A Constitution That Matters to People in Tunisia

ACORN ACORN International Organizers Forum

Tunis     The Organizer’s Forum delegation, coming from Canada, the United States, Italy, France, Kenya, and Cameroon, began the morning, appropriately, with a briefing on the developments in Tunisia since the Arab Spring.  A large Organizers’ Forum delegation had visited Egypt within the first year of the revolution, but we were disappointed to see the revolution slipping through the peoples’ fingers, so now we had open ears and skeptical minds, filled with hope.

The leaders of the Jasmine Foundation began our day with a briefing that was outstanding in providing context for these developments.  The co-founders, Dr. Tasnim Chirchi, and Intissar Kheriji, who are also our partners in building community organizations in Tunisia, gave us an encouraging through frank appraisal.

After so many years of watching the contentious interpretations of the Constitution in the United States, it was almost exhilarating to hear our colleagues report on the process of writing the constitution in Tunisia.   Reacting to the fall of the dictatorship there was huge emphasis on participatory democracy and weighing the voices of all sectors of the society, including the rural areas of the country that had triggered the revolution, but were often marginalized in practice.  The commitment to inclusion was carried out as well in insistence of equal representation of women for example in the Parliament.

Devolution was critical to the process since until 2011 so much of government under the dictatorship was strictly top-down from the central government.  The constitution gave new powers to local municipalities and opened the way to municipal elections for the first time.  Similarly, where there had been one party rule for so long, the new constitution also created an internal checks-and-balance system that prevented any one party from dominating the parliament, essentially forcing there to be coalition governments.  The first legislative elections were dominated by an Islamic party, but they were moderated in coalition.  The second was won by a more progressive party, but they also were forced into a coalition.

We could see some of the impacts of these changes on the streets of Tunis.  The first night we arrived the debates were being televised on a huge screen along the central boulevard at full volume.  Our friends reported that more than three million watched the debates.  There are twenty-six candidates for the office despite the fact that it is less powerful that the prime minister, and those had been winnowed from an initial list of ninety-eight.  There are many differences of opinion expressed, including some that openly campaign for a rollback of the Revolution so that things could be as they are.  Our speakers argued that was an example of the openness in society now, because even the reactionaries were forced to declare themselves in public.

Of course, they noted that implementation was not as robust as the process of writing the constitution post-revolution.  As always, there is much work to be done, but nongovernmental organizations have soared to 25,000 in the wake of the revolution from only a couple of hundred before 2011, so there are plenty of organizations playing the role of watchdog.

We’re crossing our fingers and rooting for all of the warriors for democracy!