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In January 2014, following four drafts and two years of commissions and tension, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) of Tunisia ratified its new Constitution. The NCA was instituted by Tunisia’s first open and democratic elections which took place on October 23, 2011. It was charged with drafting the new Constitution within a year. Two years on, the drafting process was finally accelerated by the political crisis that resulted from the second political assassination in a year, that of NCA member Mohammad Brahmi on July 25, 2013 that followed the assassination on February 6 of Chokri Belaid.
The Constitution was ratified on January 26th 2014. This is the story of an historic moment in a country that is witnessing a complex transition to democracy, but remains optimistic.
After having attended many sessions in which each article of the Constitution was ratified, the day of the final vote had a truly significant air. The Assembly filled rapidly, the seats usually only occupied by representatives of civil society organizations and journalists, now had to be squeezed into alongside the relatives of MPs and numerous cameras. The excitement in the stands was tangible, it felt almost like a popular celebration rather than the typical solemn proceedings of Parliament.
Sunday, January 26, 9:49 p.m.: reading of the Constitution commences
"On behalf of the people and with God's blessing, we are adopting the Constitution." The full reading of the 149 articles gets underway. Non-Arabic speakers are glued to their screens reading internet versions translated by volunteer citizens and organizations. The assembly is in almost total silence despite being full. Aside from a few conversations the overwhelming sound is that of pages being turned studiously and in harmony by the MPs.
As the last few articles are read, concentration diminishes and the occupants of the balcony, probably more numerous than the MP’s, rise as a body, and stare down towards the debating chamber hemicycle. The feeling of anxiety spreads, although there is very little remaining doubt that there will be a positive vote.
For the first time since the beginning of the Constitutional process, all elected officials are present, 216 in total. Only two are sadly missing, Mohammed Allouch who died a few days prior to the vote and Mohammed Brahmi who was murdered during the summer of 2013.
11:15 p.m.: end of the reading
Applause rings out, elected officials are on their feet and Tunisian flags are already unfurled. Mustapha Ben Jaafar, President of the NCA, delivers a speech loaded with victory, although the vote has not yet taken place.
— AlBawsala (@AlBawsalaTN) 26 Jan 2014
[Tweet: Mustapha Ben Jaafar (President of the NCA), states that the NCA would not have succeeded without the direct and indirect contribution of civil society in the work of the Tunisian Constitution]
11:34 p.m.: the Constitution is ratified
Results: 200 yes votes, 4 abstentions, 12 no votes. The crowd is singing, crying, embracing... on both levels of the Assembly emotion is at its peak. The national anthem is sung in unison, no-one waits for the CD operated by the technical booth. The words take on a special significance at that moment when the new Constitution of the Second Republic has just been passed, under the scrutiny of many domestic and foreign observers, including activists and member organizations (some of which are Oxfam partners) that have worked tirelessly to influence the process and ensure respect for fundamental rights.
"Faithful to the blood of martyrs!" chant the MPs with the V sign, revolutionary slogans in the audience; the two floors of the Assembly are cheering.
Down in the hemicycle, supplied with large flags, members of radically opposed political parties, who were fighting over the wording of articles a few days ago, are embracing with pride. Despite harsh criticism, a slow process, worrying debates, especially concerning human rights, the NCA has just achieved an historic victory: producing a constitutional text from a blank sheet of paper, after 50 years of dictatorship.Photo: Rym Khadhraoui/Oxfam
"No more fear, no more terror"
At the same time, on the first floor, those who had closely followed the entire constitutional proceedings forget for a moment the contents of polemical articles to take the time to congratulate themselves. While Civil Society’s warnings of the risk to democracy and human rights have been on everyone's lips for he past two years, the ratification is a proud and joyful moment. If Tunisian civil society and the few international organizations involved had not proved faithful, the concept of a Constitution achieved by consensus would have been cast aside many times over. But the commitment was constant, the proceedings of the Assembly were monitored daily, principally by Oxfam’s partner NGO Al Bawsala, making the process almost intimate and the emotion many times stronger.
"No more fear, no more terror, our Constitution belongs to the people." The hemicycle empties around midnight but the outpouring of collective joy does not end there, the stairs are heaving and the entrance hall is packed, the heterogeneous crowd continues to sing revolutionary chants and the national anthem until 1:00 a.m. No-one would think that these festivities more reminiscent of post World Cup celebrations mark the conclusion of a Constitutional process, but in Tunisia this is the news we have been waiting for.
Nevertheless, a lot remains to be done, the Constitution lays the foundation for the new regime, but this is reliant on the interpretation of its text by the Tunisian authorities, especially the future Constitutional Court. The role of Civil Society to influence decision making towards more equitable, participatory, transparent and accountable models of governance remains crucial. The joy and relief do not wipe out the major challenges Tunisia is currently facing, notably the economic and social situation, challenges to security and the organization of the next elections.
However, a step has been taken; the first democratically elected assembly has followed a relatively transparent process through to conclusion, thanks to the work of civil society associations and the engagement of citizens.
You may also like
Oxfam's work in Tunisia (English, French and Spanish)
Official website of the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia (Arabic)
Marsad - National Constituent Assembly Observatory (French and Arabic)
Tunisia’s Compromise Constitution (English)