The genesis of the Arab Spring in Tunisia instigated a surge of hope and protest across North Africa and the Middle East. Many countries followed its example of revulsion against aged and bloated regimes and it seemed a new wave of democracy was on the horizon. Many of such protests soon deteriorated when brutal repression dismantled fragmented opposition movements. This often led to a violent reaction and, at worst in Syria, a civil war. However, Tunisia is once again a source of hope as it’s new and somewhat progressive constitution has passed in National Constituent Assembly by 200 votes out of 216.
All of this has happened in a miraculous timescale. It has been three years since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was removed and this may seem like a while but considering its own setbacks and the timescale of other democracies, it is in fact intensely short. It has taken just two years to complete the 146 page draft constitution, all the more impressive when it is remembered that the Syrian Civil War is nearing its third year. Tunisia could well be proof enough to rid ourselves of the ridiculous notion that democracy doesn’t work in the Middle East. It is by no means something that can be easily imposed or if we are to use the vulgar term, ‘exported’ but Tunisia shows that if the desire for it is there, regardless of the habits engrained from decades of dictatorship, then democracy can be flourish. This will be the true test case.
The new constitution, which replaced the 1956 version, has a number of admirable measures and Ban Ki-Moon is right to label the affair a “milestone.” Despite Islam remaining the country’s official religion – a point the constitution won’t let you forget – freedom of worship has been enshrined and the “…state protects religion, guarantees freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices, protects sanctities, and ensures the neutrality of mosques and places of worship away from partisan instrumentalisation.” There was also a curious mix of protection of and from Islam in the same article with protection of apostates (those who renounce Islam) but also to “protect the sacred and prevent it from being attacked…” This wording seems a touch bizarre and vague but which constitution doesn’t have slightly vacuous wording that is open to interpretation?
Nonetheless, in this new Constitution, the state seems to take on new and progressive roles seen in very few western Constitutions. For instance it makes a direct reference to empowering the youth by providing “the necessary conditions for developing the capacities of youth and realising their potential…” but also there is now a “right to creativity.” It even ensures the “proper utilization of national resources,” and that “freedom of scientific research shall be guaranteed.” This is all on top of the standard items that would appear in any liberal democracy like equality of the sexes, a free and fairly elected government and mandatory education to the age of 16. Perhaps the US should pay particular attention to article 23 which grants “the right to a privacy and the sanctity of domiciles, and the confidentiality of correspondence and communications, and personal information,” as well as article 44 entrusts the state to “provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution.”
The only striking article is number seven. It seems somewhat vague its motives questionable when it states, “the family is the basic structure of society and the State shall protect it.” This could be well open for abuse and misinterpretation but only time will reveal if this, along with essentially the rest of the constitution, is the case in practice. Indeed, it could just be over-exuberance which led the state to constitutionally promoting sport and the state may lack the capacity to enforce such rights, but it is a positive start nonetheless. A rare flash of optimism in a struggling region.
Just as Tunisia instigated the whole Arab Uprising movement, is it possible the rest of the region will follow suit in success? Sadly it seems to be an isolated incident. Egypt’s constitution is full of flaws and quasi-concessions and potentially just renewal of a hidden army rule. Not to mention there, this is the second such constitution in just two years as well an elected ruler being overthrown in the mean time. The semantics of why the Tunisia succeeded while many of its neighbors struggled are far too numerous to discuss in depth but the main difference most likely relies in the fact that ousting and resignation represent a fundamentally different attitude towards power. The most peaceful transitions of leadership are the ones where the incumbent merely step down, like in South Korea and Tunisia, rather than desperately cling on, like in Syria. It is only when massive state repression of a civil uprising is overcome that the term ousted can be used. This usually corresponds to a much longer and more brutal struggle.
However, it is all too easy to gain a false sense of security if the incumbent regime merely resigns. Though this means there is a much easier struggle and less blood is shed, there must be considerable suspicion to the true extent the regime’s resignation. Egypt has had doses of both negative side effects of both transitions. For instance, hundreds of people lost their lives over the course of the struggle and yet it must also be questioned how benevolent the Egyptian military has been in its role as a people’s referee. Unfortunately there is very little that can be done to change this attitude other than the application of external force. Nonetheless, this should only mildly temper the optimism of this success in Tunisia as there is now proof that the transition to a democratic system is possible in the region and we can almost forget the ridiculous and condescending notion that Democracy only works in Western countries.
(You can read a full English copy of the consitution here )