The fact that Tunisia’s revolution was spontaneous—neither planned by any leadership nor producing one—is a blessing and a curse to its transition to democracy. On one hand, the solidarity among many sectors of society and organizations such as labor unions has been a decided benefit. On the other, the lack of leadership poses difficulties in establishing the foundations of political reform and the legitimacy of representation.

Regarding the foundations of political reform, Tunisians—the people, the elite, and the government—have vacillated between constitutional legitimacy and revolutionary legitimacy. After Tunisian demonstrators forced former President Zine Abidine Ben Ali to step down from his post, he temporarily delegated his authority to the prime minister in accordance with Article 56 of the Constitution. Then, in keeping with Article 57, the head of the lower house of parliament temporarily assumed the presidency for a period of 45-60 days, with a presidential election to follow.

Post-revolution governments also sought to carry out political reform based on constitutional legitimacy, creating a Higher Political Reform Commission tasked with amending the legal framework to ensure a free, fair, transparent, and pluralistic presidential election. Composed of independent experts in public law and political science, the council included judges and law professors and consulted closely with political parties and civil society organizations. The council outlined several possible post-revolutionary courses: prioritizing a presidential election (whereupon the president would dissolve parliament and organize legislative elections), holding presidential and legislative elections simultaneously, or forming a committee to draft a new constitution, which would be put to a referendum. Interim President Fouad al-Mebza'a announced in early March that the latter course would be adopted, setting in motion a process that will entail holding parliamentary elections July 24 and voting on an interim president until the constitution is finished. 

Popular demand pushed the government to give up the idea of preparing for presidential elections, and to instead announce elections for a national constituent assembly that will in turn write a new constitution. The constitution’s goal will be to reformulate the system of governance in a way that would ensure a balance of powers that was lost on the 1959 Constitution, which embedded a highly presidential system. The council will also elect from among its members a temporary president who is to hold power until the writing of a new constitution and the completion of preparations for presidential or legislative elections (based on what system is agreed upon).

Regarding the legitimacy of representation, the lack of revolutionary leadership and the late entry of the political parties into the revolution mean that there is no group able to negotiate political reforms in the revolution’s name. Groups claiming to represent the people have been proliferating, yet they offer significantly different visions. Perhaps the best illustration of this was a recent incident in which two opposing groups of protesters in Tunis’s main street, Habib Borguiba Avenue, simultaneously claimed to be speaking for the people. On one side of the boulevard protesters chanted “the people want a secular state” while just across the street other were saying “the people want an Islamic state.”

Although the opposition parties, political groupings from across the spectrum, and the General Union of Tunisian Workers all initially endorsed participation in the post-Ben Ali government, several of these groups preferred to remain outside the government and pressure it, which detracted from its performance and precipitated its fall. Several important groups—the General Union of Tunisian Workers, the Nahda Movement, the National Lawyers’ Association, the Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia, the Association of Judges, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights—then formed the Committee to Protect the Revolution and requested that the interim president of Tunisia invest it with legislative, decision-making, and oversight authorities.

While this request was met with rejection, ensuing negotiations resulted in the creation of the Higher Authority for the Realization of Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition on February 18. This 71-member advisory body (now 131 members) is composed of a committee of experts as well as representatives from across the political spectrum and civil society. The Higher Authority thus became directly responsible for the political reform process to allow a democratic transition. Its first meeting took place on March 17, during which members discussed the draft laws for parliamentary elections prepared by the Committee of Experts.

The March 17 meeting highlighted how deep the differences are within Tunisian political circles, and how badly the repression of the past, particularly under Ben Ali, has scarred political life. Participants argued about how representative each was of Tunisian society and accused the current government of deliberately marginalizing and excluding some groups, such as youth, women, and regional organizations. The discussion was dominated by demagoguery, accusations of treachery, attempts to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, and threats to resort to street demonstrations again should some demands not be met—particularly the demand that the commission stop work until an agreement on its makeup was reached.

After negotiations between the various sides, an agreement was reached to begin considering the draft elections laws and to expand the Authority. This in fact happened, as discussions concerning a law for an Independent Higher Electoral Commission began on March 26 and 60 new members joined the March 29 session (including national figures and regional representatives). However, regardless of any expansions in size, this Authority will not represent the Tunisian people, since true representation comes through the ballot box.

Behind the tensions seen in the first two sessions of the Higher Authority is a gamble by the political parties, both old and new, that they can postpone the July 24 legislative elections date announced by the interim president on March 3. Although this date comes in response to Tunisians’ aspirations for genuine change in the shortest possible time, it will not give sufficient preparation time to the parties.

The months leading up to the July elections will be fraught with challenges. If demonstrations and sit-ins remain the primary means of negotiating with various political actors, the new government might be as indecisive and vulnerable as its two predecessors. This weakness has drained authority from state institutions, allowing what are called “regional committees for protection of the revolution” to seize control of regional affairs. The growing number of new political parties will pose yet another challenge to a coherent transition, given Tunisia’s underdeveloped political culture and ideas of citizenship.
Asma Nouira is a professor of political science and public law at the University of Jendouba in Tunisia and a member of the Higher Authority for the Realization of Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.