Immediately after independence on 20 March 1956, Tunisians convened their first constituent assembly, with the goal of establishing the political system and type of society they had aspired to for decades under French colonial rule. The assembly sat for three years but it did not build a democratic state and a just society. Instead, it established a system that was republican on the surface but monarchist in reality, with Habib Bourguiba as its vulgar king.
Bourguiba inserted a clause in the constitution in 1974 decreeing his presidency for life under a one-party state, propped up by a powerful political police. He concentrated on developing the eastern regions, especially his own coastal region. The result was a social and political crisis that reached its climax in 1987 when Bourguiba made way for Ben Ali. Political repression and corruption grew, together with regional marginalisation and poverty.
When the revolution of December 2010 erupted in provincial towns such as Kasserine, Thala and Douz, it was because people there could no longer bear their poverty and humiliation in contrast to the wealth of the developed coastal cities – and the coastal cities themselves could no longer put up with the corruption and denial of freedoms.
Tunisia’s revolution was the spark of the Arab revolution. It triumphed quickly, and Tunisians did not pay as huge a price as the people of Libya and Syria. Can Tunisia now give the Arab world not only a model of a peaceful people’s revolution, without ideological strictures and idols, but also a model of a successful Arab democratic state? That depends on the second constituent assembly which Tunisians will vote for this Sunday. The elections mark the end of the seven-month transitional period – a difficult time marked by continued economic stagnation, instability and inflation, which has tested the patience of the youth who are still waiting for promised reforms.
The constituent assembly will lay the foundations of a republic, long overdue. Tunisians demand the establishment of a system that will protect future generations from the return of tyranny: a free press, an independent judiciary, and the restoration of balanced development between the regions. This entails fighting the ill that has eaten into the fabric of society – high unemployment, particularly among educated youth.
Several indicators can make one pessimistic. There are now more than 100 political parties, leaving the ordinary voter hopelessly confused – all the parties speak the same language, and make the same promises. And there is another dangerous trend: the flow of dubious money to some of the parties which now behave as political businesses. Many people believe that those who have invested in these parties are the remnants of the former regime. Meanwhile, some media outlets support parties without any impartiality or objectivity.
There are also signs that the political police – who fear accountability more than any other body and who have not yet been completely purged – are manipulating some parties and infiltrating others. They may adopt a scorched-earth policy if they sense victory for parties they don’t want to attain power, such as the Islamic An-Nahda party or my own Congress for the Republic. These two parties are the most committed to making a clean break from the past.
Tunisians also fear that the proportional representation system will lead to a hotchpotch assembly unable to agree on the constitution or to form a national government. Only a unified government will be able to purge the security and judiciary apparatus and entrench the necessary reforms, restoring investors’ confidence so the economy can recover.
On the other hand, there are positive indicators that give hope. The election is real, and not the type of show for which Tunis was renowned; and the campaign has passed peacefully so far.
Tunisians are engaged in a never-ending political debate; they follow the many meetings convened by the parties with great interest. These include the Facebook users – now estimated at a fifth of the 10 million population – who played a major role in triggering the revolution. Tunisians are now politicised to an unprecedented level. Those parties that think democracy is on sale may well be in for a surprise.
All of the Arab countries are monitoring the Tunisian experience with interest. Will our country continue to act as a beacon of hope for its neighbours by passing its first democratic test and establishing a new society? Or will it slide yet again into tyranny? If the latter, it would lead it to revolution once again – but this time it would not take half a century.
By Dr Moncef Marzouki, a Tunisian human rights activist, politician and physician and secretary general of the Congress for the Republic political party.