The Beauty of Tunisia’s New Political Banality

I’ve been appearing on television talk shows for more than 12 years
and I’ve never found them to be an emotional experience, until last
Sunday, that is.

During a routine program on Al-Hurra reviewing recent events in
Tunisia, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an astonishing realization: For
the first time in my life, I was having a conversation about politics
in an Arab state that was entirely normal, modern and healthy.

For the first half-hour or so, I found myself in the middle of an
argument with Al-Nahda MP Abd al-Lateeh al-Makki and another
representative of his party on one side, and Democratic National
Movement MP Tawfic Ayashi on the other. Naturally, they were
quarreling about the new 26-clause temporary constitution passed by
the Constitutional Assembly that now serves as the parliament.

As expected, and as has already been thoroughly played out in the
Tunisian and other Arab media, Ayashi repeated the basic complaint of
the opposition: that the new legislation was cooked up behind the
scenes by the troika coalition of Nahda, the Congress for the
Republic, and Ettakatol, and that the parliamentary procedure had
essentially been a sham.

Al-Makki and his Nahda colleague predictably dismissed these
allegations, insisting that proper procedures had been followed, and
pointing out that 141 out of 217 assembly members had voted for the
new law and that, in any case, the whole thing was temporary.

As I navigated between these positions, both of which have some merit,
I was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the conversation in terms
of contemporary Arab politics. The argument itself was not only
predictable, but also banal and mundane. But what was really shocking,
indeed overwhelming, to me was what was missing from this bickering
and its context. There was no monarch, no dictatorship, no junta or
oppressive military, no killings, no militias, no riots, and no hint
of civil conflict, foreign interference or invasion.

It was just plain old squabbling between MPs from different factions
about legislation, procedure, who does or does not have a mandate, and
whether backroom deals or open debate is propelling the new laws and
the formation of the new government.

It was ugly, as politics always is, but it was also stunningly
beautiful. It’s been many decades since any Arab society has found
itself in this position: building a real, genuine democracy. Indeed,
one could easily make the case that this is the first time an Arab
state has ever really done so.

I made this point with some passion, and I had to hold my emotions in
check with difficulty. On the substantive issues, I had to agree with
the opposition that what was happening was largely cooked up by the
coalition, but this is how parliaments tend to operate.

I thought the Nahda MPs were basically right that 141 votes were
sufficient for a temporary constitution, but that it must prove quite
temporary not only because it lacks a broad-based mandate but also
because it is insufficiently detailed and leaves much to be
determined. The permanent constitution cannot be based on 141 votes
out of 217 and will need a stronger mandate than that.

The biggest bone of contention was Article 8 of the new law, which
holds that the president must be, among other more reasonable
qualifications, a Muslim. Host Mohamed Ali Haidari and I both pressed
the Nahda MPs vigorously on the issue and their defenses were
virtually laughable.

At first they tried to say that since this same provision was also in
the constitution of deposed dictator Ben Ali, they hadn’t introduced
anything new. What, I asked, was the point of the revolution if the
dictator’s constitution was to be regarded as a source of legitimacy?

Al-Makki then tried to suggest that I simply didn’t know enough about
Arab or Muslim societies, that this is a universal and
noncontroversial provision in Arab states (which I pointed out is not
true), and that non-Muslim Tunisians don’t feel discriminated against,
so it’s no big deal.

My response was that “I need no instruction on Arab or Muslim culture
from this Islamist,” and that because indeed there’s no real
possibility of a Christian or Jew becoming the president of Tunisia,
“your law is not only ridiculous, it’s superfluous.” “And,” I
concluded, “It has got to go!” Appropriately enough, this proved the
last word of the hour-long conversation.

But I floated out of the studio with a feeling of real elation.
Tunisians have created a fledgling but genuine, working democracy, in
which the arguments are about backroom deals versus parliamentary
procedures, what kind of mandate is sufficient for core legislation,
and the legitimacy of discriminatory laws. Its very banality is its
The magnitude of Tunisia’s achievement must not be underestimated.
Assuming they can keep it, this should show what’s possible in the
rest of the Arab world in the long run.