At 7 o’clock in the morning, I was already up, so excited was I by the idea of voting for the first time in my life. The joy felt at finally being a citizen was one shared by all Tunisians a year ago, on October 23, 2011. After the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, our hopes for Tunisia, as citizens, were great. We wanted a new constitution in which the principles of the Rule of Law, human rights and above all, the demands of the Tunisian Revolution, which began on December 17, 2010, for “Work, Freedom and Dignity” were inscribed in the very foundations of our new Republic. Those elected committed themselves to a year-long mandate, with the exception of CPR (Congress for the Republic – the centre-left party of President Moncef Marzouki) who thought it would take at least three years for the new constitutional laws to be fully completed.
Within the Constituent Assembly, the deputies have been working feverishly. Indeed, despite the evidence of short clips taken from plenary sessions in the ANC (National Constituent Assembly) that can be viewed online, it is important to recognise the tremendous amount of work being done by these people, with whom I have worked closely. Always on the move or in meetings and discussions, these deputies have been working more than eight hours a day, even during the month of Ramadan when they would go home late, barely an hour before breaking the fast after which they would go back to work until 3 o’clock in the morning. They have been forced to deal with the huge amount of work that they are expected to do as well as the wide-scale criticism to which they are subjected on the part of both the public and the media.
Nevertheless, one should also be very clear: the majority of the deputies are not qualified to write a constitution. We’ve effectively been asking a small car to run at 250-kph for a whole year. So far, more than 191 articles have been written. However, these will all have to be reviewed by a constitutional court, a body which needs to be established at the earliest to ensure the constitutionality of these laws and see to it that they fall in line with the principles of law.
Fragile national security
It was in the absence of such a body that we were treated to the quite laughable example of article 28 (which later became article 21) by which Ennahdha sought to assert the “complementarity” of women in relation to men, something which is in no way constitutional and will sooner or later need to be scratched. The same goes for the plan for an “Islamic Supreme Council” which was proposed by the Islamist party and which constitutes a blatant example of religious discrimination.
Currently, aside from the creation of a constitutional court, the plans and proposals for the laws governing the three bodies to be created – those pertaining to the media, the justice system and the forthcoming elections – are debated in separate committees by the deputies.
The three leaders of the Republic, the government and the ANC recently proposed the dates of June 23, 2013, for the legislative and presidential elections and July 7, 2013, for the second round of the presidential elections.
It is therefore clear that the deadline of October 23, by which the work of the ANC was to be completed, is not going to be met. This failure then risks giving opposition leaders, who are after seats in power, a convenient pretext to dissolve the government.
Recently, the rise of the new party, Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) headed by ex-minister Beji Caid Essebsi, from the Destour Party (under Bourguiba) and later a member of the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) party under Ben Ali, has split the political scene in two. One half continues to support the Troika (the three parties currently governing Tunisia: Ennahdha, CPR and Ettaktol) and the other half supports Nidaa Tounes. However, a third grouping is beginning to emerge; a coalition of leftist parties known as the Popular Front. On October 7, a large meeting incorporating all 12 parties which make up this coalition was organised in Tunis.
Thousands of Tunisians attended the meeting at which chants were heard calling for democracy, equality, citizenship and all the other universally recognised republican values. One hitch in all this is that the Popular Front also contains some Stalinists and supporters of Bashar al-Assad (from the Tunisian Baath Party).
As such, as far as politics is concerned, this turbulent year risks ending in a set of disparate results at the elections in which many will be forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils. The fragile national security context, in which violent clashes between citizens have become the norm across Tunisian towns and villages, and religious extremists known as Salafists continue to sew disorder, has heightened the sense of insecurity for the average citizen. And yet, particularly among the younger generation, a revolutionary spirit, a spirit of defiance, still exists.
There now exists in Tunisia an active civil society with press conferences, assemblies, meetings, discussions and different forms of citizen action being organised every day. Looking in from the outside, one would think the country on the verge of descending into chaos, however, on the ground, one realises that even if the old structures of the dictatorship have not been completely wiped away, the people now have the required weaponry – the pen and freedom of speech – to bring them down.
Beyond this, the unconditional support lent by the European Union and the West in general to help the democratic transition in Tunisia to succeed can be seen in the various agreements which have been reached with the Tunisian government. Recently, the European Commission adopted a new programme worth 25 million euros which aims to bolster the Rule of Law and support the democratic transition by lending assistance to the process of penal and justice reform in line with European and international standards. Faced with the rise of religious extremist groups and in order to ensure its own security, the EU has an interest in supporting Tunisia which has come to be regarded as the cradle of revolution.
Yet the original causes for which this large-scale movement broke out in 2011 have not been remedied. Indeed, in Tunisia we have seen a huge expansion in informal work and the provision of work schemes for young people, who represent a large percentage of the population, is still not seen as a priority for the Jebali government.
By way of conclusion, we might say that the date of October 23, 2012, the anniversary of the first real example of democracy in action in Tunisia, will not be greeted with joy, particularly after the release of an audio recording of a private conversation between the head of the government Hamadi Jebali (Ennahdha) and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in which neither of the two seem to envisage any sort of real reform in Tunisia.
It is true that there is a lack of political will, but more importantly, the will for change among impoverished people who have nothing more to lose does point to the possibility of a second revolution.
We have learnt that rights and freedoms do not fall from the sky but that to exercise one’s rights as a citizen means to grab them. There are, in my humble opinion, three main priorities in the building of a new Tunisia.
Firstly, an independent justice system with executive powers, secondly, fundamental reform of the education sector and thirdly, proper regulation of the informal labour market.
As the 13th century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldoun said in his famous Muqadddimah (Prolegomenon): “Community is based on justice”. His words remain pertinent even seven centuries later. If the politicians continue on the road of limited reform and decisions motivated by their own personal interests rather than the common good, they will soon find themselves once again faced by cries of “Dégage“!
Note: Chris Barrie translated the article from French.
Lilia Weslaty is a young Tunisian journalist who works for the award-winning independent website Nawaat. Before the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she was an active cyber-activist and journalist, posting anonymous short films online. In 2010, she participated in the documentary Zero Silence by the Swedish director, Javeria Rizvi Kabbani, to denounce censorship in Tunisia.