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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Tunisia–Bellweather of Democracy in the Islamic World