Washington Celebrates the Landmark New Tunisian Constitution
Tunisian parliamentarians, senior U.S. officials, diplomats, Middle East experts, media representatives, and a wide array of friends of Tunisia gathered on February 25th, 2014, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC to celebrate the country’s historic constitution. The banquet, hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations, commemorated the adoption on January 26, 2014 of one of the Arab world’s most progressive constitutions, with unprecedented guarantees of freedom of religion and women’s rights.
Over 150 guests attended the event., and among the mainspeakers were Gerald Feierstein, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State; John Esposito, University Professor at Georgetown University; Bill Lawrence, President of American Tunisian Association; John Duke Anthony, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations; Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy; Lorne Craner President of the International Republican Institute; and William Taylor, Vice President at the US Institute of Peace.
The mood of the evening was celebratory and congratulatory. Guests watched a euphoric video of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) singing the national anthem minutes after the passage of the constitution. Eight speakers then took to the stage, crediting a wide range of Tunisian political and civil society actors for working together to achieve this milestone. Vice President of the U.S. Institute for Peace William Taylor described the mood in Tunis during a recent trip as
“giddy. . . . You could see it in the [NCA], you could see it in the streets. They could tell I was a foreigner, and a waiter came up to me and said, ‘Do you know what we did?!?’ They were extremely proud.”
Several speakers referred to Tunisia as a potential model for other democracies in transition. Master of ceremonies, and President of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), Dr. Radwan Masmoudi remarked that, “Tunisia is showing the way forward on how to build democratic institutions and democratic traditions.” International Republican Institute President Lorne Craner commented,
With the uncertainty in Libya, the coup in Egypt, and strife in Syria, Tunisia stands as the Arab country where Islam and democracy are being shown to be compatible and where the people are beginning to see that democracy can improve their lives.
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), added:
I can tell you as someone who is part of the effort to strengthen democracy in the world, this has not been a good time. There have been a lot of setbacks. But the fact that you have succeeded … is really an inspiration to us here and for the people on the front lines for the struggle for democracy around the world, because you have shown that you can make it work and how you can make it work.
Several speakers referenced Tunisia’s 2013 national dialogue, which bridged a widening gap between Islamist and secular political elites following the political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. The dialogue led to a political breakthrough, which included the new constitution, a new independent caretaker government, and preparation for new elections. Ennahda Party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi, visiting Washington to meet with think tanks and political leaders, stated that:
The Tunisian experience and the Tunisian model . . . has proven to the whole world that democracy is a dream that can be achieved in the Arab world and the Muslim world, despite the significant problems in the Arab spring countries over the last few months.
He called the new constitution “a marriage between Islam and democracy, between Islam and human rights, and between Islam and universal values.”
Ghannouchi took pains to credit a wide range of Tunisian political and civil society actors for the success. “The key,” he explained, “was consensus. . . . We in Tunisia proved that the two trends [Islamism and secularism] can coexist and even establish a government.” Masmoudi elaborated, “We, in civil society, worked very hard for two years to build that consensus. Twenty-two political parties all voted in favor of this constitution and 200 of 216 members of the National Constituent Assembly.” However, such consensus-building had longer antecedents. The International Republican Institute’s president Lorne Craner, reflected on a visit in 2004-after which the Ben Ali regime refused to grant him a visa to return – when he first:
met liberals, people like Sihem Ben Sedrine and Nejib Chebbi . . . who are working from the liberal end . . . to show that Islam and democracy can be compatible. . . . And since the revolution, I have met with many members of Nahda who have taken it upon themselves to show that Islam and democracy are compatible and that they can deliver for the people.
Ghannouchi reinforced the same theme, stating that:
The Tunisian experience has proven to those fearful of the Arab Spring turning into a fundamentalist winter that encouraging military coups is not a solution and that it only leads to chaos. . . The Tunisian experience has proven to those doubting the intentions of Islamists that Islam and Democracy are compatible…
victims of decades of repression, marginalization, and exclusion are not carrying hatred or the desire for revenge, but rather an enlightened modernist civil project as embodied in the new Tunisian constitution.
