Despite Turbulence, Hopeful Progress in Tunisia and Yemen

President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi at the closing ceremony of the National Dialogue Conference. (Photo: Yemeni National Dialogue Conference)

With much attention focused on the increasing violence and repression in Egypt, the notable milestones achieved in Tunisia and Yemen over the weekend should be celebrated for what they are: tangible steps towards a peaceful transition to democracy.  
After months of political wrangling and escalating tensions exacerbated by two high profile assassinations of opposition leaders, Tunisians adopted a new constitution for the country. Three years after popular protests removed Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power, this is a step that for some time seemed out of reach. A few months ago, when throngs of Tunisians took to the streets in protest against the Ennahda-led government, in some ways mirroring the demonstrations in Egypt that culminated in the military’s removal of former president Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia’s transition to democracy seemed close to derailing. However, the dynamics at play in Egypt—namely that of a politically motivated and powerful military—are not present in Tunisia, leaving the various stakeholders little choice but to come to the negotiating table if they want any of their demands fulfilled. In the constitution, Tunisia’s political blocs made important compromises on questions of religion, with Ennahda dropping mentions of sharia as a source of legislation, and on executive powers, which the constitution divides between the president and prime minister. The final document is not without its imperfections, however, it has been hailed by observers as the most progressive in the region with its guarantees for equal rights for women.

In Yemen, the National Dialogue successfully concluded on Saturday, culminating with a final report with more than 1400 provisions outlining core principles that will become the basis of a new  constitution. The Dialogue was not easy—there were assassinations, boycotts, and heated arguments—but in the end, compromise and a determination to finish what was started yielded praiseworthy results. The dialogue brought together 565representatives to discuss transitional justice, the future system of governance, and ways to address grievances from the South, which has long been excluded from an equal share of jobs, land, and political power. The important outcomes from the Dialogue include agreement that Yemen will transition to a federal system, although the final number of regions yet to be determined, and mechanisms to ensure that Southerners have more representation in the government.

Though Yemen and Tunisia should be lauded for their remarkable progress in building the foundation for more participatory systems of governance, their leaders cannot ignore the many challenges ahead.

In line with the roadmap, Tunisia’s interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa recently revealed his proposed caretaker cabinet that will see the country through elections later this year. An electoral law is expected to be completed in a few weeks. While the good-faith negotiations that produced the constitution served as a significant confidence-building measure for the Tunisian polity, keeping the transition on track will require continued exertion of political capital to ensure that moderate voices prevail. It is unclear how ultra-conservative Salafists will engage in the country’s political landscape moving forward. An equally important question is how Tunisian authorities will respond since many Tunisians felt Ennahda was unduly influenced by extremists within its camp. For the sake of the collective good, Tunisians will need to ensure that the political process be inclusive and transparent, leaving no single group  pushed to the sidelines where grievances may fester and manifest in violence that could shake the significant but still feeble rapport built thus far among political blocs. This is especially true as the country puts its constitution, which contains certain vague provisions, to the test.

In Yemen, likewise, inclusiveness and transparency is of the utmost importance. The current transitional government has fallen woefully short in implementing necessary confidence-building measures to redress past grievances and gain the trust of Southerners, who have been systematically marginalized for decades; without considerable effort to reverse this trend, Yemen’s leaders will be unable to forge a stable, democratic future for the country.  Moreover, powerful elements from the former Saleh regime are biding their time, waiting to capitalize on opportunities to return to positions of authority if the transition founders or other parties do not step up to demonstrate real leadership. The international community has a critical role to play in both regards—encouraging the government make good on its promises to Southerners and continuing pressure to dissuade potential spoilers—and should remain actively engaged in this next phase of the transition, as the Atlantic Council’s Yemen Policy Initiative called for in a recent statement, highlighted in the Yemeni press.

Stefanie Hausheer is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Lara Talverdian is the assistant director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.