate,” she said. “The majority of political colours are respected in this fledgling assembly.”

The interim government consists of a three-party coalition of Ennahda, the liberal Congrès pour la République and the left-of-centre Ettakatol Party. The prime minister is Ennahda’s Hamedi Jebali, but the speaker of the assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, is from the Ettakatol party and the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, is a veteran human rights activist.

“We had politicians who had the courage to decide to create a coalition,” said Maiza. “It’s good for Tunisia, because in building this coalition we as Tunisians are learning every day now to negotiate. How to work not only for the benefit of the party but for the benefit of all Tunisians.”

Far from the new constitution providing a vehicle for the influence of Islam over society, Maiza is adamant that it will enshrine the separation of the different arms of state.

“You cannot build a democracy without the separation of powers,” she said. “Under Ben Ali, one person controlled all powers: he was the president of the republic, he was head of the constitutional council, and he gave orders to parliament. This cannot be accepted any more.

“The three elements that are at the heart of the consensus between all parties are the separation of powers, the balance of powers and the control of authority.”

There are still crucial areas, though, where the elected assembly is far from agreed, not least whether Tunisia’s political system will be based on a parliamentary or a presidential model.

“This issue has not yet been dealt with or discussed with the energy I’d like to see,” said Maiza. “It’s one of the crucial questions.

“So far we have had a presidential system, but Ben Ali transformed it into a semi-royal system. He so excessively curtailed the constitution that it became like a gun suiting our president. Tunisian people are afraid of another president doing the same.”

Ennahda is in favour of the introduction of a parliamentary system.

“The choice of Ennahda is a parliamentary regime,” said Maiza. “We all know the technical weaknesses, but we will defend it because for us it returns power to the hands of Tunisians, who are the source of power, and no executive power can behave in a way that prevents you having this power.”

The other parties that make up the constituent assembly, however, are not convinced by the parliamentary model.

“Many of the parties in the assembly are for a presidential or a modified presidential system, so there will be a very intense debate,” said Maiza. “My feeling is that because we are looking for consensus it will be some kind of mixture that guarantees the separation of powers.”

The deadline for the introduction of a new constitution was originally set for a year after the elections in October, but Maiza feels 18 months is a more realistic target.

“About 12 of the big political parties expressed a moral commitment in June or July last year that the transition phase should not exceed one year,” she said. “If it does it will be by some months and not by more than that. It’s a commitment of all of us that it can’t take more than 18 months.”

The drafting of the constitution will be a delicate time for Tunisia. As an interim government, the coalition is likely to continue to be beset with demands from those with less moderate political views.

The struggling economy will also play its part. An economy that crucially failed to provide for the poorer members of society under President Ben Ali went into recession in 2011. Although growth is likely to return this year, tackling unemployment, which has risen to 19 per cent from 13 per cent in 2010, will be a major challenge, with an estimated 75,000 new entrants to the workforce every year.

The country’s success in negotiating the next few months is not only crucial for Tunisia, but may also influence those with aspirations of democracy elsewhere.

“We feel from the numerous delegations that are visiting Tunisia that specific attention is being given to the country,” said Maiza. “If it succeeds, it can be a model to others. But if it is a failure, it will be a failure for democracies all over the world.”

To hear the full speech by Merhezia Labidi Maiza, click here

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.