Throughout the evening, speakers and guests lauded the accomplishments of Tunisia’s nascent democracy, but did not hesitate to point out remaining political, security, and economic challenges that threaten a successful democratic transition. Rached Ghannouchi spoke with candor of the 2013 political crisis that led to increasing mistrust among Tunisian political elites. Going forward, he noted, Tunisia would continue to need consensual politics and secular-Islamist coalition governments. Ghannouchi explained:
In a normal democracy, it is enough to rule if you have 51%, but during such a period of transition, it is not enough to rule even with 60%, but your system will represent only one trend and the others will try very hard to collapse the system. So, in Tunisia, we discovered the art of coexistence, of consensus, and of national dialogue.
On the security front, the guest of honor warned of Salafist “extremism” that was trying to “use chaos to abort the revolution,” but also warned that security forces, used by the Ben Ali regime to abuse the population, had not fully transitioned into their new role. He remarked to Barbara Slavin, who covered the event for Al Monitor, “It takes a long time to re-educate police to render them working for the national interest, not the security of the rulers.”
Economics, however, as noted by current President Marzouki and Prime Minister Jom
aa, remains the most daunting challenge for Tunisia. While growth has recovered from negative 2% following the revolution to a positive growth of 3% in 2012 and 2013, and unemployment has fallen from 19% to 15%–largely through fiscally costly government stimulus–Tunisia’s government faces a looming fiscal crisis. Coupled with high rural and youth unemployment, particularly among university graduates, dissatisfied youth that triggered and helped foment the 2011 revolution will be in a position to rebel again. To this end, all of the speakers encouraged Americans to invest in Tunisia’s success, which is so vital to global interests. Ghannouchi explained:
The world is a small village. You cannot in the West enjoy democracy and leave other people to the [destabilizing] fires of dictatorship. All of mankind [has to work together to] to liberate our world from dictators. Investing in democracy is more beneficial than investing in dictatorship.
William Lawrence, President of the American Tunisian Association and visiting professor at George Washington University, added that despite all of the accolades bestowed on Rached Ghannouchi by the international community, they seemed to have had little impact on his positions and passion for democracy for over three decades of activism, imprisonment, and exile. For those that know him, said Lawrence:
The first thing that stands out is his humility. . . . As everyone thanks him for his role in the Tunisian democratic transition, he is the first one to point out the important role that all of the others played, both from Tunisian civil society and from across the political spectrum.
On his longstanding commitment to democratic principles, Lawrence continued:
It is astounding that if you look at his texts from the early 80s, for example, he was saying precisely the same things he is saying now about the importance of democracy, about the link between true Islam and true democracy. For example, in one of his books from the 1980s he wrote: ‘The flaws inherent in the liberal democratic system should never be used as a pretext for rejecting it, for there is no alternative out there to democracy except dictatorship. An incomplete freedom is always better than no freedom at all, and to be governed by a despotic order that is the whims and desires of a tyrant.’
At the U.S. Institute for Peace, and again at this commemorative event, Ghannouchi acknowledged the many obstacles that Tunisia has to face, observing, “One flower does not make a spring.” Commenting on that metaphor, Lawrence concurred, “I think that is a very profound observation, that we are only at the beginning of a transition. Tunisians have only begun to accomplish everything that Tunisians can accomplish, and Tunisia has only embarked down the road of what Tunisia can become.” Barbara Slavin noted in Al Monitor, “When compared to the violence in Egypt and especially in Syria, Tunisia does seem like a flower in the desert.”
But Ghannouchi, resolutely optimistic about the ultimate success of the Arab spring, concluded, “It is in the interest of all mankind, in the east and the west, that democracy prevails in Tunisia and all the world.”