Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has assisted Tunisia’s nascent political parties and civic organizations as they build their organizations and develop platforms that address the issues citizens care most about.  As this work, critical to the success of Tunisia’s democracy, has been carried out by parties and civic groups, the world’s attention has been focused on the work of the National Constituent Assembly and the constitutional drafting process.

On that front too, Tunisia has seen success.  Three years after the revolution, on the evening of Sunday January 26, 2014, Tunisia made history again when the National Constituent Assembly ratified the country’s new constitution.  IRI staff that attended the signing ceremony witnessed ideologically opposed political rivals celebrating the country’s latest milestone.  The constitution that was adopted is not only among the world’s most progressive, but it was the result of a sustained and contested democratic process.  Perhaps even more impressive than the constitution itself, were the events leading up to its passage.   

Only weeks earlier, there was little optimism that the divided ideological factions within the constituent assembly could muster the political will to compromise on the big questions of the nation’s supreme charter—namely, the role of religion in the state and the boundaries on the free speech.  Lawmakers had been embroiled in debate on the constitution for two years, with all sides entrenched and seemingly unwilling to budge in what became a zero sum political environment.  Party members in provincial branch offices IRI worked with during this period reported a sense of estrangement from the deadlocked national political process and became increasingly disengaged from their parties.  So what catalyzed and reinvigorated progress in the constitutional debate?  It started with the violent death of an opposition figure six months ago.

On the morning of July 25, Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated on the steps of his home.  His death, the second political assassination in six months, sparked a nationwide upheaval characterized by the suspension of all constituent assembly functions and sustained nationwide demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins demanding the removal of the Islamist-led government.  This political crisis, occurring in the immediate wake of the anti-Islamist military takeover in Egypt, could have sent Tunisia spiraling in a similar direction.  But in the birthplace of the Arab Awakening, the competing political forces unleashed by the revolution would not descend into internecine chaos.  Nor was there appetite for a return to the autocratic police state of the old regime. 

Instead, Tunisians established a national dialogue mediated by civil society and labor unions that involved all major political stakeholders and which aimed to restore democratic legitimacy to government, finish the constitution and organize elections.  By late September 2013, a political process was under way to negotiate the terms of a peaceful transition of power from the democratically elected government, led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, to a nonpartisan caretaker government of technocrats.  Meanwhile, Islamist militants used the politically rocky national dialogue period to launch multiple attacks on Tunisia’s military and police and attempted a hotel suicide bombing, heightening tension within the country. 

Despite increasing uncertainty, mistrust and instability, the beleaguered government and opposition maintained their commitment to the national dialogue process, which was reinforced by a desire by all to see the crisis resolved through negotiation and arbitration.  This was a common sentiment expressed to IRI by political party leaders throughout this period.   

Underlying these negotiations, however, was a fundamental challenge that delayed agreement on a new prime minister: the lack of trust between the two most influential players in the negotiations.  Ennahda, the ruling party whose members had been persecuted, jailed and tortured under the old regime, and Nida Tunis, a new political party led by influential elder statesmen, were unwilling to accept one another’s picks for prime minister, both believing the other would not hold up its end of the bargain. 

Meanwhile, the lack of progress was testing the patience of the Tunisian population, whose economy and employment prospects continued to decline, while food prices rose.  In fact, IRI’s October 2013 public opinion poll showed that 79 percent of Tunisians believed the country was moving in the wrong direction, the highest rate since began polling in Tunisia in early 2011.  This number, while troubling to parties, was not unsurprising to most and all parties recognized the need for resolution on the political crisis. 

After coming close to agreement on numerous occasions, the parties finally reached a breakthrough on Saturday December 14 when candidate Mehdi Jomaa was chosen by a vote of the 21 parties participating in the national dialogue.  While the decision was not unanimous (the most powerful opposition party Nida Tunis voted no), 11 voted in favor, seven against and three abstained. 

By the end of December, the constituent assembly was in session seven days a week, fiercely debating the most contentious articles of the new constitution.  By early January, the assembly formally voted in a new independent election commission tasked with revising the electoral law and organizing elections.  Every day additional articles of the constitution were agreed upon.  Islamists, who enjoy a plurality in the assembly (37 percent), and staunch secularists were compromising on the contents of the document that would attempt to narrate and encapsulate the goals and ambitions of their constituents who sacrificed their stability, and in some cases their lives, for freedom and dignity.

On January 28, two days after the official ratification of Tunisia’s new democratic constitution, the Ennahda-led government peacefully stepped down and handed power to Mehdi Jomaa’s caretaker government, which will see the transition through to elections expected in the fall of 2014.  His government and the government to be elected this fall will face great challenges that will require fundamental changes to the manner in which Tunisia has been governed.  The economy remains in very poor condition, the high unemployment rate has not improved, terrorism and security threats remain and the quality of government services has declined sharply since the revolution began three years ago. 

Given this, the realization of Tunisia’s new constitutional rights such as gender equality, socioeconomic equality and political freedom will require disciplined reform.  However, if the last six months have proven anything, it is that Tunisians hold themselves to high democratic standards and, against great odds, can turn enormous challenges into opportunities for historic progress. 

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