Tunisia’s new parliament is a powerful symbol of hope

If Tunisia can successfully navigate a similar process of transparency and accountability, then it will have much to be proud of, writes HA Hellyer

Members of the Tunisian House of People's representatives take an oath during the inaugural session, in Tunis, last week. Mohamed Messara / EPA
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Earlier this week, the newly elected Tunisian parliament was sworn in. The oath-taking symbolised a great deal because its backdrop is a story of inclusiveness and pluralism. But there are enormous challenges as well. All of which are mirrored throughout the country as a whole and the Arab region, four years after the Arab uprisings began. As the presidential run-off election appears on the horizon, and security continues to be a challenge, it may be time to take stock of how far Tunisia has come as well as the difficulties of the road ahead.

Let us rewind a little. The results of the Tunisian elections earlier this year brought into being an incredibly diverse Arab parliament that reflected a truly broad base of political affiliations. Secularists, liberals, moderate Islamists, supporters of the former dictatorship of Ben Ali, socialists, and others will sit together in a single parliament. No faction will dominate. Indeed, the strongest group, Nidaa Tunis, is a motley crew of various non/anti-Islamist strands. It won the most seats but cannot be said to bestride the political landscape. The very existence of such a uniquely pluralistic parliament is perhaps a first in the contemporary Arab world. That is a success story in and of itself.

The new parliamentarians swore the oath on the constitution of the Tunisian Republic. That was, again, a first. The constitution, of course, is a first, having been written in a fashion that is quite rare, not just in the Arab world, but globally. This is a constitution that is pluralistic and progressive in content. It was written using a consensus-based process. There were various trends that brought that process to a successful conclusion. One of these was the Ennahdha Party, which was the single strongest political force before the parliamentary elections. Ennahdha can justly be proud of its achievement.

All of this is good news, but many challenges remain in this relatively small but remarkably impressive North African country. There is one more hurdle for the country to overcome in its transition from dictatorship to democracy, and then the real work can begin.

That hurdle is the completion of the presidential election. A run-off is due later this month between the sitting interim president, Moncef Marzouki, and Beji Caid Essebsi, a former senior official in the Ben Ali and Bourguiba administrations. This is an important race. If Mr Essebsi wins, the new president will not only represent a link to Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary past, but whose party, Nidaa Tunis, will be the biggest in the legislature as well.

However, if victory goes to Mr Marzouki, a noted human rights defender, Tunisia will have a president who could never have entered the highest levels of public life without a pro-democracy revolutionary uprising. The symbolism of that cannot be underestimated.

Whoever the winner, he will have two serious problems on his hands. The risk of polarisation is very real; indeed, it might even worsen because of the presidential election. Tunisians have already seen their most senior political figures trade insults about allegations of support from corrupt, dictatorial forces or radical jihadists. Some of the allegations have been amusing.

Tunisians also continue to face an enormous security challenge, one that claims innocent lives and which resulted in the beheading of a policeman earlier this week by radical Islamist extremists. It is important for Tunisia to be able to stand firm and united, even as diversity thrives. This is not an impossible task, but it will test the health of Tunisia’s democratic experiment. There seems to be no other alternative; every other course of action is likely to be for the worse.

There is one other significant challenge – the notion of accountability for the failings of previous authorities. In this, Mr Marzouki, whether he becomes president or not, will be a great asset to the country. Unlike many others in positions of authority in Tunisia, he has first-hand experience of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. He has studied and understands notions of transitional justice and reconciliation. If Tunisia can successfully navigate a similar process of transparency and accountability, then it will have much to be proud of – and the Arab world will have much to learn from Tunisia.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

Twitter: @hahellyer