Tunisia: Arab Spring Birthplace Starts Democratic Transformation

26 Oct, 2011 | Press Releases

With the successful conclusion of free and fair elections this Sunday, Tunisia has taken the first firm steps in its transformation towards becoming a truly democratic State. All eyes were on Tunisia this weekend as a reported 90% of registered voters queued patiently to cast their vote, an impressive turnout in any country, including well-established democracies with a population used to having their voices heard. For most Tunisians, this is the first time they have voted in free elections; for some, it is the first time they have voted at all, having refused to participate in previous elections that were neither free nor fair. Nonetheless, for many, the mere fact they have been able to vote at all means that they have won, whoever is elected to the Constituent Assembly that will decide the country’s governance system and draft its Constitution.

Tunisia has come a long way over the last nine months and, after some initial adjustments and reshuffling, has acquitted itself well in laying the groundwork for a future based on democratic values, the rule of law and the promotion and protection of human rights. One of the first things Tunisia did immediately after the revolution was to ratify a host of international human rights treaties, not least the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. This is of particular significance in a region that has witnessed a slew of crimes this year alone, including war crimes and crimes against humanity: Tunisia’s ratification of the Rome ICC Statute indicates very clearly that the new Tunisia is refusing to be a haven for war criminals. With the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya and with renewed impetus in Syria and Yemen to rid themselves of autocratic regimes – matched by renewed crimes allegedly being committed by both the Syrian and Yemeni authorities – Tunisia’s stand against impunity is of critical importance both to safeguard the future and to give life to the principles that underpinned its revolution.

The coming twelve months will be a new test for Tunisia: the most critical task for the Constituent Assembly over the coming year will be drafting the new Constitution and establishing the system of government in a way that responds to the impetus of the revolution and meets the needs of the people of Tunisia. In so doing, they will need to turn the commitment made by the interim government into a lasting reality and they will need to do so through a process that promotes and protects human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles, including ensuring full participation by historically marginalised groups, including women, children and young people.

The irony, in some ways, is that under the Ben Ali regime, Tunisian women enjoyed relatively good protection of their rights, even as so many other rights were being violated left, right and centre. The women of Tunisia managed to keep their rights in the immediate post-revolution period, as evidenced by the recent elections, where there was an almost unprecedented requirement that men and women be equally represented in the electoral lists. Likewise, in August, the interim government voted to lift the reservations entered by Tunisia in the early 1980s against certain provisions of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), thus opening the door for women to enjoy all the rights stipulated in that convention in the near future. Nonetheless, prior to the elections, there were fears that if Islamist political parties gained a strong voice in the elections, women’s rights – and in general human rights – can be eroded, fears that have continued to simmer as the results of Sunday’s elections are confirming Ennahda has taken “first place”, according to Ennahda’s campaign manager. Ennahda now needs to take immediate and strong action to put into reality the reassurances it has been making throughout the campaign that it will guarantee basic liberties and freedoms for all, including women.

This is particularly important since the birds of ill omen who have decried the Arab Spring and supported dictators in the name of secularism are raising their heads again, pointing to the relative success of Ennahda as the end of a season of hope for the rights of women and civil liberties. They are not doing so through any real support for the nascent democracy in Tunisia, but rather as a means of seeking justification for their support for tyrannical regimes as a fight against the “spectre of Islamism”. Even if, as they claim, Ennahda has no intention of living up to its electoral promises, highlighting this fear overlooks the fact that the electoral system was specifically designed to encourage the formation of many parties, each representing different constituencies and each with its own political platforms, to ensure the views of all Tunisians are represented in the new Constituent Assembly. Focusing for a moment on the issue of “Islamist vs. secular” (even if this is playing into the hands of those who seek to claim these are the only political lines in the region, which is far from true), if Ennahda can claim 30% or even 40% of the vote, this still means that secular parties of different colours have claimed the vast majority of seats in the new Constituent Assembly. Furthermore, it means that Ennahda will not rule alone; they will need to form a coalition with secular parties, the most likely front-runners at this stage being the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. Even if the Islamists do form the largest single block in the new Constituent Assembly, they alone will not shape the future of the new Tunisia, any more than any other party or individual. There will need to be consultations, discussions and even compromises over the coming twelve months, but it is highly unlikely there will be any appetite for giving up hard-won rights as part of that process. Nor is it likely that Tunisia’s political parties or civil society, or Tunisia’s women, will allow them to do so.

