Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tunisia's New Constitution: How Compromise Won Out Over Conflict

Tunisia's new constitution marks a decisive turn to democratic and civil rule, not only in its content but in the context of how it came about. The constitution that was finally passed by Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly (NCA) at the end of January may be as important for the way in which it came about as for what it actually says. In both its process and outcome, there is a lot at stake for Tunisia, the continuing revolutions in the Arab world, and beyond.

In a previous article, I talked about the culture of constitutionalism in Tunisia and how the latest episode of it bears its imprint. The first phase of the transition after the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was rich in constitutionalism; the second one, in which the NCA was elected to write the constitution, got bogged down in electoral politics and sidelined its own mission. The parties entrusted with the task ended up unable, many of them perhaps unwilling, to bring it to a conclusion until they were compelled to turn their minds to it by civil society mediators in the aftermath of political assassinations and mass street protests.

The first of these assassinations − the killing of Chokri Belaid on 6 February 2013 − was a turning point in the transition and marked the silencing of an influential figure who often spoke about “Tunisian intelligence”, by which he meant a critical mass of educated elite formed through a specific educational system and confluence of historical and geographic factors unique to the country. That intelligence, he argued, is both what would save the nation and what the post-revolution state should invest in.

Part of this intelligence and elite is the labour movement and civil society, and indeed, throughout the past three years − through five governments and three presidents − one thing has remained constant: namely, a culture of dialogue, compromise and what may be called institutionalism. By the latter, I mean a belief in, and consolidation of, institutions even as the system as a whole was faltering. The frame of dialogue and the road map masterminded by Tunisia's main trade union (UGTT) along with three key civil society organisations − the association of business owners (UTICA), the Tunisian League of Human Rights, and the Lawyers Association − have been the determining factors in the text as well as the context of the constitution.

Source: Think Africa Press

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