Tunisia–Bellweather of Democracy and Equality in the Muslim World

By Jay Holmes

On January 26, 2014 a Constituent Assembly in Tunisia approved a new national constitution. Any nation that undergoes a revolution and gets a representative assembly to agree on a new constitution can expect congratulations from Western governments. In the case of Tunisia, the usual diplomatic congratulations were accompanied by effusive praise. French President François Hollande went as far as announcing that Tunisia’s new constitution could serve as a model for other recent revolutions. So precisely why are Western governments responding to Tunisia’s new constitution with glee, and what are the probable impacts?

Tunisian Constituent Assembly signs new constitution image by Ennahda, wikimedia commons

Tunisian Constituent Assembly signs new constitution
image by Ennahda, wikimedia commons

A glance at Tunisia’s recent past might help lend some perspective. In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali managed a bloodless coup and took control of Tunisia. Two years later, Tunisia held presidential elections. Ben Ali used government assets to drown out opposition prior to the elections, and many foreign observers believed the elections were at least partially rigged. To no one’s surprise, Ben Ali won.

He managed to win re-election two more times in single-party affairs. According to the 1959 Constitution of Tunisia, Ben Ali should not have been able to run for a fourth term. However, in 2002 after his third election, Ben Ali amended the Tunisian Constitution to allow himself to run a fourth time in 2004. Miraculously, and with government squelching of opposition parties and tight control of vote counters, he received 94% of the vote.

In 2006, we saw a hint of change. The main opposition party—the Progressive Democratic Party—elected May Eljeribi as their party leader. Even in Western nations, it is still newsworthy when a female holds a high political position. As recently as 1979, Lady Margaret Thatcher’s selection as Prime Minister was considered a revolutionary event by the Western political establishment. In 2006, for a largely Islamic nation like Tunisia to have a woman running the principal opposition party was highly significant news. Ben Ali’s spokesmen had constantly portrayed his opposition as Maoist radicals and Islamic terrorists. Eljeribi’s election belied this and clearly indicated there was a strong current of political democratic secularism in Tunisian society.

By 2007, Al Qaeda and many loosely associated affiliate terrorist groups were trying to co-opt the growing discontent in Tunisia. Ben-Ali had been unpopular through most of his tenure due to his incompetence as a leader and his ruthlessness toward any opposition. From Al-Qaeda’s point of view, the time was ripe for replacing the ruthless independent dictator with a radical Islamic dictator. Ben Ali’s police state was able to ward off an Al-Qaeda model revolution, but his other opposition continued to grow more vocal.

Tunisian protests for sexual equality March 4, 2009 image by Magharebia, wikimedia commons

Tunisian protests for sexual equality
March 4, 2009
image by Magharebia, wikimedia commons

What journalists refer to as the “Arab Spring” started in Tunisia in 2010. Public protests grew and gained attention from Western media outlets.

Then, in January 2011, aided by cell phones and the Internet, the protestors gained so much popularity and momentum that the despised Ben-Ali family was forced to escape into exile. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced an interim national unity government.

However, the protestors were not completely satisfied. In February of 2011, Ghannouchi resigned.  The following month, the interim government announced that elections would be held in July for a democratic constitutional convention.

That’s when the work really began for the Tunisian people. Throwing the Ben Ali gang out of Tunisia was difficult enough. Forming a constitution and government that would satisfy the will of the Tunisian people rather than the will of a well-armed Islamic radical minority was a daunting task.

In the midst of this turmoil, things became even more difficult when the bloody Libyan revolution next door spilled over into eastern Tunisia. Islamic extremists were doing all they could to bully their way to power in Tunisia.

The Ennahda Islamist Political party, with economic assistance from foreign sources and the support of al-Qaeda and various al-Qaeda clones, cast a wide net over Islamic supporters and became the largest single political party in Tunisia, winning the parliamentary elections in October of 2011. However, because their wide net caught up so many moderates, the radical Islamists within Ennahda could not gain a clear consensus among their own ranks to move their own members toward implementation of Sharia law. Naturally, the radicals resorted to violence. Assassination and intimidation campaigns grew in the fertile chaos of Tunisia.

