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Revolution road: Tunisia's democracy 'mastermind' speaks to Ahram Online

Ayyad bin Ashour, the legal scholar tasked with smoothing Tunisia's path to free elections, tells Ahram Online of his optimism, but admits that 'revolutions are usually only half successful'

Karem Yahia, Friday 7 Oct 2011
Ayyad bin Ashour

He may be the mastermind of Tunisia's transition to democracy in the wake of the 14 January revolution, but the only power he holds is moral.

Ayyad bin Ashour, described as “a moderate in a time of revolution”, is the chairman of the Supreme Authority for Achieving the Goals of the Revolution (SAAGR), an independent body tasked with giving advice to ease the North African country's path to representative government after decades of autocratic rule.

Bin Ashour is in charge of examining legislation for political reform and presenting proposals to Tunisia's interim president and prime minister.

SAAGR's work is coming to a close, and in just over two weeks come the 23 October elections for Tunisia's National Constituent Council. 

The elected council will then be in charge of electing a new president and forming a new government, as well as the crucial task of writing the constitution for the Second Republic. The mandate of all these institutions will end within a year of their creation.

Ahram Online recently met with Ayyad Bin Ashour one morning at his home in Al-Marsa, 15 kilometres outside the capital, Tunis. 

At eight sharp, he came bounding into the living room of his historic home dressed in athletic clothes. It was a property that shows the generation-spanning wealth and renown of his family and their connections to Tunsia's Al-Zaytouna mosque, a famous seat of Islamic learning.

Originally a professor of public law, bin Ashour later became a professor of legal philosophy at the capital's Carthage University.

He is an intellectual, captivated -- like his country Tunisia --  by two cultures, Arab-Islamic and Western-French. This dualism was apparent even in his choice of breakfast: a croissant and Moroccan tea, served in a small Arabic-style teacup.

Ahram Online: As a follower of Arab progressive thought, what's your view of what is occurring in Tunisia?

Ayyad bin Ashour: We called what happened a revolution because it was complete disengagement on the political and social level. The relationship between the citizen and the state quickly changed. When deposed President Zein Al-Abideen bin Ali fled on 14 January, this caused fundamnetal changes the political plane, and brought an end to the state’s dominance and control over society.

AO: How was bin Ali different from his predecessor Habib Bourguiba who established the First Tunisian Republic? Was the former a continuation of the latter as some have claimed?

AA: Burguiba institutionalised the state’s dominance over society, but he had a modern vision and a plan for a progressive society. He used his extensive powers for the benefit of the nation. His hands were clean, like President Gamal Abdel-Nasser -- they were both superb politicians and were not interested in accumulating wealth.

After Burguiba, Tunisia’s state institutions became despicably corrupt. But with an eye on Tunisia’s history, I can say that his revolution is about more than uprooting the dominance of bin Ali and Burguiba, but uprooting the entire state supremacy over society – [this happened[ even during the Ottoman crisis, Al-Husseini's rule and as a French protectorate.

AO: Why did the first revolution of the Arab Spring begin in Tunisia?

AA: Perhaps because bin Ali’s rule had broken all the rules and surpassed unprecedented heights of corruption. His was the most corrupt among Arab regimes, and it was natural that the Tunisian revolution spread to the [rest of the] Arab world because they are linked through culture and by being neighbours.

AO: What was the reason for creating SAAGR?

AA: When bin Ali realised the threat of the popular uprising, he announced in his third and last speech on 13 January, hours before he fled, that he intended to create a committee of experts for political reform, and two committees to fight corruption and investigate incidents.

Bin Ghanoushi’s first cabinet after the revolution followed through on this, and so did the Council for the Protection of the Revolution from the bottom up [through political parties and NGOs]. 

The Council includes 28 partners, starting with the Islamist Al-Nahda movement through to the communist Al-Tajdeed party. The goal was to monitor the government in the name of the revolution, as well as legislation and candidates for public office.

