Tunisia: A democratic roadmap

With a cautious approach a durable democratic order can be established in Tunisia.


    Although Ben Ali may have been deposed, the "people's power" movement still has a ways to go if they want to erase all the "Ben Ali-ism" and corruption from Tunisia [EPA]

    In the wake of an Arab world-shattering political development, the government of Tunisia has been effectively overthrown via an amalgamation of civil unrest, grassroots mobilization and what one could call a coup d'esprit.

    Tunisia's new political masters must proceed by distancing themselves from self-congratulatory triumphalism. They will have to muster courage, display political imagination and modesty, and exercise tolerance of difference in order to fashion a durable democratic order in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
    The question is always, of course, 'how'? Historically, whether it is the new republican order after the absolute monarchy in France more than 200 years ago, post-Franco Spain or post-Marcos Philippines, trepidation is inevitable. Skills of compromise, clear vision and purpose are needed to tread the unchartered waters of post-authoritarian construction.
    Lessons from the 29 days that shook Tunisia

    If anything, the bread riots that produced the Arab World's first people's power movement has served notice to the country's political class - past and present - in several ways.
    One, Tunisia's people alone own the historical moment of victory against dictatorship. I think Tunisia's people have earned the right to be sovereign and treated accordingly. Any resulting political system must enshrine this moment as theirs alone. Institutionally, political reconstruction must entrust all sovereign mechanisms of checks and balances with the people.
    Two, not the Western backers of the regime and not the expatriate politics of exile won the day against Ben Ali. This was a home-grown spontaneous movement.
    Three, no single political movement, leader or ideology can fake political history and claim victory for a political current they neither precipitated, controlled or delivered. There is a poetic justice in this: all political actors enter the new political fray humbled and on equal footing. The Tunisian people are now handing them on a silver platter a rare chance to right many wrongs of the deposed president.
    Four, spin politics and sugar-coating political performance are futile. Ben Ali's hiring spin trade and expertise from the US did not succeed to conceal the rot. No political spin could camouflage the visible political decay and loss of the last days of Ben Ali's rule. Deploying the classic technique of misdirection through the rhetoric of 'terrorism', Ben Ali failed to blind Tunisians and the Western machines of political patronage, unable to impress or stem the tide of rejection.
    So spin politics must be condemned to the proverbial dustbin of history to join Ben Ali and co.
    Fifth, the WikiLeaks moment means that the state can no longer withstand being 'Assanged', 'Twittered', 'Facebooked' and, consequently, denuded. Of course, Al Jazeera's own role in all of this must not be forgotten. It is about time Max Weber's template of statism is revised. Perhaps information, on which Weber says little or nothing, more so than monopoly over the technology of violence plays a decisive factor in the fate of states in the modern era.
    Long live Ben Ali-ism?
    Challenges remain ahead. People's power victories can be lost.
    Ben Ali is gone but the vestiges of 'Ben Ali-ism' may still linger. Flushing them out will take time. Not so much in terms of personalities, political language and symbolisms, but most importantly in terms of political amorality or even immorality. Politics must be restored as a moral project with ends that transcend leaders, parties and ideologies.
    The critical mass that eventually produced the flow of determination to defeat the authoritarian system, with a tipping-point provided by the national army, must now prove its fungibility in the reconstruction and transitional phase.
    That is, it must be exchanged for new brand of political know-how after Ben Ali's removal in order to overthrow the system he has left behind.
    But this is a political tightrope for all concerned. The endeavour to transform the system swiftly must be checked by the risk of total political vacuum. The ruling party's historical stature must be restored and it must therefore be maintained. Plus, not all Ben Ali's associates must be subjected to blanket witch-hunt or purge.
    The struggle in the months ahead to maintain credibility with the Tunisian people and the world must be balanced with one conspicuous reality. Existing civil society and opposition are still fledgling. They need time to recover from the erasure of the past 54 years as well as partnership with those forces that worked for Ben Ali but are not necessarily 'Ben Ali-ist'.
    The caretaker order, a remnant of the ancient regime, must therefore be allowed to act as a facilitator in the transition period. For this, the interim president and even whomever is elected after him must assume the role of an honest broker between the various political actors in the transition period.
    The Islamists and the third republic

