A Nation of Policy Geeks?

Elected bodies were stagnant places under deposed dictator Ben Ali, but post-revolution elections have breathed life into Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly. The assembly’s televised debates have awoken the political wonk in many Tunisians.

Recently, while I was out getting some exercise with a friend of mine, I was startled when he suddenly decided to abandon me for the sole purpose of going home to watch the Constitutuent Assembly debates on television.

This incident illuminated two things for me. First, our national television has indeed been liberated from its shackles: more and more viewers are watching its programs, a great improvement from its previous state. Second, the debates among the newly elected members of the Constitutuent Assembly are actually appealing to a larger audience. They are high quality debates happening in a democratic atmosphere, which we have never witnessed before in Tunisia.

In the past, and for more than fifty years, decisions were agreed upon in advance in private and our parliamentary procedure was merely a rubber stamp.

Today, everything has changed, starting with the varied political tendencies of the newly elected deputies. They represent all ages, a broad spectrum of the political landscape, and a diversity of professionals and non-professionals, including unemployed deputies, chauffeurs, students and housewives. Among this diverse panel, women occupy a fifth of the seats–many of them veiled, an indicator of Ennahda’s strong presence.

The televised debates don’t lack for spice, especially when “papi Hmida,” the seventy-four year old dean of deputies, relays fascinating anecdotes of his days as a infamous and early opponent of president Lahbib Bourguiba and later of his successor, “the fugitive.” [Ben Ali].

On this particular Saturday, most viewers were interested in the discussions about judicial reform, and the financial and administrative independence that the Central Bank is demanding. Despite the sometimes very heated exchanges, deputies agreed that a Central Bank that shows blind obedience to the executive power will end up driving the whole country into dire financial difficulties. A similar consensus was reached about the judicial system, which needs to be monitored by high “committees,” whose members are elected, and whose role will be to eliminate the corrupt elements inside the system.

The forthrightness of the people’s representatives, and the pertinence of their debate and discussion, might well make a viewer wonder if he is really in Tunisia. Bravo ladies and gentlemen! This is truly the rediscovery of freedom of expression. It is also a tangible sign that, despite what we sometimes hear, Tunisia is in good hands.

And let’s not forget that experience is acquired through exercise and practice. No political force-not even the “troika” majority of Ennahda, the Congres de la Republique and Ettakatol together-can arbitrarily overrule the constitution.

For more than three weeks now, an opposing force has occupied the Constituent Assembly building. The occupiers want to prevent abuses of power, keep the democratic pressure up against all the assembly’s factions, and bring them back to the “right path” and toward “consensus.” These occupiers are our sans culottes popular opposition.

There are more and more of them camping continuously at the Bardo; they operate as a counterweight to those who are going to be in charge of running the country, especially the ruling troika. They are a gift from above, a sign of good political health in Tunisia.

On the other hand, it is worrisome is to see things that were meant to be temporary becoming permanent; old habits of power die hard here. Let us not forget that after independence [in the 1950s], the elected assembly in charge of writing our first constitution took four long years to finish it. At that time, Lahbib Bourguiba was a simple elected deputy. He quickly became prime minister and finally president of the republic after uprooting Lamine Bey.

Many of those who are following the events in Tunisia-myself included-are right to think that the biggest danger for the country is the lack of term limits on temporary institutions and government representatives, whether they have already been elected or will be in the future. We need term limits and deadlines for the Constituent Assembly since many of us worry that those in charge now will not relinquish their positions in the future: the president, Moncef Marzouki, once accustomed to the sumptuous attire of head of state; or Hamadi Jebali, the future Ennahda Prime minister, whose powers will be vast, and who will soon be making himself comfortable in the luxuries of the Kasbah palace.

M'hamed Ben Youssef International Blvd