When the Ennahda-led government tried to introduce a reduction in civil rights for women in 2012, protests swelled again across Tunisia. Ennahda backed away from the proposed “reforms.”

By late 2013, it appeared that Tunisians would have difficulty asserting their own political will to produce a constitution.  Western observers were not optimistic about the future of freedom and democracy there. Fortunately, the Tunisians were more optimistic and did not yield to radical Islamic terrorism and political coercion.

Tunisian Constituent Assembly image by Ennahda, wikimedia commons

Tunisian Constituent Assembly
image by Ennahda, wikimedia commons

On January 26, 2014, after two years of long and heated debates, two assassinations of major opposition members, and intense campaigns of coercion, a 146-article draft constitution won approval with a 200-12 vote by the Constituent Assembly. Interim President Moncef Marzouki announced “With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship”, and signed it into law the following day.

The new constitution in Tunisia matters for several reasons. It was a victory of democracy over despotism. If we look at the provisions in the constitution, we see the hand print of the Islamist minority, but it is not the constitution that they wanted. While the document mentions an “Arabic” and “Islamic” identity of the Tunisian people, it does not incorporate Sharia law as its standard. Islamic radicals, while not removed from the political landscape in Tunisia, did not force their will over the non-radical majority of the Tunisian people.

The new constitution contains strong safeguards for democratic representation, and that, in itself, is a major victory for democracy. It also clearly states that women have equal rights.

Many observers are claiming that this is the “first time” that an Islamic nation has granted equal rights to women. Not so. Tunisia’s first constitution in 1959 also included women’s equality. So in reality, the constitutional provision represents a return to longstanding cultural traditions in that country. It is a valuable clue that Tunisians had an identity long before the Ottoman Empire colonized them. They are an “Islamic” population, and, for lack of a more accurate ethnic term, they are an “Arab” country, but they have a society that is based on a culture that is all their own.

For now, it appears that Tunisia will hold national elections within a year. The jihadi types will not give up easily. They will continue their campaign of terror against freedom in Tunisia, but they will do so with decreasing prospects and no popular support. Reason has outweighed radicalism among Tunisians.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation
by Abraham Lincoln
Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Tunisia’s prosperity, security, and social equality will not happen overnight, but Tunisia now has a constitution that will allow positive growth to occur. For comparison sake, we might consider U.S. Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  It wasn’t until two years later that the U.S. Constitution was amended to abolish slavery. And while slaves in the U.S. were freed in fact in 1865, it was not until 1963 that black Americans were allowed to attend University of Alabama, and that required the assistance of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. In the age of cell phones and internet communications, perhaps positive changes can occur more rapidly in Tunisia, and will hopefully not require any effort on the part of the U.S. Army.

From a Western point of view, the Tunisian constitution matters because it is a clear indication that democracy can happen in an Arab Islamic nation, even when terrorists are doing their best to prevent it. It is proof to the Tunisians and to anyone else in the world that their voices can matter, and that none of us should give up when the loud screams of radicals seem to drown out more reasonable voices.

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Bayard & Holmes

Tunisia–Bellweather of Democracy in the Islamic World

What Is the World Situation, and How Do We Ensure Democracy?

By Jay Holmes

Hi, Samuel. Thank you for your thoughtful response. You covered many topics. Let me start with your two questions:

  1. What kind of situation is the world in for in the immediate future?
  2. What changes can be made to our foreign policy to assure peaceful and democratic rule?

The future is not clear, but I will give you my personal guess. I think the White House will take a reactive approach to the current crisis and will simply try to negotiate with whatever power takes over in any of the countries in question. In the meantime the president will spend more time on the phone then he would care to.

The junta in Tehran is terrified that the USA will act forcefully in the Mediterranean and in Arabia. While I enjoy their grief, I think they are wrong. Remember, Obama ran on an “anti-interventionist” platform. Like any president seeking re-election, he must not lose his voter base. If he intervenes forcefully, his liberal democrat base abandons him, and nothing he does will gain him many votes from the pro-military option crowd.

If an Islam-fascist junta does not come to power in Egypt, then one is not likely in Libya. Libya has the oil and the cash, but Egypt has the military might to topple any Libyan junta if they should decide to. The Egyptians will be less conservative in their response to what happens to Libya.

