In Tunisia, how to build a democracy
“I have to go interact with them for a few minutes,” remarks Noomane Fehri, a newly elected member of the Tunisian parliament. We’re standing outside the parliament building watching a knot of demonstrators on the other side of an iron gate.
Fehri is earnest and passionate, a former London-based management consultant who, like a number of his peers, dropped his life when the Jasmine Revolution broke out last winter, and rushed home to help build a democracy in his native Tunisia.
This small country has often punched above its weight. Most recently, the popular uprising here that began exactly a year ago sparked the most consequential wave of political transformations since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tunisia’s destiny bears watching.
On this Tuesday in December, Fehri is showing me around the Bardo Palace, where the new legislature meets. Rows of slender columns grace galleried courtyards, arches of alternating black and white marble imparting a uniquely Tunisian serenity. “God bless your parents,” Fehri says, half hugging a workman who agrees to switch on the lights in the round chamber where three days earlier an interim constitution was approved — over the protest of Fehri and other members of the small, left-leaning secular opposition.
“It has no expiration date,” Fehri says to explain his objections. “And I don’t like the way it cedes authority to the prime minister in case of parliamentary deadlock. Too much depends on the goodwill of a few individuals. I got emotional,” he concedes. “I started crying. And people realized there was a serious problem. Some provisions were modified.”
Fehri walks down to the front row and slides into a seat. “This is where I sit.” A mixture of bemusement and suppressed pride lights his face. “Nahda goes from the end across to there.” He indicates a fat wedge of seats held by the religious party, which won a plurality of votes in October’s election. Arguments over how to interact with Nahda’s governing coalition have racked Fehri’s Afeq Tounes party, with adamant feminists rejecting any cooperation whatsoever.
“One good thing about their success is that it transformed the social makeup of the parliament,” notes Fehri. “Normally the top positions on electoral lists are held by the elites, the suit-and-tie crowd. But because they did so well, Nahda had to reach deep down into its list to fill all its seats. So this parliament, for the first time, truly represents Tunisian society.”
Maybe, but post-revolutionary Tunisians aren’t leaving anything to chance, and the parliament is under observation by the country’s version of the Occupy movement.
Outside the fence encircling the Bardo Palace, a few hundred people camp in white tents, angry banners draped across the awnings. Demonstrators clog the sidewalk and gather in animated groups by the cast-iron gate. Fehri sees it as intrinsic to his role as elected representative that he should go “interact” with them. Shaking the hands of two policemen on guard, he slides back the bolt and steps out, approaching a woman at the edge of the crowd. Head cocked in concentration, he listens to her appeal. Within minutes, the press of people around him is three deep — avid, impatient, aggressive.
“This guy, what does he do?” a young man asks me.
“He’s a member of parliament. He’s come out to listen to you.”
“Baah. They’re all from the old ruling party.”
Still, the boy pushes forward till he’s shouting at Fehri, who reaches out to grasp his hand as he reasons with him. I can’t hear well, but it seems many here have come with practical grievances. The young man’s friend was wounded during the democracy demonstrations. A sleeve shoved back reveals a raw scar on his skinny forearm. Students argue for a moratorium on loan repayments for the unemployed. Residents of the phosphate production region are used to guaranteed jobs.
Fehri jots down one person’s contact information. He tells two more that their problem is the same as someone else’s; they should gather with others in the same situation and write up a petition, then he’ll fight for it. “There should be an office for the martyrs of the revolution and the injured,” he tells me later. “A single point of contact. And a student loan moratorium for unemployed graduates is a good idea. I can work on that.”
Fehri gives the crowd his Facebook address. “I can’t hand out my phone number, but from midnight to 2 a.m., I’m on Facebook. I’ll answer you.” The tension eases, like a knot loosening. Someone starts to clap, others join him, and the crowd breaks up.
Fehri’s brand of direct democracy has ruffled some feathers. He’s been posting drafts of documents under consideration. “A lot of my colleagues didn’t like that. But who cares?”
That evening we go for a drink. A waiter, beaming, brings us an extra bowl of pistachio nuts. “This is
a great man,” he confides to me with a glance at Fehri. “Not one of those Ben Ali people.” The former dictator’s name is expelled with disgust. Fehri tears up at the compliment.
Wiping his eyes when the waiter leaves, he changes the subject: “Here’s a question. When they announce the members of the Cabinet, should we, as the opposition, vote no confidence as a matter of principle? That’s what some of my party wants. But I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s right to systematically oppose everything this government does. The people want change; they’ll see us as obstructionist. Besides, the government might have some good ideas.”
Such considerations — mundane and fascinating — are the nuts and bolts of democracy. How Tunisia grapples with them will be of enormous significance to a transfigured region. We Americans might even have a few things to learn.
Sarah Chayes founded a cooperative in Kandahar that produces skin-care products from local agricultural products (www.arghand.org) and is the author of “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.”