The Middle East Channel
Do Tunisians agree on more than they realize?
Tunisia’s saving grace since Ben Ali left in January has been the inclusiveness and consensual nature of its transition process. In recent months, however, polarization between the Islamist el-Nahda Party and secular forces has become the primary topic of debate among political elites. I certainly saw deep differences in a trip to Tunisia at the end ...
Tunisia’s saving grace since Ben Ali left in January has been the inclusiveness and consensual nature of its transition process. In recent months, however, polarization between the Islamist el-Nahda Party and secular forces has become the primary topic of debate among political elites. I certainly saw deep differences in a trip to Tunisia at the end of July. Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader of the largest Islamist movement, talks almost bitterly and in deeply populist terms of the desires of the country’s elite (by which he means leftists, liberals, and secularists) to cling to power; leftists and liberals see the Islamists as preparing a grab for power.
This is especially troubling less than three months before scheduled elections for a constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. If there is one rule about political transitions, it is that it goes more smoothly when all significant political forces get a seat at a table where basic decisions are openly and consensually made. That is what Tunisia has tried to do. But with polarization growing and with nerves fraying, will an inclusive and consensual process work when the country tries to write a new constitution after polarizing elections?
In fact, the focus on polarization is blinding Tunisians to the extent to which this is already happening. Tunisians are suspicious of each other’s intentions for a collection of good and bad reasons. But they may find the task of crafting a constitution a bit less contentious than they fear.
Such suspicions are indeed worrying in a country where the rules about political life are unclear, and even the rules about how to write those rules have yet to be written fully. It is reasonably apparent that there will soon be elections for a constituent assembly (though voter registration for those elections has been progressing at an alarmingly slow rate). But how will that constituent assembly operate? Who will be in it? And who will govern the country, how will it be administered, while that body is undertaking its task?
The expectation of most political actors is that the constituent assembly will make its own rules. It will likely select a new interim president; it will take on a legislative role when it sees it as necessary; and it will exercise oversight over the cabinet. It may let the body that now works to guide the transition — the Higher Commission for the Defense of the Revolution — lapse. It is even up to the assembly to decide how its work — the draft constitution — will be ratified and adopted.
Who will be in this body? Nobody knows — the elections are very difficult to predict. There have never been free and open elections held in Tunisia. Many political actors are very new. And despite the politicization of the population, voter turnout is especially unpredictable.
A few things are clear, however. First, the electoral law has been designed to prevent any single party from dominating it. Second, the Islamist "al-Nahda Movement Party," its name itself a display of uncertainty about whether it is a political party or a broadly based reform movement, has managed to recreate a national infrastructure and is likely to be a major player. (How major? Even its leaders seem unsure.) A few secular, leftist, nationalist, and liberal parties show some signs of emerging from the pack, but again their electoral strength is very difficult to judge. Organized labor could be a major political player, simply because it retained some credibility even under the old regime and may be able to deliver a large constituency. It, however, has not yet showed its hand. Other new political forces have shown little evidence of having built loyal constituencies or mass appeal.
So what will this heterogeneous group of deputies do when they take their seats? There will certainly be very different conceptions of Tunisia’s political future motivating various groups. But they may surprise each other in the extent of their agreement on the constitution’s text, and the consensus may be deeper than most participants realize. Most agree about the need for a stronger parliament and more robust human rights protections. I heard one prominent non-Islamist independent talk of the Islamists’ desire for a strong president, another speak of a leading leftist party’s secret desire for a strong president, and Islamist leaders make clear their desire to prevent others from maintaining the domineering presidency.
Tunisian elites expect that the real battles will take place over the country’s identity. I am less certain. There are profound differences to be sure, but nobody seems to want to make fundamental changes in the formula developed at the country’s independence. Article 1 of Tunisia’s constitution has always read "Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic, and its type of government is a republic;" Article 2 declares Tunisia part of Arab North Africa; and Article 38 of the soon-to-be superseded document requires that the presidency must be held by a Muslim. The constituent assembly elected later this year is unlikely to change any of that.
Tunisians agree on the constitutional text even when they deeply disagree about religion. For instance, a move to make the state a neutral religious actor has strong appeal for those who wish to move toward a French-style secularism that minimizes the role of religion in political life. But it also appeals to some Islamists who see it as a way of liberating Islam from the state’s heavy hand. When I spoke with Ghannushi, he talked favorably of what he called the "Anglo-Saxon" model as opposed to French secularism — by which he meant a state neutrality that is not unfriendly to religion in the public sphere. The words were not uttered just for my benefit — I saw him expand on the subject in an interview with an Egyptian satellite channel a few days later. Thus, a vaguely worded constitutional provision on religious neutrality would likely be implemented very differently by the opposing camps, but they might still be able to agree on a common text.
So why is everyone so hot and bothered? When I queried Tunisians whether a change in some controversial matters would have much practical effect (if, for instance, the word "Arabic" was dropped from Article 1, would Tunisians suddenly start speaking Spanish; if Article 2 was changed would Tunisians find themselves transported to East Asia?) most confessed that the constitutional debate was primarily symbolic. In other words, battling over the country’s identity in the country’s constitutional text is best seen as a proxy struggle for a deeper conflict over God, nation, and political community. And to be sure, that conflict is quite real and likely to lead to real policy debates over the coming years. But when it comes to writing the constitution, it might prove far less divisive than so many currently fear.
So yes, Tunisians are polarized and disagree about some fundamental issues. But writing a constitution is not about agreeing on everything, it is about setting up rules to handle disagreements. The drafters need to remember that — so that they can proceed to have their heated debates while still getting their job done. Tunisians need to remember that as well — so that they can position themselves for post-constitutional political contention while not losing their sense of political community. And finally, outsiders need to remember that — so that they can get used to the idea of members of an Arab society speaking with many voices, agreeing at times, and agreeing to disagree at others.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace