The Middle East Channel

Next challenges for Tunisia

Last month Tunisians went to the polls to elect a 217-seat constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s political and legal map. The elections were widely venerated for their transparency and efficacy, marking a uniquely positive development in the otherwise stalled Arab Spring. As the official review of the preliminary election concludes, a wide consensus prevails ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Last month Tunisians went to the polls to elect a 217-seat constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s political and legal map. The elections were widely venerated for their transparency and efficacy, marking a uniquely positive development in the otherwise stalled Arab Spring. As the official review of the preliminary election concludes, a wide consensus prevails to move on to the next challenges in the nation’s transformation. Indeed, underneath the good news story of Tunisia, lie numerous challenges that if not adequately addressed could unravel the impressive gains achieved to date.

Tackling social and economic problems highlighted by the Jasmine revolution and unanticipated election results are particularly central to consolidating the country’s political transition and long-term stability. The Constituent Assembly’s clearest mandate — to draft a new constitution — offers an opportunity to begin reconciling Tunisia’s divisions if undertaken in a strategic, transparent, and participatory manner. Failing this or moving too aggressively toward a parliamentary role without a publicly-endorsed governance framework inclusive of a homegrown bill of rights could exacerbate tensions and provoke another round of mass mobilization.

Amongst the leading challenges facing Tunisia is negotiating a new relationship between the state and religion. On the one hand, the Islamist party Ennahda’s higher than expected plurality vote reinforces the reality that the former separation of religion and political affairs is over. On the other hand, there is little to suggest that Tunisians are amenable to a full departure from the country’s liberal leanings.

There are multiple narratives to explain Ennahda’s strong electoral performance.  The party was better organized and extremely proactive in pursuing votes, utilizing familial relationships and community networks to promote the party and bring out voters in what was a heavily restricted campaign that disadvantaged independents. It had broad public appeal as its rising was a clear indication of a new era. It is also widely trusted amongst ordinary Tunisians who believe that because its leaders were victims of the former regime they are guaranteed to clean the system. Ennahda strategically weighed on these sentiments in mobilizing its support.

Ironically, though, secular and unionist forces drove the revolution, motivated by a desire for dignity and economic opportunities. And Ennahada did not land a majority of votes. As such, the Islamist win cannot be interpreted as a policy mandate. Even within its party ranks there is a diversity of ideologies. The conciliatory gestures recently demonstrated by political leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Ennahda’s candidate for Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, stand in contrast to remarks made by other party members such as Sadok Chourou, calling for the criminalizing of religious defamation. There is a possibility that Ennahda could splinter, leading to even more complex dynamics around the question of just how far Tunisia will go in accommodating its embrace of religious association.

Just as Tunisia is engaged in a new debate on the role of religion in public life, it continues to be be-plagued by an old one of how to narrow deep socio-economic inequities. Regional tensions between the rural and urban and the interior and coastal areas remain heightened, as underscored by the shock upset by Hachmi Hamdi’s Arida Chaabia party. Hamdi, an erratic character, campaigned from his private satellite television network in London on a populist platform, railing against the systemic neglect suffered by the inner and southern parts of the country and capitalizing on the marginalization felt in these regions. His party picked up seats in every district but those within greater coastal Tunis, garnering the highest number of votes from those areas whose frustrations Hamdi played upon. In response to the initial disqualification of several Arida Chaabia lists for campaign violations, riots broke out in Hamdi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution began. The reinstatement of some of the disqualifications by the reviewing court has returned the party to its original third-place finish. That Ennahda and the two other winning parties have entered into coalition negotiations while rejecting Arida Chaabia could foreshadow conflict.

Reversing regional inequities was a component of all the major party platforms. It remains to be seen, however, when and how they will be tackled. Targeted economic investments and fiscal decentralization measures alone would not in any case be enough to address long-standing perceptions of mistreatment — intimately linked with perceptions of elite corruption — nor the social isolation of more than a third of the population. Lessons learned from other transitioning countries also cautions against structural decentralization at moments of state fragility. As party leaders and civil society speak out in favor of economic approaches based on social justice, more reflection is needed as to how to turn the ideal into practicable models for development.

Another major challenge obscured by the initial claim of a 90 percent turn-out rate, is public ambivalence toward institutional politics. Pre-election surveys noted a high degree of skepticism toward political parties and elections, with the lowest registration rates amongst women and the youth. With 51 percent of eligible voters confirmed to have turned out following what was a popular revolution, there remains a need to strategize the enfranchisement of a broader swathe of society along generational lines.  

A related complication is weak democratic traditions. Emerging after decades of repressive one-party rule, the quality and scope of political debate is still inchoate. A mid-2011 review of press freedoms conducted by the IFEX-TMG highlighted continuing state controls over media and lingering effects of censorship on journalistic capacities. Discrepant ICT-access barriers and illiteracy rates will further complicate efforts to overcome Ben Ali’s legacy and bring in more parts of society. Symptomatic of the problems is the fact that only parties led by known opposition figures with private media channels were able to lead their constituencies to front-place victories.  


When the Constituent Assembly convenes in the upcoming days, it will be saddled with high expectations stemming from these various challenges. How the assembly manages them will be critical for creating an atmosphere conducive for its work — but just what that work is remains a controversy. The assembly holds no legally explicit mandate, although it is understood to be tasked with drafting a new national constitution. In advance of the elections, in response to public anxieties about the lack of clarity about the assembly’s powers, Ennahda and 10 other parties signed an agreement limiting the assembly’s duration to one year. The CPR, the party with the second highest number of seats, did not sign and has dissented over the one-year timeline.

The partial party agreement leaves open the question of whether the assembly will function as a legislative body or focus on constitution-drafting. While it may not be realistic to circumscribe the powers of the assembly in the current political context of Tunisia, the assembly may very well act to define its role around the priority task of constitution-drafting. The assembly will also have to create enabling laws to hold a referendum on the draft constitution and parliamentary elections. An elected parliament would then be empowered to direct the major reforms needed according to publicly-endorsed guiding principles.  

Far from delaying meeting the heavy challenges ahead, prioritizing constitution-making can be messaged as the critical step forward. As Tunisia now faces fundamental questions about its identity and forging its new social contract, moving too quickly to institute significant structural or normative changes could undermine transformation. 

The key factor in the current opportunity will be for the assembly to commit to participatory constitution-making. Given the election outcomes and current challenges, public rather than political consensus should be the goal. Civic involvement in the constitutional debates can facilitate that goal while also contributing to reversing social exclusion and building public confidence.

Toward this end, when the assembly convenes, it should conclude and publicize its working procedures, including a plan for inclusive public involvement in its constitutional deliberations. In devising a plan, the assembly need not look north or west. In the past two decades several African countries have successfully drafted post-conflict constitutional texts, utilizing a combined approach of expert skills and citizen engagement. Lessons from Africa provide ideas for overcoming barriers to informed conversations such as deploying trained personnel to build awareness and conduct discussions. As demonstrated over the past nine months, Tunisia has a relatively vibrant civil society that can be an effective partner to assembly delegates in carrying out consultations.

The imperative of participation is not merely an ideal. Should the new authorities present a constitution for referendum without having pursued public dialogue, and thus without really reversing the prevailing social conditions, it is likely to be rejected. Alternatively, voter turn-out may be so low as to render its legitimacy suspect. But more importantly, a vital opportunity for nurturing a pluralistic and accountable regime would be squandered.

Leila Hilal is co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor on the Middle East Channel. She served as an official monitor of the October 23rd elections in the interior governorate of Siliana.

Leila Hilal is a senior fellow for the International Security Program and the former director of the Middle East Task Force at New America.

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