Tag Archives: Constituent Assembly

Tunisia and the make-up of a crisis: burkas, children’s rights, and accented spoken Arabic

I am angry.

I am angry because I do not see my country moving forward. I see it going down a path of uncertainty, a path where my compatriots have forgotten where they come from. Today, I sat down for dinner with my parents. My mother made a delicious pasta and a salad to go along. We had water to drink. The television was set on the Tunisian national channel, blaring the nightly news broadcast. The first bit of news I hear is that the National Constituent Assembly is discussing legislation to protect children’s rights. Several representatives speak in favor of the legislation, and several against. The bloc leading the no vote is primarily composed of Ennahda members. When one of them was asked why he did not support the legislation, he said: “Next thing you know, we will be discussing el-zawaj el-mithli [gay marriage].” My dinner started getting cold, the salad less appetizing.

Next bit of news is about a Wahhabi sheikh from Kuwait, Nabil el-Awadi, who was invited by a Tunisian NGO to give a lecture. Amongst other things, he called for girls below the ages of puberty to start wearing complete veils. In honor of his visit, an event was organized where many little girls attended, accompanied with their parents. The little girls were all wearing burka-style veils in shades of neon pink, purple, green, and gray, that covered the entirety of their bodies. My heart breaks. I shake my head and look back at my dinner, desperately attempting to ignore the TV – I can feel the agony rising from my heart to my mind. Disgust. All I want to eat my dinner and go downstairs to read my constitutional law assignment. But near the corner of my eye still, I see a video montage of a group of the girls holding signs that read, “Hijabi… nouri… [My hijab is my light].” That’s it. Both the salad and pasta were now inedible. I head downstairs and tweet about what I just saw. I stumble upon a Facebook photo album of the event I mentioned above. After taking some close looks, I close the tab.

A few rounds of clicking later, I stumble upon a video of Tunisian Constituent Assembly member Selim Abdesselem giving a speech on the assembly floor. The video was put up in an effort to mock the assembly member’s accent when he speaks Arabic, and the obvious lack of properly accented grammar. Representative Abdessalem hails from the Tunisian community in France. He lived most of his life there, and in fact, he was elected to represent that very same community. In his speech, he spoke about the integral role of an independent judiciary that fairly defines the rule of law and facilitates justice. He argued that its independence is crucial and necessary to effect the purposes of justice. Even though his words will one day be remembered for generations to come in recognition of the country’s founding, nobody paid much attention to what he had to say. All they could do was mock his accent. At the expense of losing such substantial insight, those who made fun of him scarcely know anything at all about the judiciary. His story hits closer to home too – I have the very same problem Representative Abdesselem has. We read, write, and understand advanced technical Arabic. Yet we have trouble getting the tashkeel right (the accents on each letter) when we read classical Arabic out loud. Watching the video did it for me.

The social climate in Tunisia is deteriorating. Many people cannot even find a place to call home, a shelter. Many cannot afford to go to school. Many of the country’s youth remain unemployed (in fact the unemployment rate, according to several sources, has risen in the past year). The cost of living has gone up. For a few weeks, outrage was felt all over the country as many families could not even find a place to buy milk – since now, because of the lack of rule of law, many mafias and trade rings control the flow of certain nutritional products. These mostly economic troubles find their way into the Tunisian’s everyday psychology. People don’t smile at each other in the streets anymore. There is something that is called hiq’d [حقد] between people’s hearts. Hiq’d is a hidden enemity of sorts, an avarice. It’s the thought of hidden malice that looks for every opportunity to exact revenge on someone. Encountering such elemental challenges on a daily basis – not having enough food for the family, not feeling secure enough to go out at night, not trusting people – does this to our hearts. Hearts become hardened, and of course, many turn to more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to cure this hardening of the heart. For a long time, this is what happened under Ben Ali’s rule. People could not breathe – economically, morally, politically – and so the popularity of satellite TV channels promulgated, including those channels that advocated for rather unsound spiritual practices and priorities (I remember watching a 90-mins long show on how evil and horrid nail polish is. Nail polish, people).

