Emel Akçali (IMéRA Fellows 2015-2016) est maître de conférences au Département de politique et des relations internationales de l’Université de Swansea au Royaume-Uni.
The Tunisian state and societal transformation that has been taking place since the Tunisian People’s Dignity Revolution of December 2010 certainly deserves praise. After the forced flee of the authoritarian president Ben Ali in January 2011, the majority of the socio-political actors in Tunisia have demonstrated a genuine commitment for building a long-lasting democratic system and keeping a relatively wide margin of freedom of expression. The political alliances were built at decisive moments thanks to the politics of compromise that helped Tunisia to stay on the path of procedural democracy. A new constitution that cherishes principles of devolved government, independent judiciary, and free media, as well as a balance of power between the office of the president and that of the president of the government has been in practice since January 2014. Moreover, a Truth and Dignity Commission was set up, despite a certain degree of political opposition, with the objective of dealing with thousands of claims for human rights violations that took place during Tunisia’s authoritarian era. As such, Tunisia has started to be increasingly represented as the most promising model for the Muslim world (Sezgin, 2014), leaving the once much-appreciated Turkey behind, especially following the latter’s escalating authoritarian turn.
This all said, however, one needs to bear in mind that creating models out of one particular country that is defined as a success story often by the advanced capitalist world and offering such model to supposedly similar countries is a tricky affair. This is because it is rather problematic to group countries in supposedly homogenous geographical categories (e.g. Eastern Europe, ex-communist countries, Arab world), highlighting cultural, linguistic and institutional similarities when actually each of them possesses distinct political cultures, historical paths and social structures. Furthermore, although often analysed within a single framework of the Arab Spring, the path that led to the Tunisian revolution is considerably different from the Egyptian one and, in turn, this latter is definitely not identical to the Syrian one, etc. This is not to deny the existing transnational links between the Arab societies and the common threads in the political historiography of the Middle Eastern and North African countries. One should not forget the recurring intervention of super and/or regional powers in the Middle East and North Africa, which has provoked a particular socio-political, military and economic structure in its own right, yielding to similar outcomes for different countries of the region. However, we also need to remember that the revolts that took place in the Arab world starting in December 2010 have stimulated the popular revolts in non-Arab countries such as the ones in Spain, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Brazil (Akcali, 2015). This clearly demonstrates that reasons that led to the uprising were not specific to the ‘Arab world’, but were indications of a greater impasse in contemporary neoliberal politics. Furthermore, the Tunisian success story occurs at a particular time when democracies in Europe and North America are facing challenges due to the rise of populist nationalism in the aftermath of the global economic crises. This situation hence destabilizes the conviction that it’s always the ‘Arab world’ in need of a democratic solution and calls for a rigorous examination of the idiosyncratic socio-political dynamics of each country and for more promising global solutions. This is why I believe it is rather unrealistic to read the Tunisian experience in terms of a successful model to be replicated across the so-called ‘Arab world’.
Rather than looking for models out of a country’s socio-political experience which I find highly problematic, we can scrutinize and discuss what has been genuinely working in Tunisia thus far and what it takes for other countries to undergo similar developments. I would like here in particular to focus on the legal aspects. Tunisia’s new constitution, in fact, can work as an example not only for other Arab countries, but for all countries which are struggling with the rule of law. First, Article 2 clearly places the law at the base of the new Tunisian state, which is indeed defined “as a civil state that is based on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of law.” Second, Article 6 reads “The State is the guardian of religion. It guarantees liberty of conscience and of belief, the free exercise of religious worship and the neutrality of the mosques and of the places of worship from all partisan instrumentalization”. Interestingly, the Islamic law, the shariah, has not been included in the new Tunisian constitution, but Islam has been accepted as the religion of the state. There is hence a cautious balance between the values of citizenship for all and the Islamic heritage (Omri, 2014). This situation of course “attempts the impossible task of reconciling two radically different visions of society” (Guellali, 2014). It delegates the Tunisian state to be the watchdog and protector of all things sacred, but at the same time, each person is granted the freedom of religious choice, without intrusion or interference.
In case of a contention, it will be the task of Tunisia’s judges who need to sort out this inconsistency about Article 6 by guaranteeing liberties and upholding human rights as an imperative barricade against dangerous interpretations against the sacred. This is no easy task, but if realised successfully, it then can become a healthy example, not only for Arab-Muslim countries, but for all the other nations that struggle with the fragile balance between individual freedoms and religious traditions. The Tunisian constitution also declares that women and men have equal rights and duties and it places limits on executive power, protects civil liberties and freedom of the press, and guards due process. It also includes provisions for presidential temporal limits, elections, a constitutional court with the power to impeach, an independent judiciary, and independent constitutional bodies with responsibility for issues such as combatting corruption and fostering human rights. It’s therefore a fairly progressive constitution that can shed light once again not only on the Arab world, but for all countries that have growing tendencies towards authoritarianism and rising populist nationalism.