Tunisia: The calm after the storm

With the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly, Tunisians will have to put political and social theory into practice.

constituent assembly
Tunisia’s newly-elected Constituent Assembly was inaugurated on Tuesday 22 November [EPA]

Tunis, Tunisia – After months of instability, speculation and anxious anticipation, the moment finally arrived. The calm after the storm finally arrived as Tuesday’s inauguration of the Constituent Assembly opened a new chapter in Tunisian history. The venue for the opening, Bardo Palace, was symbolic – the site of the signing of the Arab world’s first constitution in 1861, which promised to usher in constitutionalism, shortly followed by the Bardo Treaty that imposed French rule.

One hundred and fifty years later, Tunisians finally have an independent, elected body that reflects their diversity and represents their voice, tasked with drawing up a constitution to enshrine their freedoms and reflect their ideals and aspirations. Tuesday’s emotionally charged Constituent Assembly gathering – with its diverse members drawn from across the political and geographical landscape – could not have been any more different from the mind-numbing lifelessness of the coterie of sycophants that passed for a “parliament” in Ben Ali’s days.

The significance of this watershed moment for the Arab world cannot be overestimated. Only a year ago, any prospect of change in the stagnant waters of Arab politics was a mere dream. The region embodied instability and continuity in equal measure, each feeding the other in a seemingly unbreakable cycle. Stability was used as a pretext for brutal abuses of power until the abuses finally overturned stability itself and the cycle was broken.

Tunisia now has the chance to repair some of the many flaws in the Arab political fabric – lack of accountability, in-built corruption, an estranged political elite with little connection to wider society, marginalisation of women from political leadership and an Islamist-secularist dichotomy entrenched through state propaganda.

The Constituent Assembly boasts a higher percentage of women than France, Belgium, Ireland, the UK and US. Some 42 of the 49 female members – more than 85 per cent – are from the Islamist Ennahdha party, making it the most progressive Tunisian party in terms of female political representation and one of the most progressive worldwide. A woman has also just been appointed Vice-President of the Assembly, also from Ennahdha.

A new coalition

This outcome could herald a new phase characterised by a genuine commitment to women’s status as full and equal partners in public life, rather than the exploitation of women’s issues for political point scoring seen under Ben Ali.

The new coalition government brings together Islamists, liberals and leftists, a broad democratic platform rarely seen in the Arab world. The scale of this achievement is difficult to grasp without an appreciation of the historical context. The Ben Ali regime, like all dictatorial machines, did not rest at driving its opponents underground, but set its sights on starving them of legitimacy by dividing, isolating and vilifying them through propaganda, lies and fear.

It is widely known that journalists at various Arab and international newspapers and blogs were on Ben Ali’s payroll, while an entire government office was dedicated to spreading fabrications about key political opponents. After decades of physical and psychological onslaught, the mere survival of these parties is a significant achievement. The fact that they have managed to emerge with a strong will for compromise and dialogue and succeeded in forming a coalition government so swiftly is nothing short of remarkable.

It is no coincidence that the parties to whom most voters flocked are those that emphasised co-operation and dialogue as the basis for a new inclusive politics. They also expressed the strongest commitment to the main goals of the January uprising – justice, development, accountability and representation. Parties that based their election campaign on provoking fear of others – particularly the Progressive Democratic Party, which stood essentially as the anti-Ennahdha party – lost out majorly.

The results sent a strong message that voters wanted co-operation not conflict, dialogue not demonisation. The distinction that matters most to them is between democrats – those who want a radical break with the former regime – and anti-democrats – those who want to maintain the same structures and power bases. It is time for all politicians to heed this message and cast aside the ideological posturing and propaganda of old.

An experiment in governance

The reality is that no single party can, or indeed should, rebuild Tunisia. The challenges the country faces require a plurality of solutions and voices. On the symbolic level, there is no more fitting way to launch a new era of democratic pluralism than through a broad coalition of views and outlooks.

It is true that the parties in the coalition government have little experience of governing. However, this is not unheard of even in seasoned democracies – Britain’s David Cameron had never served as a minister before becoming prime minister. Tunisia’s new leaders are inexperienced not for lack of skill, but opportunity. Their political career, in most cases, involved a direct trajectory from opposition to prison cell. The new prime minister, Hammadi Jebali of Ennahdha, spent 16 years in prison, ten of those in solitary confinement. The new president, Moncef Marzouqi of the Congress for the Republic, was also sentenced to prison.

The coming months will be an experiment in alliance-building, policy-making and governing. It will require a shift from the realm of theory to practice, from the rhetoric of opposition to the reality of decision-making. It also calls for a shift in language, the construction of a shared political lexicon based on a new understanding of Tunisian society and its challenges.

Decades of repression meant that the social and economic problems lurking beneath the grinning mask of Ben Ali’s regime could never be publicly acknowledged or examined. Those mechanisms that allow a society to understand itself, its priorities and needs – free and independent media, independent think-tanks, a vibrant civil society – were not permitted to flourish. As reality is finally exhumed from the rubble of the former regime, it may seem that democracy has uncovered more problems than solutions.

This new political lexicon must also overcome the challenge of ideological polarisation, another legacy of authoritarianism.

Social and economic justice

Just as the Mubarak regime sought to provoke Muslim-Christian tension and as Gaddafi manipulated tribal loyalties, Ben Ali sought to strengthen his regime by painting Islamism, in particular, as the antithesis of all that is modern, progressive and good. This broad coalition government has the opportunity to finally surmount this ideological rift, which has been wielded to destabilise and divide opposition and silence dissent. This may generate a national dialogue about the role of religion in public life, and rightly so.

For too long, this debate has been stifled and dominated by a minority that sought to impose its own exclusionary vision based on narrow, rigid conceptions of religion, Islamism and secularism. This new coalition proves that there is an incredibly broad spectrum of thought within each of these categories that can be drawn upon to construct a new democratic consensus suited to the specificities of the Tunisian political and cultural context. To silence this conversation is to short-circuit the democratisation process.

However, the key demands of the revolution focused on social and economic justice, not identity and morality. The new government must not allow itself to be sidetracked into circular debates on culture but focus on pressing economic issues, as well as entrenching democratic processes that facilitate political participation, ensure government transparency and accountability and institutionalise rule-based mechanisms of decision-making based on consultation.

What it must deliver is not necessarily the right people but the right processes that will eventually lead to the right policies. That is the only guarantee for achieving the simple demand at the heart of the revolution – a government that shares its people’s values, cares for their concerns and responds to their needs.

Intissar Kherigi specialises in human rights, and has worked in the House of Lords, the UN, and the European parliament.

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