Democratically elected 217-member assembly holds first meeting 10 months after uprising swept Ben Ali from power
By Eileen Byrne
It was the spark for the Arab spring, but while much of the region remains in tumult, Tunisia took another big step from dictatorship to fully fledged democracy. The country’s constituent assembly, the first newly elected body to emerge from the upheavals that have convulsed the Arab world, held its opening session in the white-walled building with blue shutters that until last January housed Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s rubber-stamp parliament.
A newly assertive Tunisian media packed the press gallery, and while the numerous security guards in their dark glasses may have seemed like a hangover from a former era, there was an atmosphere of quiet pride in what has so far been a largely peaceful period of democratic transition.
The outgoing Tunisian president, Fouad Mebazaa, opened the inaugural session by leading the new assembly members in a Muslim prayer in remembrance of those who died last December and January. He urged assembly members to live up to the hope of those who had carried out
“this blessed revolution”.
In the election a month ago, the Islamists of Ennahda easily emerged as the most popular party, securing 40% of votes cast, and 89 seats in the 217-member assembly. The party has formed a ruling majority with two secular allies – the liberal Congress for the Republic, headed by former political exile Moncef Marzouki and Ettakatol, a centre-left party led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar.
As the assembly drafts a new constitution, a task it is expected to be completed within the year, a new president, prime minister and cabinet – with powers to be defined by the assembly – will run the country.
The Ennahda-led block has proposed Marzouki as its candidate for president, Ben Jaafer as president of the assembly, while the leading Nahda politician, Hamadi Jebali, who spent over 15 years in Ben Ali’s jails, becomes prime minister.
Hundreds of Tunisians gathered in the street outside, voicing demands ranging from the prosecution of police marksmen who fired on demonstrators last January, to calling for the new assembly to
“respect the goals of the revolution”.
Some merely expressed support for Ennahda and the new assembly. Even in the street, good-humoured dialogue prevailed. Lilia Msalem, a middle-class Sorbonne graduate and housewife, said she had come to protest as she was concerned by a recent speech by Jebali in which he had referred to restoring a caliphate in Tunisia.
“In the three hours I’ve been here, I’ve had some really good discussions. I was really surprised by how well some ordinary people speak, explaining why they voted for Ennahda.”
Inside the parliament building, Mebaza said that much had been achieved in the 10 months since Ben Ali fled the country, and the second stage of the transition to democracy would be overseen by
“an institution that has popular legitimacy, expressing the will of the people”.
This self-effacing78-year-old took on role of president last January, from his previous job of parliamentary speaker, in which he had watched over Ben Ali’s appointees in this same chamber. Tunisians are proud of having produced the first constitution in the Arab world (a shortlived document thrust under the nose of the Bey of Tunis by the city’s elite in 1860) and even in the heat of revolution followed the constitutional rulebook in selecting a temporary president.
Below Mebazaa, a guest for the assembly’s inaugural session, Rached Ghannouchi, the religious scholar who founded Ennahda, sat in an open-necked shirt, with a lapel badge showing his party’s campaign symbol of a bird in flight. General Rachid Ammar, the leader of the armed forces who won some kudos, when his soldiers declined to open fire last January, sat bare-headed, his gold-braided cap placed on the lectern in front of him.
The cohort of women assembly members elected on the Ennahda ticket was scattered throughout the chamber, wearing headscarves in businesslike browns, pale blue and grey, while among the male members there was one red chechia (fez-style) hat, and a couple of examples of traditional Tunisian gowns, and one assembly member in tribal-style drapes.
As the session closed, the nation’s new political elite was confronted by a phenomenon new to Tunisia – the media scrum. The future prime minister, Jebali, lingered inside the chamber, in a huddle of allies and possible future allies. A new, and perhaps not so new, art of politics for a country once dismissed as the most boring in the Arab world.
Source: The Guardian
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