Overtaken by regional events in Syria and Egypt, coverage of Tunisia’s transition pales in comparison, but much more political maneuvering and dynamism is taking place in the cradle of the Arab spring. The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted a roundtable discussion on July 11, 2013 for the launch of its latest issue brief, Electoral Politics Under Tunisia’s New Constitution. Authored by nonresident fellow Duncan Pickard the discussion focused on the state of play, how the political landscape may evolve, and what that would mean for US policy. Pickard offered an overview of his issue brief, followed by comments from Mondher Ben Hamida, a prominent Tunisian-American business leader and keen follower of developments in Tunisia. Hariri Center Deputy Director Danya Greenfield moderated the discussion.

Electoral Politics Under Tunisia’s New Constitution by Atlantic Council

Pickard reflected on the scenarios that could play out once Tunisia finalizes a constitution. The constitutional process has revealed openness to compromise and consensus-building, but there remain significant disagreements. The main point of contention and debate surrounding the constitution is the division of executive power. The current draft concentrates significant power in the hands of the president, setting the stage for tensions between the president and prime minister, especially in the case that they are from two different parties and neither has a majority in parliament. As a completed constitution will reform or create Tunisia’s governing institutions, Pickard emphasized that the post-constitutional phase will present concrete opportunities for the United States and international community to engage and offer technical assistance to the North African country. Commenting on Pickard’s issue brief and the current political landscape in Tunisia, Ben Hamida described a growing sense of disillusionment among the Tunisian public, exacerbated by a global economic downturn. He stressed that the completion of a constitution, entrepreneurial development, and a cultural transformation are necessary to turn the tide of pessimism pervading the country.

Questions surrounding the role of Islam and Sharia in defining the framework for governance in the country and how that might impact human rights were raised, and speakers pointed out that the ruling Ennahda party preemptively decided to exclude Sharia as part of the constitution because of the fear, justified or not, that it generates among Tunisians, particularly vis-à-vis women’s rights. The speakers noted that the constitution in fact includes strong human rights language. Participants were quick to point out that, while questions of the state’s identity remain debatable, the dire economic situation and corruption were what sparked the Jasmine Revolution and that developing Tunisia’s economy is an essential ingredient to a successful transition. On the role of the United States, Pickard indicated that there will be opportunities to offer technical assistance in the post-constitutional phase, but in the more immediate term, the United States, including the Tunisian Diaspora, can inculcate values of the US economic and entrepreneurial culture through educational programs and various trainings, setting the foundation for longer-term reforms to facilitate the country’s development. Given recent events in Egypt and concerns about ripple effects in Tunisia, the speakers also offered that the Tunisian context – namely, the military being a small institution and poverty not being as widespread – shield Tunisia from the turbulence experienced in neighboring Egypt.

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