Judging by the long queues at the polling stations, the elections for Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly on October 23 were an enormous success. People of all ages and walks of life, most voting for the first time in free, transparent and competitive elections, came en masse, steeped in emotion and with a new sense of dignity. Many patiently endured hours of waiting to experience democracy.
Two days after this historic moment, Tunisian streets are animated by debates over how to interpret the results.
The Constituent Assembly is tasked with writing a new constitution, drafting laws necessary for the transitional period and appointing a new interim government. A daunting challenge will be to reach agreement on how to incorporate into the state’s fundamental legal document the uprising’s ethos, with its aspirations for justice, dignity and freedom.
In elaborating the new constitution, the assembly should uphold international norms of human rights and create strong safeguards against backsliding into repressive rule. The first of these safeguards should be to remove the qualifying language and exceptions to exercising the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, press, assembly, association and movement that in the previous constitution eviscerated these rights of their content.
A second responsibility of the assembly is to revise the laws that the former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his government used to crush any genuine opposition, undermine judicial independence and limit political participation. While the interim government revised some of these laws during the past year —- such as the political parties law, the press code, and the law on associations —- more needs to be done to purge the country’s laws of all the repressive provisions that can be used to violate the rights of citizens.
The ability of the Constituent Assembly to incorporate human rights protections into the constitution and laws will depend on the dynamics among the various political forces that Tunisians elected to serve in that body.
While the good results of Al Nahdha came as no surprise, other outcomes were unexpected. The first of these was the failure of the Progressive Democratic Party and the coalition known as the Modernist Democratic Pole to gain traction — likely due to their inability to unite in a strong coalition, and a backlash against their secularist discourse. By contrast, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakattol, two modernist parties that did not rule out allying with Al Nahdha, did better than expected. Another surprise came from the almost unknown Popular Petition party, led by Hashmi Hamdi, which gained numerous seats in inland cities such as Sidi Bouzid and in the coastal cities of Sousse and Sfax.
The elections made clear the strength of the Islamist movement on the Tunisian political scene. We will soon see if it remains true to its campaign pledges to respect public freedoms and human rights.
Since Ben Ali was ousted, Al Nahdha has made significant efforts to dispel the suspicion that behind a veneer of moderation it has extremist and intolerant tendencies. Al Nahdha’s political platform, published September 13, abounds in references to democracy, human rights, respect for dignity and tolerance, and the party does not officially advocate applying or using Sharia as a source of law. In public speeches, its leaders have repeatedly stated that they will not seek to roll back Tunisia’s personal status code, perhaps the most progressive in the Muslim Arab world.
But even today, there are contradictions in the discourse of Al Nahdha leaders that make some skeptical about its professed attachment to human rights. While the party includes “freedom of expression” in its general program, it has qualified that right in some of its public positions. When protests erupted on October 9 against Nessma TV after it aired Persepolis, an animated feature film that includes a scene in which God is personified, Al Nahdha issued a communiqué that condemned attacks on the sanctity of Islamic principles and contended that a distinction should be made between freedom of expression and attacks on sacred beliefs.
Across the political spectrum, Tunisians hailed their election as fair. Nonetheless, more than a few are concerned by the configuration of the Constituent Assembly, with a plurality held by Al Nahdha and the strong showing of Popular Petition. Whether they serve in the ruling majority or not, the political parties should not forget, in the gambit of alliances and coalitions, that the struggle for dignity that set off the revolution nine months earlier was no fluke. The Constituent Assembly will exist only for a short interim phase and is expected to adopt a new Constitution one year after convening.
Tunisia is about to have real politics for the first time. Its parties should not squander this opportunity to profoundly remodel the legal and political system to embody the aspirations of Tunisians.
AMNA GUELLALI is the Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch