Tunisia: A constitution by the majority for the minority?

A process that began with the Tunisian revolution in 2011 finally gets underway.

A significant number of opposition MPs missed the vote on January 3 [AFP]

As the third anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution approaches, Tunisians hope they will mark the day with another major event; ratifiying a new constitution.On  January 3, the Tunisian parliament began voting on the constitution article by article. A process expected to end before  January 14, 2011, the day former President Ben Ali was toppled

Drafting a new constitution for the country was Tunisia National Constitutional Assembly’s (NCA) main task when it was elected on October 23, 2011, in the first democratic and free elections Tunisia has ever known.

The three very popular and widely reported Kasbah sit-ins in early 2011, which were broken up by violent police intervention, had the main objective of electing a new parliament that would draft a new, democratic and modern constitution within a year.

But because of several events – unexpected developments including security problems and political crises – the process leading to this decisive moment has not been easy and the voting has been long-delayed.

A national dialogue forced and organised by the opposition, where Ennahda agreed on additional concessions and accepted to quit the government before the elections, lead to this crucial step of voting on the last draft of the Constitution at the Assembly.

Better late than never?

The public opinion and observers clearly disagree on whether the Tunisian constitution, in its ultimate shape, reflects the beliefs and the aspirations of the majority of Tunisians.

Despite a 40 percent parliamentary majority, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party had accepted to not include in the new Constitution articles enshrining Islamic Law – Sharia [Ar]. It had accepted an article describing men and women as “equal” rather than “complementary”, as well as articles emphasising the “neutrality” of mosques.

The article banning normalisation of ties with Israel was one of the first to be dropped from the constitution’s draft. In some ways, this document looks more directed to the international community than to Tunisia.

Tunisia marks third anniversary of uprising

It is evident that the constitution will not only give Tunisia stability and the possibility to move forward with new elections, but will also send a positive message to the world.

Foreign investment, both private and institutional, had been suspended due to the ambiguous political situation in the country. A constitution, besides new democratic elections and the security improvements, will give them confidence in the future of the country.

Tunisia’s allies and major partners (EU, UN, US) wished a constitution for all Tunisians regardless of their faith, ideology or political affiliation. International organisations called for a Constitution that guarantees basic freedoms and a secular state.

“The constitution is generally good on a democratic level,” said constitutional law professor Iyadh Ben Achour, known for his leftist, secular convictions. “It guarantees rights and freedoms according to international norms.”

Reward for an idle opposition

Nevertheless, this historic moment does not hide the overall popular dissatisfaction with Tunisia’s policy makers.

The constitution will in a way reward those who spent the shortest time and expended the least effort, if any at all, in debating and drafting it.

At first, both majority and minority MPs were vociferously criticised for deliberately wasting time and for their unwillingness to speed up the process of finishing the Constitution for which Tunisia and the world was waiting.

Then, the MPs’ salaries, bonuses and other prerogatives were criticised. They were compared to what other Tunisian workers and employees get and mentioned the thousands of unemployed university graduates. Some even called on the MPs to work for free.

This criticism reached a crescendo when opposition MPs continued to receive their salaries and other benefits while being absent for months. It was believed that one of the major reasons for the delays in finishing the constitutional process was the regular absence of opposition MPs.

Official statistics and independent observers have shown that, since the very beginning of the Assembly’s work in late 2011, the opposition MPs have had the highest rate of absenteeism [Ar] in the sessions, while the governing “troika” have attended most of them. Official statistics published by the NCA and some independent observers have revealed 1,786 days of absence from July to November 2013.

That explains why the process was sped up during the fourth quarter of 2013.

In fact, in the absence of the opposition MPs, the NCA achieved in less than a month what it was not able to do during two years.

In November-December 2013, the Assembly debated and voted on the Transitional Justice Law, the complementary Budget for the year 2013, both the (amended) Electoral Law and Electoral Commission, finished drafting and debating the Constitution in the separate commissions, and debated and voted on the state’s 2014 budget, before launching the final process of voting on the Constitution on January 3.

Despite the importance of this event, many opposition MPs – again – missed the vote on the process that will probably end close to January 14, the symbolic day marking the third anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution.

It was believed that voting on the Constitution and, thus finishing once for all the transition status, was the worst that could happen to Tunisia’s secular, democratic opposition.

The end of the transition process, which started with the fall of President Ben Ali and his regime, and the evolution of the country towards a stable, sustainable era, will in fact mean that they may lose their benefits and privileges as MPs. It also means moving towards new democratic elections, which they know, they are far from winning.

Where is the media?

The start of the vote was welcomed with great joy by most Tunisians. It even overshadowed the New Year festivities and the news of the capture of Ansar al-Sharia’s Abu Iyadh in Libya.

The coverage of the vote, article by article and day to day, is heating up on social media, the blogosphere and NGOs’ websites. Yet, most daily newspapers as well as the most prominent online news media have totally ignored it since the start.

Tunisian mainstream media routinely ignores events that highlight some of the revolution’s objectives, such as fighting corruption, foreign investment, job creation, battling terrorism, reinforcement of the rule of law, etc. But the weak coverage of the launch of the vote on the new Constitution was surprising.

In a media landscape dominated by Ben Ali-linked, extremely corrupt businesses as well as political and ideological lobbies, very few of the country’s main outlets, with the sole exception of the daily newspaper Dhamir, mentioned the event in their Saturday, January 4 editions. 

Mourad Teyeb is a Tunisian journalist and researcher.

Follow him on Twitter: @MouradTeyeb