    The Islamists have eaten humble pie after more than twenty years of political wilderness. This force is still to be reckoned with and must be given full rights of representation in the new political order. External considerations or reservations about a role for the Nahda party do not in the transitional period warrant its exclusion.
    But the Nahda party of 2011 is not the Nahda party of 1989. Nor is Tunisia. New legitimate forces that have struggled from within Tunisia have earned the right to exist and contest power.
    The Nahda party and whatever leadership is going to emerge now must absorb a few lessons of its own.
    Firstly, it must get over its obsession with unity. Today's Nahda has at least two currents or factions within it. This must be viewed as enriching and pluralising and not a divisive dynamic. Secondly, it must engage with open politics away from secrecy or ideological rigidity. Thirdly, it must not return to the debates of the 1980s about the 'identity' question and its simplistic 'moralism'. Fourthly, it must act modestly and contest power with restraint, sharing the political scene with others instead of seeking domination. Lastly, it must favour political presence over absenteeism.
    Nahda is a party which still has wide appeal but perhaps with a diluted following and even more political maturity. A sign of this is the tendency amongst many of its leaders today to even separate religion and politics. Nahda is not the Taliban.
    No other single political entity in Tunisia can claim today to speak on behalf of all Tunisians. Let thousands of 'jasmines' of the unfolding Tunisian 'Democratic Spring' bloom on the basis of shared values of mutuality, respect, equality and modesty.
    Fundamental Pact II: Learning Democracy

    A new democratic order or 'workshop' will not moulded easily, irreversibly or quickly to succumb to new values of equal citizenship, continuously popularly mandated and contested power, inalienable rights for all Tunisians of all creeds and ideologies, and continuous tradition of political renewal and self-criticism.
    Historically, Tunisia does not begin with a clean slate. Democratic learning should be inspired by the spirit of the 1857 Fundamental Pact ('Ahd Al-Aman), which amongst other things, sought to limit Beylical power. What begins now is akin to a 'Fundamental Pact' version II.
    But Some of Tunisia's new players have just become apprentices in the politics of the state. Some have had no parliamentary experience; some not even participation at municipality level. So democratic learning begins now.
    The path of democratic learning must keep in mind a threefold reality check: After the 14th of January 2011, no return to possession of the state or longevity in power will be possible; the state Tunisians have known is a state which practiced 'total politics' and learning self-government will involve trials and errors; Tunisians have rebelled for political freedoms but also for socio-economic equal opportunity and distribution, and this latter quest must not be forgotten.
    Towards a transitional period

    En route to democracy building and learning, short-term and long-term agendas must be clarified.
    In the short-run, elections in two months must aim at producing only a transitional order. The 'rush' into elections may be premature in a society with weak political parties and until recently a heavily shackled civil society. But in this case it must proceed to organise the rules of political engagement and participation.
    In the long run, the transitional order will have to work towards dismantling the presidential system. Excessive executive power must be terminated by preparing the legal and institutional grid and resources of switching into a parliamentary system. A new constitution will be needed for the new era and a transitional parliament and special commission aided by committees can be assigned this task.
    The switch to a proportional electoral system can be planned in tandem with a switch to a parliamentary system.
    The new order will need a free press to act as the unofficial opposition, and the security apparatus consisting of nearly quarter-of-a-million-strong force must be dismantled.
    Tunisia is no island. A Truth and Reconciliation Committee, such as those of South Africa or Morocco, can institute a transitional justice system so that no blood is spilled or injustice committed in chasing after ghosts from the past.
    Spain began its transition without any prior democratic experience. Its transition through a pact can serve to inform Tunisia's.
    The socio-economic agenda will be challenging. But sustainable and even development along with mechanisms for governance must be allocated special resources and departments.
    The 'Tunisia effect'

    All Arabs feel emboldened and inspired by the overthrow of Ben Ali Baba's dictatorship. Tunisia now leads the way and others are closely watching. The Tunisia effect must be a democratic effect.

    The 14th of January will go down in Tunisia's history as a milestone as significant as 1857 and 1861 when Tunisia reform produced, respectively, the Arab and Muslim world's first 'bill of rights' and constitution. Its significance equals that of March 20, 1956, Day of Independence from colonialism.
    The stigma has been that the Arab societies are indefinitely confused with absence of civic cultures and self-governance potential. Tunisians have won the first battle in demolishing some condescending constructions of Arab societies. The battle ahead, to bring to fruition a sustainable 'democratic spring' has just begun. Winning it will require time, political stamina, and the will to think, act and be free.
    The downfall of Ben Ali is metaphor for the storming of the 'Bastille' of political singularity. This is the 'disease' against which immunization of the new system is needed.
    One of the new shared political values needed is the dynamic of difference and contradiction as a positive force in the political process and in any durable substantive democratisation. Purging, excluding or killing political difference is never possible. If it were, Ben Ali would have triumphed over the will of the Tunisian people long ago.

    Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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