POMED Notes: “The Struggle for Democracy in Tunisia”
On Wednesday, March 20, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Georgetown University, and the Conflict Management Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies hosted a two-panel discussion featuring a delegation of prominent Tunisian academics.
For complete event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Daniel Brumberg, Senior Adviser at USIP and Co-Director of Georgetown University’s Democracy and Civil Society Program, gave welcoming remarks and spoke of the opportunity to engage in a productive conversation with the guest delegation from Tunisia. Dr. William Zartman, Professor Emeritus of Johns Hopkins University SAIS, opened the discussion with a short assessment of current political dynamics in Tunisia. He pointed out that despite the disappointments of the Tunisian revolution thus far, “any coin has two sides,” and there still exists reasonable justification for optimism. Tunisia has held free and fair elections, the country is currently being ruled by a coalition government rather than single authoritarian leader, and a constitution that sets a precedent for multi-party rule is still in the works.
“Key Political and Economic Challenges: The Broad Horizon”
Lotfi Mechichi, Dean and member of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Tunis, opened the first panel discussion with a brief summary of the transformations that have taken place in Tunisia since the revolution began. While in the first year of the revolution Tunisia saw much success, several revolutionary objectives have not yet been met by the government, including the achievement of dignity and improvement of economic conditions. The principal battle now takes place over ideological and political conflicts, Mechichi said.
Salwa Trabelsi, Professor at the School for Higher Education in Economic and Commercial Sciences in Tunis spoke on the current economic situation and key challenges. She analyzed a number of socio-economic indicators in a comparative perspective pre- and post-revolution, namely dropout, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy rates and the variance across provinces. She noted that levels of public and private investment are higher in the southern and coastal areas and lowest in the inland regions, where there are the greatest socio-economic disparities. Trabelsi also pointed out that these disparities were the principal problems that instigated the revolution, and have worsened in the two years since. The main challenge will therefore be to strengthen economic and social cohesion across regions through education, health, and infrastructure investment that targets inland provinces in particular. This can be accomplished through government intervention that encourages private investment, rather than privatization and public disengagement.
Mohamed Chafik Sarsar, Professor at the Faculty of Law and Politics at the University of Manar, discussed how Tunisia’s revolution has “escaped typical patterns” of transition. Certain characteristics of the uprising provide hope for a new kind of democratic transition, including its comparative peaceful nature, absence of leadership directing the transition process, and consensus achieved in the high authority of the revolution. Nevertheless, difficulties have accumulated since the elections, including lack of achievement of political consensus, need to adopt a democratic constitution and regain confidence of the citizenry and international actors, deteriorating security situation, and economic instability. The three principal challenges for the government remain: 1) resolving the timing problem—delays in achieving electoral and transitional justice undermines the legitimacy of political actors, 2) reconstruction of the political landscape, and 3) the “double problem” of reforming the justice system and achieving transitional justice. To meet these challenges dialogue should take place so that consensus can be achieved.
Stephen McInerney, Executive Director at POMED, considered the question “where are we going?” regarding the future of the Tunisian transition. He emphasized the fact that unemployment and poverty problems have not improved, but worsened over the past two years, and economic challenges cannot be separated from the political challenges. The international community has however tried to separate the two concerns, and provide economic support while leaving political needs aside. The strategy of focusing on financial support should therefore “be coupled with pressure on the elected government to address political concerns.” McInerney also pointed out that the timeline issue addressed by previous panelists is very much intertwined with other issues of concern; the lack of achievement of the one-year constitutional mandate has complicated the political process, impacted the credibility of elections, and fostered the proliferation of political parties. Moreover, the political landscape has changed since the elections, and the constituent assembly and government no longer reflect the will of the people or represent the dominant political forces in the country, fostering decreasing legitimacy and credibility of political parties. The government therefore needs to solidify a timeline in a credible way, and address economic disparities between governorates so that the political process can move forward.
