The year 2013 was a difficult year for Tunisia and for Arabs and their hopes of liberation. Tunisians placed high hopes on the revolutions they sparked in 2010. They placed high hopes on their ability to create a new model of peaceful change, one that could achieve a revolution that takes neither a step back into repression nor strays into violence. They placed high hopes on the national dialogue launched by political leaders, trade unions and civil society organisations in September to take the democratic transition out of the crisis into which it was driven by the assassinations of two political leaders in six months.
These hopes are nearing their realization. This week, Tunisia took the penultimate step to solidifying its transition to democracy with the adoption of the greatest constitution in its history, which embraces the values of freedom, dignity and justice, and with the handover of power from the elected government to an independent, technocratic government that will manage the period leading to legislative and presidential elections and the transition to a full-term democratically elected government.
Going back a little, the flame of the Arab Spring, sparked in Tunisia three years ago, opened a horizon of hope that politics could be different in this country where dictatorship had reigned for over half a century. It gave hope to Arabs that they could enjoy freedom and democracy, far from the despotism that had held back their progress and stifled every effort at reform.
On the third anniversary of the sparking of that flame, the principal question is: has the Tunisian model for democratic transition succeeded in placing Tunisia on the path of democracy? And what are the principal features of this model that make it successful?
The revolution granted everyone freedom – the fruit of sacrifices made by generations, particularly youth, from across the spectrum. However, freedom brings diverse possibilities – just as it can bring the blessings of peace, security, democracy and prosperity, it can also bring chaos, brutality, division and failure, if it is not practiced with responsibility and awareness.
The Jasmine Revolution has been fighting poisonous winds and waves of counter-revolutions. The democratic process has more than once faced the risk of collapse as a result of internal and external challenges, including the weakness of the democratic heritage and experience of most political players, both in power and opposition, in a democracy that has not yet completed its third year.
The process of democratic change is a long and complex one, requiring patience, long-term vision and willingness to put aside immediate partisan interests in order to build a shared system respectful of, and respected by, all. The intense transitional process Tunisia has undergone is that of building consensus around a common architecture for managing public life – drafting a new constitution in which every Tunisian can see herself or himself, establishing key institutions such as the Election Commission, Media Commission, Human Rights Commission, Local Government Council and others that establish new rules that safeguard and embody the principles of peaceful alternation of power, participatory democracy and respect for rights and freedoms. This process is one of painstakingly building shared institutions, mechanisms and rules that give life to the values of the revolution and the burning demands that drove people to the streets three years ago – freedom, dignity and justice.
This process of constructing a new body politic through consensus has been complicated by the dialectic of struggle between the old system that the revolution sought to bring down and a new system that is being built. This tension is found in every post-revolutionary phase. In Tunisia, we sought to strengthen the dynamic for change by building an alliance between those parties committed to democracy and the struggle against dictatorship. Building a coalition government of moderate parties, secular and Islamist, was an important step for overcoming ideological differences that could weaken the democratisation process.
Building consensus and sharing power require compromise. After the tragic assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, a member of the assembly, in July, opposition voices called for cancelling the entire democratic process by undoing all the new democratic institutions that emerged out of the 23 October 2011 elections, including the assembly, the government and the presidency. Most opposition parties withdrew from the Assembly, making their return conditional on the government’s resignation. The withdrawn deputies constituted less than a third of the total number of deputies which meant that the Assembly could have continued its legislative, and even constitutional work without them. However, Ennahdha Party and its partners in government chose to enter into discussions with the opposition to secure their return to the constitution-drafting process. We did not want to push through a constitution that would not represent all Tunisians and would have divided society. More than just being a document, drafting a constitution is a process by which society establishes a common coherent understanding of their core values and the aims, ends and means of government.
The final text must reflect and encompass the demands and aspirations of all sections of society so that all have a place and can see themselves within its vision.
For those reasons, we chose to hand over power in order to preserve the integrity and continuity of our transition. Our legitimacy is clear – an elected government formed out of free and fair elections and supported by a broad parliamentary majority and popular support. We chose to strengthen the transition by building it on a higher level of legitimacy – one based on consensus, not majority. We chose to hand over power to an interim technocratic government for the sake of something far dearer: placing Tunisia firmly on the path to democracy, writing a constitution for all Tunisians, building common institutions, and organizing elections whose results would be accepted by all since they would be held under a neutral government whose ministers will not stand for election.
The moving scenes of celebration at the adoption of Tunisia’s first democratic constitution proved the success of this model of coexistence. Today, we have a new constitution for a modern Tunisia, adopted by an elected democratic representative body, drafted with the participation of citizens and civil society, and signed by three Presidents of the coalition government of different political trends. The constitution is something all Tunisians can be proud of, enshrining civil liberties and social, economic and cultural rights for which they had fought. The constitution is pioneering in many ways, protecting environmental rights and the rights to free healthcare and education, promoting equality between regions and ensuring equal participation of women and men, going further than many constitutions worldwide in the protection of social and economic rights. Just as the Tunisian model, based on consensus and cooperation between political trends, has succeeded in founding the first Arab democracy of its kind, we hope it will succeed in protecting the fundamental bases for a dignified life for all citizens.
This achievement also crowns a number of significant steps this year, including the passing of the transitional justice law and the establishment of several important institutions such as the independent commission against torture, the first such body in the Arab world.
We, Tunisians, can be proud of what we have achieved, of presenting a new model of peaceful revolution to the world. This model of consensual democracy has taken the country to the shores of safety. Tunisia, a country small in its geography, population and natural resources, has, through the work and sacrifices of its people, its great cultural and intellectual heritage, and the ability to dialogue to overcome challenges, given its region and humanity a new, unique model in democracy-building.