Earlier this week, the small nation of Tunisia did something very big: it held its first round of democratic elections under its new constitution. The nation where the Arab Spring began has taken yet another step on the road toward a stable democracy in a region where too many people still suffer under authoritarian or dictatorial regimes.
As a brief reminder, opposition to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which had been growing for some time, finally boiled over into mass popular discontent in 2010 after several self-immolations, particularly by one Mohamed Bouazizi. Demonstrations began in mid-December, and within one month Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia and the country began a transition process that is now reaching its culmination.
Tunisians elected delegates to attend a Constituent Assembly, which drafted a new Constitution — and unlike the secrecy that characterized America’s Constitutional Convention (they had to put a man on Ben Franklin whenever he went out in public, as the old statesman’s tongue had a tendency to be loosened by drink), Tunisian activists sat in the viewing gallery of the chamber and live-tweeted the proposals, arguments, and decisions made by the members in a unique display of transparency.
The result of that process was a unique document, combining so-called Western liberal traditions and Tunisian heritage. Freedoms of speech, press, and religion (among others) are protected; universal suffrage is granted; decentralization is emphasized; checks and balances are in place; and a restructuring of the three branches of government, particularly the judiciary, is complete. The document also makes it quite clear that the government desires women to be equally represented in every body of government.
There are some elements that the West might see as too old-fashioned — e.g., the state religion is Islam and the president can only be Muslim. According to one argument, Tunisia is 95 percent Muslim, so why should non-Muslims be able to reach the highest office in the land, since that office is supposed to be representative of Tunisia as a whole? An obvious counter-argument would say that a president elected democratically and independently of his or her religious affiliation would be the best ambassador Tunisia could give to the world — but we’ll leave this issue aside for now. The point is that this constitution is a good step forward from the last one and a breath of fresh air in the region — not to mention that it was approved by over 95 percent of Tunisians in a national referendum.
After the constitution was ratified, elections were set for the new Chamber of People’s Deputies, Tunisia’s parliament. Those elections, held earlier this week, gave the interim rulers of the Islamic-leaning Ennahda Party a bit of a beating. Repressed by the regime for decades, they were elected to lead the Constituent Assembly in the post-Ben Ali era — and while many give them credit for leading a stable transition (even giving up power at one point due to political turmoil following two political assassinations), others were disappointed by the lack of progress on security issues and other more immediate reforms. Out of 127 seats, they won 69. Their main opponents, the secular Nidaa Tounes Party (meaning Tunis Calls) got 85 seats, and they will form a government that will include former regime members such as their leader, former Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.
Tunisia will hold elections for their president later in November, and then the government will begin the process of establishing the new democratic regime prescribed by their constitution. So far, prospects look good: the Electoral Commission this week called out the few cases of voter fraud, but people overwhelmingly respected the results. There was a bit of voter apathy in certain parts of the country, but that could vanish in the coming years if the parties succeed in keeping Tunisia a functioning democracy. For now, though, Tunisia looks like it is on the right path towards democracy; the country that started the Arab Spring and ignited revolutions across the region appears to be on the verge of “finishing” the job.
I have finished in quotes for a reason. True democracies are never finished; that’s what makes them so annoying for their critics and so amazing for their proponents. True democracies are permanent works in progress.