In the Q&A session, the panelists addressed a number of questions posed by the audience. Regarding why the process of agglomeration toward a smaller number of political parties has been so slow moving, Zartman pointed out that the pattern is hardly surprising; continuing divisions among coalitions prevents achievement of high levels of support. McInerney contended that this has been further hindered by the uncertainty over the outcome of the constitution and electoral law writing processes. Trabelsi again reiterated the problem of investor confidence, which must be resolved to deal with Tunisia’s economic difficulties. Sarsar cautioned against the potential risk of Tunisia moving towards a hybrid regime rather than full democratic consolidation.
“Gender, Religion, Media and the Struggle over the Constitution”
The second session began with Fethia Saidi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manar in Tunis, who discussed women’s rights in Tunisia, comparing their status in society and pre- and post-revolution. Prof. Saidi expounded on the many international conventions on the rights of women that Tunisia is party to, as well as the many national laws that protect women’s rights and gender equality in Tunisia. She went on to note that though Tunisian women’s rights are protected on paper, these laws’ application is far from complete, citing clear income inequality, limited access to the job market for women, and the low number of women serving in the National Constituent Assembly. She also noted the wider traditional societal constraints that seem to have become stronger since the more conservative Islamist and Salafist forces have taken a more open and active role in Tunisian social and political life since the revolution.
The panel continued with Professor Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, Professor of Law at the University of Kairouan in central Tunisia, who discussed security sector reform and the continuing process of drafting the post-revolutionary constitution. In unpacking the issue of security sector reform, Ben Mahfoudh explained that the institutions of Tunisia’s security sector are well formed, which has be helpful in maintaining security. However, in addition to providing reliable and quality security for citizens, the security forces must be more transparent, democratic, accountable, and maintain standards of human rights. He also noted that beyond reforming the Ministry of Interior’s police and national guard institutions, parallel reforms are needed to bring order, professionalism, independence to the Ministry of Justice and to institutionally bring the military under civilian control. Prof. Ben Mahfoudh continued by discussing security reform in the context of the constitution under discussion by the NCA. He characterized the first draft of the constitution negatively. However, he went on to describe the second draft of the constitution released in December 2012 and the current draft under discussion now in the NCA as having made significant improvements. The more current drafts include some mention of reforms to ensure human rights, transparency, and parliamentary oversight, but largely focus on increasing efficacy and capacity of security forces and not enough to ensure effective security sector reform.
Next, Professor Faycal Allani of the University of Tunis gave his analysis and breakdown of the different Islamist groups currently in Tunisia. Prof. Allani laid out the major divisions between what he described as the two major “currents” of Islamism in Tunisia today. The first “current” he described was the more conservative groups of Salafis, many of whom view democracy as a corrupting influence of the West, and incompatible with Islam. The second “current” he described as moderate Islamists, who see some problems reconciling certain liberal democratic values (human rights, women’s rights, judicial punishments, etc.) with their views, yet seem to accept the premise of democracy. Prof. Allani later indicated a possible third path exemplified by the ruling Ennahda Party’s platform of democratic values supported and inspired by Islam. Ultimately, according to Allani, the struggle for Islam’s role in the state comes down to each political group interpretation of Article 1 of the Bourguiba constitution which states, “Tunisia is a civil state whose religion is Islam and whose language is French.” While this debate in recent weeks and months has become more outwardly violent, Allani indicated that the debate has lived for decades and will likely continue.
Manal Omar of the United States Institute of Peace concluded the panel with positive remarks about the enlightening comments of the panel, and expressed her optimism at the seeming willingness to have the difficult conversations to deal with the diverse issues facing Tunisia. She also highlighted that, in her view, the way that women’s issues are dealt with in moving forward with Tunisia’s transition is a good indicator for how well the process will move forward as a whole, and has wider affects on other issues such as Islam and the state, and issues in security sector reform. She also tried to highlight the “social contract” that must exist between the grassroots and the larger state institutions on all of the issues, ranging from women’s rights and the constitution to security sector reform and the issue of Islam and the state.