Hussein Ibish

The Beauty of Tunisia's New Political Banality

I've been appearing on television talk shows for more than 12 years and I've never found them to be an emotional experience, until last Sunday, that is.

During a routine program on Al-Hurra reviewing recent events in Tunisia, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an astonishing realization: For the first time in my life, I was having a conversation about politics in an Arab state that was entirely normal, modern and healthy.

For the first half-hour or so, I found myself in the middle of an argument with Al-Nahda MP Abd al-Lateeh al-Makki and another representative of his party on one side, and Democratic National Movement MP Tawfic Ayashi on the other. Naturally, they were quarreling about the new 26-clause temporary constitution passed by the Constitutional Assembly that now serves as the parliament.

As expected, and as has already been thoroughly played out in the Tunisian and other Arab media, Ayashi repeated the basic complaint of the opposition: that the new legislation was cooked up behind the scenes by the troika coalition of Nahda, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol, and that the parliamentary procedure had essentially been a sham.

Al-Makki and his Nahda colleague predictably dismissed these allegations, insisting that proper procedures had been followed, and pointing out that 141 out of 217 assembly members had voted for the new law and that, in any case, the whole thing was temporary.

As I navigated between these positions, both of which have some merit, I was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the conversation in terms of contemporary Arab politics. The argument itself was not only predictable, but also banal and mundane. But what was really shocking, indeed overwhelming, to me was what was missing from this bickering and its context. There was no monarch, no dictatorship, no junta or oppressive military, no killings, no militias, no riots, and no hint of civil conflict, foreign interference or invasion.

It was just plain old squabbling between MPs from different factions about legislation, procedure, who does or does not have a mandate, and whether backroom deals or open debate is propelling the new laws and the formation of the new government.

It was ugly, as politics always is, but it was also stunningly beautiful. It's been many decades since any Arab society has found itself in this position: building a real, genuine democracy. Indeed, one could easily make the case that this is the first time an Arab state has ever really done so.

I made this point with some passion, and I had to hold my emotions in check with difficulty. On the substantive issues, I had to agree with the opposition that what was happening was largely cooked up by the coalition, but this is how parliaments tend to operate.

I thought the Nahda MPs were basically right that 141 votes were sufficient for a temporary constitution, but that it must prove quite temporary not only because it lacks a broad-based mandate but also because it is insufficiently detailed and leaves much to be determined. The permanent constitution cannot be based on 141 votes out of 217 and will need a stronger mandate than that.

The biggest bone of contention was Article 8 of the new law, which holds that the president must be, among other more reasonable qualifications, a Muslim. Host Mohamed Ali Haidari and I both pressed the Nahda MPs vigorously on the issue and their defenses were virtually laughable.

At first they tried to say that since this same provision was also in the constitution of deposed dictator Ben Ali, they hadn't introduced anything new. What, I asked, was the point of the revolution if the dictator's constitution was to be regarded as a source of legitimacy?

Al-Makki then tried to suggest that I simply didn't know enough about Arab or Muslim societies, that this is a universal and noncontroversial provision in Arab states (which I pointed out is not true), and that non-Muslim Tunisians don't feel discriminated against, so it's no big deal.

My response was that "I need no instruction on Arab or Muslim culture from this Islamist,” and that because indeed there's no real possibility of a Christian or Jew becoming the president of Tunisia, “your law is not only ridiculous, it's superfluous.” “And,” I concluded, “It has got to go!” Appropriately enough, this proved the last word of the hour-long conversation.

But I floated out of the studio with a feeling of real elation. Tunisians have created a fledgling but genuine, working democracy, in which the arguments are about backroom deals versus parliamentary procedures, what kind of mandate is sufficient for core legislation, and the legitimacy of discriminatory laws. Its very banality is its beauty.

The magnitude of Tunisia's achievement must not be underestimated. Assuming they can keep it, this should show what's possible in the rest of the Arab world in the long run.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Firas Kay

    Yes, but Lebanon always had foreign interference which undermined it's democracy. Furthermore, people in Lebanon don't vote based on convictions, they vote based on tribal instincts and secterianism. In Lebanon, we have some democracy and we have a reasonable level of freedoms, but it's still quite a long road before Lebanon can be considered a full democracy. Just my two cents.

    December 14, 2011