We see this same behavior taking place today. Tunisia has experienced a void in religious / spiritual education ever since President Bourguiba shut down the Zaitouna Institute – a nucleus of knowledge that fed the entire region (it is a well-established fact that Al-Azhar scholars went to school at Zaitouna). This thirst for knowledge, coupled with practical quotidian discomforts and uncertainties, incidentally leads to the likes of Nabil el-Awadi to develop a fan base in the country.

Today, we are confronting what we could credibly call a ‘crisis.’ An identity crisis, a socioeconomic crisis, and most of all, a daily, practical crisis.

Someone once told me that freedom lies in being bold. Let us be bold in acknowledging our weaknesses, and then let us be bold in assessing what we need to do to help make these weaknesses into strengths. We need education, and I cannot emphasize this enough. The whole educational system, from primary school to post-doctoral levels, must be reformed. We need employment. Sustainable energy is a great start that has the potential to generate jobs by the thousands. Most than anything else, however, we need to think before we act and be cognizant of the direction our dear country is heading in. If nothing is done, we might as well kiss our dream of democracy goodbye.

Constituent Assembly Response to Voting Cheats: Life Goes On

To vote constitutes an elemental right of the citizens of any functioning democracy, and acts dually as an entrusted responsibility of the officials that are elected. These officials are to vote on issues that we, as citizens, give them permission to represent our interests on. Last October 23rd, Tunisian citizens did just that: they held a fair and transparent election. It was held during the in-between hours of a dictatorship’s fallen dusk and a democracy’s glowing dawn. A new state, to be governed by the rule of law and most importantly, according to the will of the People, was to be ushered in through the Constituent Assembly elections and the reforms they are to undertake. A body of 217 representatives, coming from all walks of life, was inaugurated on November 22nd.

There, in that assembly room in the Palace of Bardo, everyone is on equal ground. A vote is a vote. One person, one representative, one vote. The assembly even voted on (and passed) a very specific clause within the internal bylaws document that detailed this responsibility and its sacredness in the context of the assembly’s operations. Section 4, clause 94, says: “The vote is personal and cannot be done on anyone’s behalf or through any correspondence. A vote can be a vote of approval, rejection, or abstention.

Starting on May 3rd, videos of our entrusted elected officials cheating and playing with their votes and the votes of others – committing electoral procedural fraud – in the Constituent Assembly started circulating on the internet. Two videos in particular were very quickly circulated on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The videos show assembly members Abdelmounem Krir (ex-Aridha) and Iyed Dahmani (PDP) voting “in the place” of other assembly members who were absent at the time of the vote. The videos caught the two members red handed. Further, there is no denying the credibility of the footages, which appear to be recorded on mobile phones or some other portable recording devices.

Of course, we can give the two members the benefit of the doubt and believe them when they say “in the place” of other representatives (as opposed to simply using an absent member’s voting privilege to vote two, three times). But sparing the representatives the latter, the former – according to the internal bylaws that they themselves voted on – is equally damning. Voting on behalf of another representative is forbidden by the letter. The clear language used in §4.94 leaves no room for interpretation.

To my surprise, however, the internal bylaws governing the Tunisian Constituent Assembly do not outline any measures that can be taken to sanction these transgressions.

On May 3rd, the same day representatives Krir and Dahmani were recorded, I was actually at the Constituent Assembly. I began speaking with some assembly members about the general lack of vote traceability. On one vote the day before, the electoral voting system declared that 174 members voted – whereas only around 130 members were physically present* in the room. When recess came along, I headed down to the café below the general assembly’s meeting room, where I found many representatives taking a break. I spoke with the Constituent Assembly’s second vice-president, Arbi Abid, about the number that simply did not match up – and the strong doubts I had about the legitimacy of the vote. At first, he did not believe what I was telling him – he was shocked. I insisted that they cancel yesterday’s vote and repeat it by show of hands, since the electronic system, as of now, does not show which member votes how exactly. He promised that he would take the issue back to his bureau’s meeting that he rushed off to right after our conversation. The bureau consists of himself, the president of the assembly Mustafa Ben Jaafer, and first vice president Mehrzia Labidi, among other administrative members. In the meanwhile, I spoke with representatives Azed Badi, Slim Abdessalem, Nadia Chaabane, and others sitting nearby, about the same problem. Representative Chaabane has been one of the few assembly members who, using Twitter, first got the word out on these shameful practices.

