On February 17, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a public event with Amer Al-Areed, Head of the Political Bureau, Ennahda Movement; Amine Ghali, Programme Director, Al Kawakib Democracy Transition Center; Rachid Khechana, Program Editor at Al Jazeera Network; and Monica Marks, a Rhodes Scholar and Doctoral Candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Each speaker reflected on the current state of democracy in Tunisia and its viability as a model for the region. The event focused on Tunisia’s recent approval of a new constitution on January 26, 2014 and the long process required to create the document. The event reviewed the successes and failures of the transition process, the role of civil society in the apparent success of the project, and the challenges Tunisia continues to face in securing its democratic transition. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Fellow at the BDC and adjunct professor at Georgetown University-Qatar, moderated and members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business, and media communities attended.
In his opening remarks, Amer Al-Areed hailed the success of civil society in encouraging national dialogue. After the revolution, Tunisia’s first elections created the National Constituent Assembly; this body, however, emphasized majority rule at the expense of developing a national consensus or countering emerging threats, such as terrorism. Consensus and compromise, he argued, are essential for coexistence and the creation of a new Tunisian state. With the introduction of an independent election committee composed of Tunisian civil society members, he noted, factions within the country evolved from enemies to political competitors, working towards a shared vision of freedom and liberty. Still, he noted, the involvement of civil society does not negate the value and legitimacy of elections; real authority, including budgeting, would be granted to elected officials, even on the local level.
Rachid Khechana elaborated on the problems present in the elected assemblies formed after the 2011 elections. While the revolution succeeded without great costs in terms of life or economic upheaval, the creation of the National Constituent Assembly was “a wrong decision.” In his view, this assembly became an arena for partisan confrontation and failed to achieve social and economic reforms. In retrospect, the technocratic government proposed by then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in January 2012 would have been a better path. As he saw it, the rise in violence in 2012, notably the attack on the American embassy, demonstrated achieving Tunisia’s political ambitions would require a different model. The move towards a technocratic government engendered effectiveness through consensus: Tunisians, he believed, are now proper citizens, not subjects.
Amine Ghali also praised the effectiveness of civil society in fostering consensus and state formation in Tunisia. He, too, noted that majority-minority paradigm which pervaded the National Constituent Assembly failed to produce constitutional, judicial, and security sector reform. Although Ennahda formed a majority in the Assembly, the party “did not win the elections. They just came first.” With a partisan approach, the country was left “teetering on the brink of disaster and violence…this was the biggest distortion of [the] democratization process in Tunisia.” Once Tunisia transitioned to managing public affairs through independent, non-partisan commissions, Ghali felt, the country was able to develop socially, politically, and economically. He also pointed to recent, albeit belated, successes such as the establishment of a national election commission, process for transitional justice, and technocratic government.
Monica Marks, however, questioned the emphasis on consensus and the influence of unelected actors. Disagreement, she argued, is an essential aspect of democracy and Tunisians should not subscribe to a false sense of unity. While buzzwords like “unity” and “consensus” might sound appealing, she noted, drafting a constitution is a critical moment for a formerly repressed population to discuss and encode national identity. Unlike the other speakers, she disputed the democratic legitimacy of unelected members of civil society. “How is this democratic? Who is appointing these people?” she asked. It was challenging, she explained, for Ennahda to justify why they were negotiating and making concessions to unelected actors after winning a plurality of the vote in 2011; some Ennahda supporters viewed these unelected actors as “counterrevolutionaries, old regime members…rats crawling out of their holes again.“
She encouraged international observers to look beyond the Tunisian capital and its political debates to understand events in the country. The economic problems that motivated the revolution persist, leading some to call for the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly last summer, just as it neared breakthroughs on the constitution and electoral commission.
A number of the questions posed to the panel concerned Ennahda place in the Tunisian political scene, particularly the concessions it made since winning a plurality in the 2011 elections. Areed touted these compromises as evidence that Ennahda prioritizes Tunisia’s development over any narrow political agenda. Marks, however, stated that some of the party’s base, particularly younger voters, were dismayed to find references to sharia law absent from the constitution. When asked about the character of Ennahda, particularly in comparison to other Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, she explained that Ennahda should not be seen as member to an international cabal of ideologically motivated Islamists; rather, it must be understood as a uniquely Tunisian movement in transition.
Other questions concerned transitional justice, still in its inception in Tunisia. Sharqieh asked Ghali, who sits on a committee concerning these matters, about the decision to target individuals involved in corruption or human rights abuses, freeing those not directly involved in these violations to participate in the national dialogue. He explained that while there are concerns about members of the old regime participating in politics, it would be against human rights to punish an individual for a collective violation. Earlier in the evening, Khechana argued that this process should have been conducted much earlier in Tunisia’s transition, not three years after the revolution. Marks broadened the scope of this debate, explaining that Tunisians desire transitional justice even on a local level, a need that has not been sufficiently addressed by the National Constituent Assembly.