Members of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly – the democratically elected body responsible for drafting the country’s constitution – put forward a new bill on Nov. 23 which would exclude politicians once affiliated with the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) from political life for 10 years. Entitled “The Protection of the Revolution,” the measure – proposed and supported by Ennahda parliamentarians – is being seen by some as a tactic to hinder an opposition front to Ennahda and ensure the Islamists’ dominance in the upcoming election. Its supporters, however, see it as a protective measure necessary to safeguard the revolution.
Sahbi Atig, the head of Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc, explained that the bill would forbid any politician who had served in the RCD from running for president and participating in political life. Ennahda controls 89 out of 217 seats in Constituent Assembly and can easily pass the bill by an overwhelming majority – with the support of four other major blocs backing the measure: This includes the Fidelity to the Revolution, Congress For the Republic, Freedom and Dignity, and the Democratic Bloc – as well as some independent parliamentarians.
Farida Laabidi, head of the government’s Commission on Rights and Liberties (and a member of Ennahda himself) explained that “Through this law we will guarantee that those who served under the former repressive and corrupt regime will not rule the country again.”
This envisioned ban on former RCD members has sparked controversy particularly within the ranks of center-left parties in the opposition, a number of whose members were associated with the old regime. Parties like the newly formed Nidaa Tunis (as ][well others like Al-Moubadara and Al-Watan) have condemned the proposed bill. Khmais Ksila, a member of the Constituent Assembly representing Nidaa Tunis and who is formerly a member of the center-left Ettakatol Party (currently in coalition with Ennahda), described the proposed law as “anti-revolution”; the bill would render certain Tunisians second-class citizens based on political affiliations, and that these kinds of laws only encourage a revenge mentality among Tunisians and threatens to “resort to international institutions to invalidate it.”
Analysts have argued that Tunisia’s transitional democratic process cannot be based on exclusion. Kais Saiyed, a constitutional law expert at the Faculty of Political Science in Tunis, believes that proposing such a law contradicts the principles of democracy: “It is up to the people to decide who to exclude from the political,” he says.
Furthermore, other figures – like Kamel Morjane, the former minister of foreign affairs under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the leader of Al-Moubadara, and Beji Caid Essebsi, the octogenarian head of Nidaa Tunis and interim prime minister during the transition (and also former interior minister under Habib Bourghuiba) – all see this as a purely politically motivated attack to eliminate parties and coalitions capable of competing with Ennahda in the upcoming election.
Nidaa Tunis has a wide range of secular liberals formerly associated with the RCD – which claimed a membership of 2 million people before its dissolution. Many of these saw in Essebsi’s party an opportunity to revive their political chances and perhaps even regain their lost status. Nidaa Tunis, which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement, was perceived as a way to “protect” them from religious extremism and to uphold a modernist interpretation of Islam initiated under the Bourghuiba and Ben Ali regimes – which these former RCD-associates see Ennahda failing to do, if not supporting explicitly. Essebsi himself is especially outspoken in his criticism of the ruling coalition for its “failure” to protect its people from religious extremism and Salafism.
The pragmatism of which Essebsi’s party boasts and its espousal of “modernist” values – coupled with Ennahda’s perceived failures to deal with pressing socio-economic issues – have all given Nidaa Tunis an edge and a chance to have a strong showing in the coming election. According to a recent poll conducted by the Tunisian poll office and 3C Etude, Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis rank close in popularity.
The party has also announced an initiative to merge with the ranks of other center-left parties – among which include Al-Joumhouri, Al-Massar, and the Popular Movement, as well as others – in anticipation of the 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. Essebsi and his followers believe that the only way to counter Ennahda is through a united opposition front.
Ennahda’s fear of a more robust opposition in the upcoming election may well be the motive behind its support of the proposed bill. And whether or not a concern for the rise of former-regime sympathizers is founded, a bill based on political exclusion and score-settling does not bode well for Tunisia’s fragile political process. By pushing it forward, Ennahda is doing exactly what it claims to protect the revolution from: creating a one-party system and attempting to ensure an opposition vacuum – bringing the ruling party more in line with the RDC than it would perhaps like to admit.
Sana Ajmi is a Tunisian journalist and writer. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.