During a vote held the next day, similar doubts were raised by representatives Azed Badi (ex-CPR, now a member of the Democratic Independent Congress) and Sahbi Atig (Ennahda). In another vote the same day, Mustafa Ben Jaafer, president of the assembly, had the same doubts myself and many other Tunisian citizens had. He mandated that the vote in question be redone. Representative Ferjani Doghmane, however, who is the president of the finance committee, suggested that Ben Jaafer counts the number of representatives present by show of hands (so that the numbers of the original vote are preserved for reference). And indeed, the show of hands made it clear that some assembly members voted twice (or more) in the place of others that were absent.

Some days later, representative Azed Badi started a petition that called for a deeper probe into the votes and greater transparency in the Constituent Assembly, including vote traceability. I have called representative Badi and asked for a copy of the petition – he has promised to send a copy my way along with the signatories as soon as he can. This article will be appropriately updated with a link to the petition.

What is most alarming in this dilemma is the lack of any official response from the two members in question – you would think they would resign in shame upon the circulation of the videos. By sheer mathematics, they are certainly not the only ones to cheat during a vote. However, even the media did not do an adequate job covering the transgressions. The Tunisian national budget was passed through a series of invalid votes. The resources that the functioning of a whole society depend on are not being distributed according to the people’s will. The trust of the Tunisian voter has been betrayed. How are the media – and legal experts, watch group organizations, etc – not taking any official action to fight these shameful actions?

Starting on May 5th, the OpenGovTN initiative began discussing a new campaign that will address 1. voting traceability in the assembly, and 2. the release of all committee meeting minutes. #7ell2 [#Open2] is the name – and so far, the group has been the only one to respond in a serious manner to the voting fraud. They have met with Mustafa Ben Jaafer and extracted a response from him: he promised to give in to both demands. The deadline is May 31st. If no official changes take place, the OpenGovTN group has threatened to seek legal action.

I feel ashamed just writing about these transgressions. Still in a state of psychological shock, disappointment, bitterness – whatever it is – it pains me to write in plain English letters: several Constituent Assembly members are cheating with their votes and are not performing their lawfully entrusted duties. Each representative who cheats represents 1000s of Tunisians, and the trust of each one of those Tunisians has been violated in bad faith. It is through the practices such as these that the Tunisian people may never get to live the dawn of democracy.

*The absenteeism that plagues the assembly is another topic that necessitates equal attention and diligent writing.

Constituent Assembly Debates Arab-Muslim Identity in Constitution

The drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution began today with discussion of what will be perhaps one of the most divisive issues in Tunisian politics: the constitutional definition of the country’s national identity.

The first article of Tunisia’s current constitution currently names the language of the country as Arabic and its religion as Islam. With an Islamist party, Ennahda, in power, the question is whether this will be enough to define the religious orientation of Tunisia’s juridical future.

Sadok Bel Aid, Former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the Free University of Tunis, and a specialist in constitutional law, believes that Ennahda has moderated its position with regards to the religious content of the preamble. While previously, according to Bel Aid, members had wished for a reference to an Islamic source for Tunisian law, the party seems to have reached a consensus now that some version of the current first article would be sufficient.

However, from the onset of the meeting it was clear that reaching agreement concerning Tunisia’s national identity would be no small task. Hajer Azaiez, the commission’s vice-rapporteur and a member from Ennahda, casually mentioned, “We are already all in agreement with Islam being the official religion, and Arabic the official language. Why don’t we discuss the rest of preamble?”