Al-Ghanoushi’s government launched intensive negotiations with these parties to join the political reform committee. In March SAAGR was formed by simply combining the Revolution Protection Council and experts on the political reform committee.

This is how, after chairing the 20-strong legal experts committee, I found myself at the helm of something similar to a parliament. We gradually expanded to become 155 members from across the political spectrum.

AO: But there are reports that some forces were excluded from SAAGR, or some political forces are not represented proportional to their influence, such as the Islamist Al-Nahda movement.

AA: There was criticism in the beginning that SAABR does not represent all of society, but in time we tried to represent everyone -- even Tunisians abroad. It now includes representatives of 12 political parties and of the major political forces.

Al-Nahda has three official representatives and some public figures who are members also represent the movement. 

The left accused us of being a Nahda entity, and some from Al-Nahda claimed that we are controlled by the left, especially Al-Tajdeed Party. But I insist that the revolution was primarily sparked by civil society and had nothing to do with political parties. It took parties and politicians by surprise because it is began with the people.

The revolutionary youth are well represented although they are not a majority. [They make up 50 of the 155 members.]

AO: Who decided the composition of SAAGR?

AA: It was a joint endeavour between the government, political parties, the Labour Union, and the Tunisian Human Rights Society. The composition was amended several times and the final decision lay with the prime minister.

AO: What is SAAGR’s relationship with the government and interim presidency; do they interfere much to amend decrees SAAGR proposes?

AA: Amendments and interference by the presidency and government are limited and very rare. Although SAAGR has a consultative mandate not a legislative one, and all it can do is propose draft texts to the government for ratification, it is a moral force in society. The president and government cannot ignore or simply change what we give them.

There have only been two incidents and we reached a compromise on both occasions. One pertained to the levels of political isolation; the second to forming a Supreme Committee for Elections and the judicial membership of this committee. 

Unfortunately, disputes with the government and its obstinance resulted in the withdrawal of the judiciary from the election committee.

AO: What are the main problems and obstacles that SAAGR faces?

AA: We have worked for eight months without an internal structure. We are working under extraordinary circumstances and have had no time to put this structure in place. 

The other problem is the bad conduct of some members who do not recognise that SAAGR should be respected as a state institution. While these are a minority, they acted rashly, used extravagant language and were critical in the media. These are the enemies within who have greatly harmed the image of SAAGR in society.

AO: Are you satisfied with the transition to democracy as this stage?

AA: It is impossible to be 100 per cent satisfied, but SAAGR has accomplished its mission in terms of reforms that would enable Tunisia for the first time in its history to hold real elections that are not rigged.

AO: Some youth elements believe that the revolution was hijacked.

AA: That is the fate of all revolutions; they are social tremors that do not accomplish all their aspirations. It happened in the French and Bolshevik revolutions; revolutions are often only half successful.

AO: How do you see Tunisia’s future after the election of the Constituent Assembly?

AA: I am very optimistic despite the difficulties and reports of security and media instability. The country has returned to a relatively calm state and there is determination to make the elections successful. 

On 15 September, the major parties signed the ‘Declaration of the Transitional Path’, and we have safeguarded this path with as many guarantees as we can.

Overall, it can be said today that Tunisia has overcome the biggest hurdle and is approaching election day with the best chance of success.

AO: Will Tunisia choose a parliamentary system after nearly 55 years of dominance by Burguiba and bin Ali?

AA: Neither parliamentary nor presidential; we will be a balanced system. The president will be chosen from among the people and he alone will represent the nation, but he will be removed from the daily political game. Daily politics will be played out in parliament, the people and cabinet. For the first time in the country’s history, the president will represent all the people, not just one party.

AO: There are rumours that you might be the most suitable candidate for the presidency in the second interim phase.

AA: I am interested in ideas and writing. I have written books and have new writing projects planned; I have no political ambitions. I have promised not to accept any political post after the Constituent Assembly elections.

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