The good news is that since the revolution, Tunisia’s civil society – restricted almost out of existence under the Ben Ali Regime – has flourished. NGOs have played an important role in the lead-up to these elections, mobilising people and promoting their participation in public life, of which elections represent a key moment. Tunisia’s civil society has also conducted education and awareness-raising campaigns to inform people of their rights, which is a critical part of empowering people to understand and embrace democracy. The large turnout on Sunday is a testament to their commitment and to the success of their work over the previous nine months. This is particularly remarkable, since not only have they had to bring new concepts and new approaches to the Tunisian population, never an easy task anywhere at the best of times, but they have also – and at the same time – had to learn how to be civil society. They have taken to this new role with enthusiasm, buoyed by the same determination that facilitated the success of the revolution as a whole. We will look to them in particular over the coming year to maintain their same “watchdog” role over the drafting of the new Constitution, to make sure the process and the outcome promote and protects the rights of all Tunisian citizens, including women, children and young people.

Alongside civil society writ large, all of Tunisia’s political parties have an important part to play in the coming twelve months. Since the revolution, Tunisia has seen an outburst of new political parties, with over 80 political parties and hundreds of independent candidates participating in the elections. They will have to continue to support the revitalisation of democracy, playing their role as members of the majority or of the opposition, helping to lay the groundwork for Tunisia’s new governance system and preparing for the elections that will take place in late 2012 or early 2013. The initial signs are positive, with the elections last Sunday being hailed as free and fair and with the electoral campaigns being run in a positive way. This is important not just for the Middle East and North Africa, but for the entire African continent, which has several elections slated to take place over the coming fourteen months and where the potential for electoral violence remains high. Tunisia in this respect continues to set an example, discharging admirably their responsibility of realising the goals of the revolution in a free manner, without repressing people or their inalienable rights.

Most of all, we look to the new Tunisia to maintain its commitment and dedication to doing what is necessary to solidify its future, which will include looking to and addressing the wrongs of the past. In parallel with the work over the coming twelve months to secure future protection of human rights, there is a need to secure accountability for past violations of human rights, in particular through a comprehensive transitional justice process that engages the people of Tunisia and contributes to building a shared history from which all Tunisians can move forward. No Peace Without Justice has worked with local actors in Tunisia and the region on these issues for a long time and will continue to work on these issues to sustain the Tunisian transition to democracy and make sure that the Arab Spring leads to positive change in Tunisia and the region.

What then of outsiders like Europeans? How can we best support Tunisia to continue down this positive path and reach its goal of being a democratic State? Sadly, Europe has few lessons to give right now; in fact, if things continue as they are, Europe could perhaps learn a few lessons from Tunisia. The steady erosion of civil liberties throughout “civilised” Western Europe is reflected in increasingly authoritarian streaks in elected governments and parliaments:  in Hungary, the extreme nationalist right-wing party holds 47 seats (approximately 12%) in parliament, and that is in addition to the existing absolute majority of the right-wing ruling party; in Italy, the influence of the Vatican controls both the leftist opposition as well as claiming most majority deputies as their own. Even in Britain, Prime Minister Cameron struggles to keep his own conservative MPs from giving into their xenophobic, anti-European priorities. Perhaps the best we can do is keep an eye on our own democracies to prevent them from descending from open into closed societies and support those in Tunisia, particularly its growing civil society, who seek to keep their own house in order.

Despite the more or less explicit fear-mongering of closet islamophobes, no one can deny the historical significance of Sunday’s elections, not only for Tunisia but for the entire region. There is a special responsibility that goes along with being the country that sparked the Arab Spring, which seems to be felt by the average person on the street in Tunisia. Significance of free and democratic elections for Tunisia and the other countries of the Arab Spring: Tunisia as the birthplace of the Arab Spring has a responsibility to lead the way for other countries in the region – show by example how a transition to democracy should be conducted respecting the rule of law and human rights.

*  Niccolo’ Figa-Talamanca is the Secretary General of No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ)

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