This statement received a quick response from Taher Hmila, a representative from the centrist Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, who replied, “No – we are not. We cannot do that. We, as a republic and state, cannot have an official religion. We want to be consistent with the republican form of government.”

Issam Chebbi, a representative from the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), later proposed including references to religion and language in the body of the constitution instead of the preamble or general principles. Maya Jeribi, secretary general of the PDP, agreed with Chebbi’s proposition.

The Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, which has formed an alliance with Ennahda and the center-left Ettakatol party, seemed to be in agreement that a reference to Islam within the opening clauses of the constitution was not a foregone conclusion.

Rafik Telili, a member of the CPR, argued that the preamble should affirm the state’s civic character. “We need to make it clear that minorities will be protected. We need to say that our relations with Jews, for example, are peaceful,” he said.

Another member from the CPR, Mabrouka Mbarek, suggested that the constitution use a declaration of human rights as the preamble’s point of reference instead of ‘Islamic values,’ since it would hold more collective weight. “The revolution was triggered because of socioeconomic constraints, not religious values. Freedom of religion is only one facet of their demands,” she said.

Bel Aid did not believe that foregoing any reference to religion in the preamble to Tunisia’s constitution was a plausible proposition in a country that is ninety-nine percent Sunni Muslim. However, he felt that the religious character of the definition could indeed be softened.

“I think we could have a reference that mentions religion in light of our history, a ‘light’ version of the formulation that wouldn’t erase it. You know, even in America, on the dollar bill you have ‘In God We Trust,” said Bel Aid.

While the preamble of a constitution has a largely symbolic value, it can set the tone and color of the document to follow. The preamble of France’s constitution, for example, makes reference to the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and establishes the states as secular. In light of recent controversies in the country concerning secularism, such as the ban on the niqab (a full-body Islamic veil), that clause would seem significant.

“Preambles can have a certain ideological value, and a certain political value, but also a certain juridical value,” said Bel Aid. He explained that, if worded properly, preambles could be “creative” of principles to follow in the constitution and could act as a guide for future disputes concerning the document’s interpretation.

Tunisia a year later: misplaced priorities

Sure, it’s January 14th, 2012 – marking a year after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia. When he fled, most Tunisians were not sure whether they were witnessing reality or a mere passing dream. The ecstasy in the air was a collective one that united all Tunisians.

But in memory of this moment of ecstasy, Tunisians are celebrating separately. In La Chebba, a small city in the coastal state of Mahdia, two celebrations were taking place: supporters of the Islamist party Ennahda held celebrations at a local park, while supporters of left-wing parties (including Ettajdid, the Progressive Democratic Party, and the Tunisian Communist Party) held a march down Chebba’s main street. They chanted, “No America, no Qatar, Tunisia is free,” along with a dash of, “We say no to backwardness – no caliphate.” Now, while I agree wholeheartedly with the general message of non-intervention, I sometimes question why they think today of all days is a good day to spread it. All it takes is a glance over their shoulders to notice that the lady living down the street cannot afford to buy a bottle of gas to cook with. All it takes is a short walk across the street to hear a mother complain about how ever since her children reached 5th grade, she can no longer help them with their homework. The celebrations in the park, on the other hand, were insulated. They insinuated a completion of the “revolution.” It’s all said and done for many of those present – democracy, new government, mission accomplished / la vie en rose. The party they voted for won, and given some ingrained cultural vestiges left by the old regime, that’s more than enough to ensure stability and prosperity in the country.

These ideological divisions are happening due to one reason: the government’s lack of direct and systematically executed communication with the residents of any Tunisian cities besides the capital.

