Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What happens on 23 October?

As the deadline for the publication of the country's new constitution approaches, uncertainty continues to reign in Tunisian political circles, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

3 October is the deadline for publishing the new Tunisian constitution according to chapter VI of the decree issued on 9 August 2011 which called for an elected constituent assembly to draft a new constitution for the country within one year of its election. The election took place on 23 October 2011 and though the year is almost over there is little consensus about the new constitution.

What are ready are drafts prepared by various committees, but these are uncoordinated and full of contradictions. Several key issues are still disputed, including the country's new political system, the status of women and the protection of freedoms and religion.

The lack of consensus about the draft has led many of Tunisia's political parties and organisations to use the 23 October deadline as a pretext to launch a debate on dissolving the ruling "troika" coalition government and questioning the country's election system.

What will happen in October? Will the troika government leave power? Will the constituent assembly be dissolved? Could there even be civil conflict if no consensus can be reached, or will the troika government continue in office indefinitely?

All, some or none of this could happen. One leader of the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, one of the parties in the troika government, stated that "23 October will be a normal day, just like 22 October. The Tunisian people can celebrate the first anniversary of holding their first-ever democratic elections and then go back to work on 24 October."

The present debate over the troika government's legitimacy is rooted in the poor results achieved by the country's present three organs of government -- the presidency, the constituent assembly and the executive branch itself.

Despite a consensus in the constituent assembly about the need to keep Chapter 1 of the present constitution, which states that Tunisia is a sovereign state with Islam as its religion and Arabic as its language, there has been no agreement on the political system the country should adopt under the new constitution.

Al-Nahda is the sole supporter of a parliamentary system, while the majority of the parties in the constituent assembly are calling for a modified presidential system, a key difference that may have to be decided by referendum.

The issue of women has also triggered debate, with many members of the assembly wanting to see equal rights for men and women. However, Al-Nahda supporters want to see women play a "complementary" and not an equal role, and this had led advocates of women's rights to demand that the new constitution uphold women's rights and defend existing personal status laws.

The performance of the government has been disappointing on many fronts, and it has not been able to bring about the goals of last year's revolution, notably in economic terms.

The government has been unable to recover funds stolen under the rule of ousted former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, and it has not been able to bring those guilty of corruption or other crimes to justice.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Hamadi Al-Jibali, a member of the Al-Nahda Movement, has been unable to handle emergency situations, such as the cold weather and floods last winter and the water and power outages during the summer.

Events at the US embassy in Tunisia on 14 September came as a final blow to the troika government, which showed itself unable to protect foreign diplomatic missions in the country or to restore safety and security to the Tunisian people.

The troika has been accused of complacency in dealing with the Salafist issue, and some analysts have even accused it of colluding with the Salafist movement. Others say that the Salafist groups that have emerged since last year's revolution are the military wing of the Islamist current in Tunisia, adding that these groups are trying to impose Islamic Sharia law in Tunisia by force.

In addition to such concerns, there have been rising living costs, shortages of basic commodities, a drop in purchasing power, and unemployment to deal with, the latter dropping only marginally from 18.1 per cent to 17.6 per cent.

The country's transitional president, Moncef Marzouki, has been the target of much criticism for accepting a role that does not carry any actual powers with it, having to see himself described as a "puppet" as a result.

Marzouki did not deal well with the issue of former Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, who was returned to Libya from exile in Tunisia to face criminal charges, causing fractures in the ruling coalition.

The country's opposition parties have been suggesting that electoral legitimacy will become a more and more important issue, particularly as the date for the publication of the country's new constitution approaches.

The issue is on the minds of all Tunisians, especially experts in constitutional law, who have reviewed the situation and agreed that legitimacy is in the hands of the constituent assembly and does not necessarily end on 23 October.

The so-called "minor constitution" that has been underpinning Tunisian government during the transitional phase does not stipulate a specific timeline to write a new constitution or an expiration date for the present constituent assembly, and it may be more important than the decree specifying a one-year deadline.

However, experts agree that the "minor constitution" cannot be used to continue ruling the country and members of the constituent assembly have a political and moral obligation to observe the date of 23 October when drafting the new constitution.

Presidential and/or legislative elections should be held at the same time, experts say, based on the political system, presidential, parliamentary, or modified presidential, laid down in the new constitution.

Some opposition parties are demanding that the troika leave power immediately and make room for a consensus not necessarily composed of the majority of the constituent assembly.

Al-Jibali's government is viewed as a failure according to most of the opposition, essentially for the above-mentioned reasons.

Negotiations are also underway to broaden power-sharing within the government without relying on party quotas based on the number of seats in the constituent assembly.

There has been talk of the need for a cabinet shuffle in which Al-Nahda would leave key ministries and a timeline would be laid down for the publication of the new constitution before the end of 2012 and elections held before the summer of 2013.

The Work and Freedoms Bloc Party said it would accept to form a national unity government after 23 October, and Al-Nahda has also said it would be ready to participate in a consensus government at the same time.

However, the Call of Tunisia Party has refused to participate in any coalition government, as its leader, Beji Caid Al-Sebsi, has declared that "the troika is over" and it must leave power by the October deadline.

Al-Sebsi has not revealed his exact intentions, however, which has confused political circles and could promise surprises on 23 October.

Rumour has it that there could be an attempted coup, especially after statements made by Al-Tayib Al-Bakush, secretary-general of the Call of Tunisia Party, to the effect that there could be "civil war" if the troika does not leave power.

The Call of Tunisia Party is thought to have incorporated the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, which could carry out any number or rash acts as a result of losing the monopoly on power that it enjoyed for more than five decades.

How will things turn out on 23 October? Tunisians will have to wait and see.

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