The first faltering steps of the Tunisian democracy

The fledgling Tunisian democracy is taking its first steps under the watchful eye of the Tunisians, weary from decades of stagnation and in need for real change. The path to democracy is not without pitfalls. The battle for a social project frontally opposes seculars to Islamists, eager democrats to the supporters of the consensus.

After adopting a « little constitution » last week, members of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia come to choose a new president, Marzouki and a new head of government, Hamadi Jebali, has been appointed. The adoption of the mini-constitution by the Constituent Assembly, after the polls on October 23, has not been smooth and the choice of Marzouki has been severely criticized.

The daily sit-ins in front of the Bardo palace, the seat of the Constituent Assembly, testify to the present climate of distrust among the Tunisian population. The demonstrators denounced the « democratic coup » of Ennahda and are talking about the comeback to absolutism. They seem much less enthusiastic than Westerners who applaud with both hands the young Tunisian democracy full of promises.

What are exactly the political changes taking place in Tunisia? Is it about taking one step forward, two steps back?

The « small constitution » that just has been adopted is intended to organize, on an interim basis, the functioning of government. Despite the landslide victory of Ennahda during October’s elections, the Islamist party will govern in a three-party coalition with the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. The adoption of this Constitution, by a large majority, was severely criticized by civil society and opposition parties who see it as a breach of the balance of power and a threat to democracy under construction.

The Article 10 has been the subject of heated debate, while the head of government was omnipotent in the original text, it loses some powers in the negotiated version. The text adopted is still very favorable to the initial objectives of Ennahda, which strengthens its already dominant position. Almost all of the powers vested in the government formed by the majority party. The only concession made by Ennahda was to lower the threshold for passing a censure motion two-thirds to a simple majority. The head of government is in fact entrenched with the support of Ennahda and its alliances, it is the same for the President of the Republic and President of the Constituent Assembly that can only be removed with a majority of two-thirds. The fact that Ennahda appropriated all key ministerial portofolios (the Interior Ministery, Foreign Affairs and Justice) only confirms the takeover of the Islamist party in the Tunisian political system.

The President seems, as for him, to play only a ceremonial role. Marzouki is regarded by the opposition as a puppet of Ennahda. His recent statements did not contribute to ensure its credibility, for example, he was accused of stigmatizing unveiled women in his first official speech by designating them as safirat, which is a pejorative term denoting women that do not meet religious requirements.

One of the key issues in Tunisia and in all Arab countries in transition is the economic recovery to meet the needs of these people. Apart from statements to reassure foreign investors, Ennahda does not seem to have a well-crafted plan to ensure the economic justice that Tunisians demand. It is about developing the social economy but the funding of projects is still unclear. At the political level, things are clearer, Tunisians expect a complete social project and a strict adherence to democratic principles. The omnipotence of the party and the failure of checks and balances are not supposed to be part of the plan. The first steps of the Tunisian democracy may be hesitant but they must remain cautious at the risk of calling into question the achievements of the revolution.


Dalila Bernard