Tunisian leaders now have a new penchant for inviting foreign dignitaries day in and day out. Ever since its inception, all the new government has been doing is inviting various heads of state and making “agreements” – what they entail exactly, most of the Tunisian population has no idea. Some Constituent Assembly members, along with a few ministers, have made trips to the interior. On one of the trips to Gafsa, a minister witnessed yet another incident of self-immolation: Ammar Gharsallah, a father of three, lit himself on fire after the minister refused to meet with him. Gharsallah is unemployed and has actively participated in the sit-ins that have been taking place the past few weeks in front of the Gafsa governmental office. The acts of self-immolation happen for a reason: despair. I hate to be the one stating the obvious but it seems that many of our politicians do not understand how to allay this feeling. As PM Jebali invites Ismail Haniya, people are burning – if not literally, they are burning internally with despair.

In Gafsa, Rdayef, Gassrine, and Sidi Bouzid. As Marzouki speaks with the Emir of Qatar, the President of Algeria, and Head of the Libyan transitional council Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Tunisians are striking. Protesting. Crying for attention from a most humble base. Life cannot – and should not – go as per usual until the demands of these protesters are met. Even though its only been a year since the former regime was overthrown, the months pass by as an eternity for many who, with thwarted dreams, are still waiting. Waiting on remedial action from the new government.

“But the government just recently got its act together – how do you expect them to meet the demands in a month?” This is what I’ve been hearing time and time again. I used to say this myself. This is what the government can do: instead of “visiting” Gassrine, perhaps they can jumpstart the reorganization of internal municipal structures while they’re there. They can start providing training for the enactment of internal democratic procedures. They can begin the development of the interior regions – not through agreements with the Qatari Emir, but rather from the bottom up. Ask local residents what they need – document their needs. Work with local civic organizations in doing so. Then, open up business bids to fulfill these demands. Then, show residents of the cities you are visiting progress reports. In the example of opening up of a new factory, a study can be distributed to local city councils detailing how much is invested in the project, expected output, expected number of jobs, expected net gain to the city. The government (health ministry) can also begin renovating and reconditioning local hospitals. The government can also start by organizing their own respective offices – dividing the workload appropriately and allocating adequate human resources to enter the long-neglected interior areas. I can really go on for another page about what the government can do.

I understand that establishing a new political tone on the international stage is important. But what is more pressing are the domestic issues that absolutely must be faced.

The celebrations held in a local cultural center in Melloulech (a small town about 13 kilometers away from Chebba) were the most heartwarming – and the most honest. There, a united group of local residents gathered for the unveiling of a freshly painted mural, and schoolchildren sang some songs honoring the uprisings. They also had a short play enacting the heroic sacrifices of the young men and women who were brave enough to bare their chests to live fire. They poignantly expressed solidarity with each other as Tunisians. At this celebration, no lofty debates about nationalism and communism and islamism took place. No highbrow mentions of a looming caliphate or an “unclean” media were made. Instead, the air was imbued with patient optimism that recognized the feats of the past while critically looking ahead.

The mural unveiled at Dar el Chabeb in Melloulech

From Exile to President

Moncef Marzouki flashing the victory sign

It finally hit me today. As I was watching Moncef Marzouki giving his first speech as president last night, I had tears in my eyes. I then heard his voice crack – as he evoked the memory of the bullets that our young Tunisian men and women suffered for this day. Then came the national anthem, and as against nationalism as I am, watching the scene of an organized cacophony take place among a group of former governmental foes – most considered heros behind doors – so organically sing the anthem was incredibly moving. What’s more touching is Marzouki’s academic background and his unfamiliarity with any sort of grandiosity. He is not eloquent. He does not look, dress, or speak like a “head of state” would. While his words are beautifully written, they are seldom spoken with the level of beauty that they deserve. But I find these little nuances to be so endearing – yet so indicative of how far the country has come. In exile for so long, Marzouki was also jailed in his past, and here he is, about to start living in the presidential palace.

Marzouki dorkily flashing a victory sign as members sung the national anthem reminds us all that, no matter political convictions, one must admit: we have come a long way.

It has been quite busy here at Tunisia Live – I have recently been hired as the publication’s editor-in-chief. However, I will be writing more once all ministerial posts are appointed.

Yours, W