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Tunisia’s Second Republic

Three years after its revolution sparked the Arab Spring, and following political and security upheavals that nearly nullified its achievements, Tunisia succeeded in peacefully declaring the birth of its second republic. On January 26, the constituent assembly ratified the new constitution, with 200 votes in favor, 12 against, and 4 abstentions. After much exchange and debate between Ennahda and opposition representatives over the status of Sharia in the constitution, the secular nature of the state, and the system of government, the new constitution was ratified as a whole.

Simultaneously, Mehdi Jomaa succeeded in forming a government of independents to oversee the forthcoming general elections. The Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) played a key role in steering the national dialogue through incredibly difficult circumstances.

Saving the Constitutional Track

On February 6, 2013, members of Ansar Al-Sharia [1] assassinated leftist lawyer Chokri Belaid, and on July 25, a prominent leftist opposition MP Mohamed Brahimi was killed. Former prime minister, Ennahda’s Hamadi Jebali, along with the troika-led administration, comprised of religious and secular figures, was accused of not only being politically responsible, but also of having been involved in the assassinations. Even though Ennahda condemned these crimes, and re-stated its position against the use of violence, secular extremists, in alliance with remnants of the old regime, tried to exploit these events to overthrow the constituent assembly.

Two years prior, on October 23, 2011, elections to the constituent assembly were held, resulting in the formation of a tripartite alliance, known as the troika, to administer the transitional period and the process of writing the constitution over the following year. The assembly included Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that headed the government ; the Congress for the Republic, a centrist secular party founded by Moncef Marzouki who became president ; and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, a social-democrat party led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, who became speaker of the constituent assembly. As a result of the struggle between the various political forces, and the exploitation of the political assassinations by both sides, the troika could not realize its primary aims : the constitution and political transition within the agreed timeframe.

The whole process would have failed were it not for the pragmatism of the Ennahda leadership, the stamina of the troika, and the foresight of the UGTT and members of civil society, who put forward an initiative for national dialogue between all political forces. Each of these groups worked together to solve the crisis, revive the constituent assembly, [2] and enable the completion of the new constitution in a manner agreed upon in the road map. The institutions of the Tunisian state, including the security apparatus, have also played a role throughout the process.

Ennahda’s Approach

Although Ennahda was the largest bloc in the constituent assembly and held executive power by virtue of an electoral mandate, it chose to concede a number of political points. As a result, it lost some popularity among its support base ; for example, the Ennahda-linked Associations in Defence of the Revolution asked the leadership to cease making concessions, to rely on electoral legitimacy, and to hold the opposition figures disrupting the transition process accountable. The leadership, however, decided that its victory should be based on consensus rather than conquest, on the public’s interest rather than one party’s. To begin with, they set aside electoral legitimacy, and accepted the national dialogue initiative and the troika government’s commitment to follow the formation of the electoral commission. With respect to constitutional articles, Ennahda agreed to all sections guaranteeing rights and freedoms, including women’s freedoms, the freedom to demonstrate, the freedom of trade union activity, and the freedom of conscience. They also agreed to make takfir (calling someone an infidel) a criminal offence, and retreated from its original proposal for a parliamentary system, thereby agreeing to a modified presidential system of government, which it had spent two years battling against in the constituent assembly.

Ennahda’s opponents, however, considered these retreats a sign of weakness, and recognized the effect their persistence and ability to mobilize the citizens had on the outcome, as did the tumultuous events in Egypt. In addition, they claimed Ennahda conceded under pressure from foreign diplomats, particularly from Europe, who expressed their fears over the deteriorating security situation and the economic downturn in Tunisia. The movement itself, however, saw things differently according to its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, “Ennahda, despite all the concessions it has made, is on the right path. We are not defeated as long as Tunisia is the prime beneficiary of these concessions. If we lose power, we will come back, but if we lose the security and stability of Tunisia, it will be a loss for everyone.” On the basis of this logic, there is no doubt that Ennahda gained most. By appearing as the guardian for broad national interests, as opposed to narrow party interests, it has increased its popularity and assuaged the anger its support base had felt. From another perspective, Ennahda has broken with the Salafi groups, thereby presenting itself at home and abroad as a paradigm of the tolerant and moderate Islamist party.

Lessons from the Tunisian Experience

Tunisia’s revolutionary experience represents a number of lessons that can be drawn for an Arab world desperately in need :

1. Dialogue and consensus, rather than domination and exclusion, will help to ensure a successful transition from an authoritarian to a democratic state, offering the ability to reach political solutions satisfactory to all without recourse.

2. Civil society is essential to a successful transition. The UGTT, in Tunisia, played a key role in bridging the political factions, championing the language of dialogue and resorting to centrist political solutions.

3. Political parties should remain amenable to political solutions in a framework of consensus among the largest possible number of political and social parties. In Tunisia, Ennahda’s consensual proposal, resulting from an objective and conscious reading of the social and intellectual diversity of Tunisian society, played a significant part in making this success possible.

4. The army must remain neutral. The Tunisian Army refused to side with any party to the crisis, which has played a major role in saving the Tunisian constitutional experience. During the recent political crisis, some in Tunisia unsuccessfully appealed to the army hoping that they could be swayed by Egypt’s experience of a coup against the political process. In the same context, Egypt’s current situation, caused by the military coup’s breakdown of the democratic political process in Egypt, had a significant role in the failure of the counter-revolution in Tunisia.

5. Regional and international parties should maintain their distance. They remained largely outside of Tunisia’s internal political equation, which greatly influenced the success of national dialogue and the beginning of the second republic. In addition, it seems that pride in the fact that Tunisia was the first Arab country to mount a democratic revolution has been transformed into an element of Tunisian nationalism, forming a safeguard against extreme Islamists and secularists alike. The transformation of this democratic constitution into as much a component of national identity as independence itself is a safeguard that remains to be internalized.

Tunisia’s revolution was markedly different from other Arab revolutions in that it produced a constructive and truly democratic path based on dialogue despite the deep divide between the various political, intellectual, and ideological currents ; nevertheless, the Tunisian government has a great deal of work awaiting it to maintain the democratic track. Even though there are a number of lessons to be learned from its experience, it is unlikely that what has happened in Tunisia would be repeated step-by-step in other Arab Spring countries given the different political, social, and historical conditions, as well as the geopolitical settings of each country.


[1A Salafi-Jihadi group equally hostile to Ennahda and secular movements.

[2President Mustapha Ben Jaafar suspended the assembly’s work, in addition to some members having frozen their membership following the assassination of MP Brahimi.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.