Workers prepare the assembly room inside the former National Assembly building where Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly sits (Photo: AP).
A year ago, Tunisia’s former strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country to escape a popular uprising directed at his regime. The event triggered a regional upheaval and revolt few had predicted.
Tunisia, regarded as the cradle of the region’s revolutions, is widely thought to be on the correct path towards democracy. It has an elected constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution and a new government appointed through the assembly.
The previously banned Islamist group - now party - Ennahda won a majority of constituent assembly seats and along with two secular parties, the centre-left Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR), formed a ruling coalition.
The tripartite coalition, known as the ‘Troika’, currently holds power during Tunisia’s transitional phase. Ennahda’s Secretary General Hamadi Jebali is the interim prime minister, the head of CPR, Moncef Marzouki, is interim president, and Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar is the assembly's speaker.
While unprecedentedly free and fair elections in Egypt and Tunisia are positive signs for the democratic transition, the socio-political realities in both countries pose a significant challenge to premature declarations that revolutionary demands have been fulfilled.
Egypt’s recently completed elections for the lower house of parliament saw record turnout and were broadly seen as successful and free of major problems, but many other revolutionary demands remain unfulfilled.
Many Egyptians believe the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Nour Party – which together won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats – have struck a deal with the ruling military junta (SCAF) in order to suppress the political forces still pressing for true revolutionary change.
In Tunisia, many are concerned that the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party holds most of the important Cabinet posts and is the most powerful group in the assembly. Some people doubt the assembly is representative of all Tunisians and its desire to uphold revolutionary demands.
Najib Chebbi, head of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), was quoted in the Tunisian daily Chorouk as saying that the current government is controlled by Ennahda. He expressed hope that “one party doesn’t dominate the government’s direction since that would be detrimental for the country.”
The PDP, which was expected to finish second behind Ennahda but came sixth, gained less than 10 per cent of seats in the new assembly.
PDP assembly member Iyed Dahmani’s speculative tone about the Troika was more severe than Chebbi’s. Quoted in Tunisian online Journal Tunisia-Live, Dahmani said the PDP “faces a great challenge today. Members of the Troika were oppressed by Ben Ali, and now they are oppressing others.”
Dahmani was referring to Ennahda’s condemnation of a sit-in in front of the constituent assembly headquarters at Bardo Palace against Ennahda and the new government.
The ruling Troika is against current protests and sit-ins. Moreover, Ennahda called on Tunisians not to join the sit-in that started in December, and Salafists went so far as to attack the protesters in an apparent attempt to disperse the sit-in.
Troika member party Ettakatol’s spokesman Mohamed Bennour told Ahram Online that more stability and security was needed during the transitional phase. He insisted – contrary to what other forces within and without the assembly have said – that “there is no dispute” between the Troika and others parties.
“The government is trying to achieve revolutionary demands, including work and dignity,” said Bennour.
Challenging Bennour, leftist political activist Zied Ben Abdeljelil says that Ennahda - which many see as dominating the government since the prime minister has more far-reaching powers than the president does - is not a revolutionary party.
“At best, Ennahda is a reformist party that will build the country according to the present economic system. It will improve the democratic performance of the country but there is no dignity for people whose fate is determined from across the sea,” said Abdeljelil, who believes Western powers continue to exert an influence on Tunisia's economic policies.
Addressing voices accusing Ennahda of abandoning the revolution, Abdeljelil claims Ennahda was never at the forefront of the uprising, which was spearheaded by lawyers and the 500,000-member Tunisian General Labour Union. He also adds that both Ettakatol and CPR are merely window dressing for Ennahda.
However, others maintain that legitimacy comes from the ballot box, through which Ennahda won a clear victory and therefore has the right to head the transitional government. The same could be said for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, won 45 per cent of seats in the new lower house of parliament.
Brotherhood supporters say the election gave them legitimacy, while activists on the street attack them for cooperating with the SCAF against revolutionaries.
Tunisia’s Bardo sit-in rejected the temporary power-sharing program between Troika members and called for curbing the Troika’s power in the assembly, saying it did not want a repeat of Ben Ali’s one party rule.
The sit-in’s demands included a rule whereby an absolute majority in parliament could give or withdraw confidence from the government, the necessity of a two-thirds majority to pass legislation and putting the constitution to a popular referendum when drafted. They also demanded televising assembly sessions.
While those were only some of the demands, they reflect a crisis of confidence between many Tunisians and the ruling coalition.
Revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have many unfulfilled demands, such as putting on trial the killers of protesters, repaying honour to the injured of the revolution and radical social transformation.
Major differences notwithstanding, opposition to the Troika reflects a fate that might happen to Islamists in Egypt’s parliament once it starts to function. It is yet to be seen whether the Egyptian parliament will be worthy of its current image as a linchpin of revolutionary transformation.