In Iran, I think the majority of Iranians will remain outside looking in at power for the immediate future. The Iranian junta has a more fanatically loyal military than either Libya or Egypt. The junta has the guns and is always ready, and actually ecstatic, to use them. Killing dissidents represents nothing more than the ongoing daily entertainment for the barbaric and ruthless Iranian junta.

I say “junta” because President “Imadinnerjacket” is no more in charge of Iran than I am. He is the junta’s best attempt at a charismatic mouth-piece that looks good in a suit. They missed on both counts. He looks like he visits the same tailor that Uncle Momo does. I think his speech writer must be Charles Manson. I hope that I am wrong about Iran. The Iranian people deserve a better government and a better life.

As to your second question, the short answer is that there is no magic bullet for ensuring democracy in other nations. We are still struggling to ensure it in our own nation.

The question has been prominent in the minds of every US administration since Woodrow Wilson. I am sure that the French Socialists would remind us that France invented the practice of exporting democracy (no doubt in a conference room at Diem Bien Phu) along with inventing oxygen, sunlight, and fashion. The French don’t actually do any of it. They simply like to tell the rest of us how we should be doing it. The British would point to the Magna Carta, but the British are a bit more realistic about the realities of the democracy export industry. All of the Western world’s great political minds have thus far not come up with a surefire plan for guarantees of freedom and democracy. Nonetheless, I am glad that most of us support the notion that we should.

On the economic side of things, expect higher gasoline prices. BP never gives up easily, but they might pull out of Libya in the next few days. If oil production decreases by as much as a drop, the oil companies will, with a well practiced straight face, announce that they have to increase prices. They will cry all the way to the bank, and like the gasoline addicts that we are, we will grumble as we fork over the cash.

I am curious about your “cohort.” If he/she knows about nonpublic information concerning both the State Department and the CIA your cohort would have to be well placed. Are they a member of the National Security Council or a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee or similarly placed? If so, they should not be sharing classified information. I think that you and I share a respect for, and a hope for, democracy. Based on that common value, I encourage you to report anyone releasing classified information to the FBI. Regardless how any of us may have voted, most of us do not want to make the administration’s job harder by violating secrecy in the middle of a crisis.

If they are not so well placed, you might ask them what they mean by “completely blown it again.” Both of those government entities make mistakes frequently, but both of them have publicly been warning us about unrest in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen for several years. In my opinion the State Department has acted unwisely by waiting so long to issue travel warnings for Libya. The catch is that we do not get to know what the State Department advised the White House, or when they advised the White House (at least not for a while). The warnings are routinely approved by the president before they are issued. I am curious about who made the decision to issue that warning so late in the day. Although I am always up for a bit of good old fashioned State Department bashing, I have to admit that this might not have been their fault.

You raise some concerns that are on the minds of many Westerners tonight. I share your enthusiasm for spreading democracy, and, more specifically, freedom and justice. From my personal experiences, I will say that it is easier said than done, and successes are never obvious, but failure always is. Much blood suffering and treasure was expended in Central America trying to convince despots to become less despotic while trying to keep worse despots from taking over. We succeeded more than we failed, but at a high price. The highest price was paid by civilians.

Not everyone in the USA feels that we should be using our resources to influence events in other nations. The USA has always had a strong instinct for isolationism. We do not ignore that instinct easily.

To what extent the USA attempts to influence political events will remain a contentious debate in congress forever, as it should. Personally, I am not an isolationist because I want to survive, and I want my grandchildren (and yours) to have a free and decent country to live in. I want that for every child in the world. I believe that most Westerners would want that as I well. Unfortunately, most of the world’s new children will not be born into freedom or justice tomorrow morning. I hope that, when the dust settles a bit over the next few months, despotism and cruelty toward innocents will have been reduced.

Let me share a fond memory with you in the hopes of providing a laugh. Upon returning to the USA from a trip to Bosnia, someone in the White House said to me, “If we can bring a little law and order there, it will really be a great achievement.”

I responded enthusiastically with, “Yea, when we’re done there, can we send a few troops to Los Angeles or Detroit to establish a little law and order there? A little law and order here in the district would be nice too.” I laughed, then he relaxed and laughed. Then I got a few hours of sleep and went back to work.