The parties of both the minority and the majority must not forget that the revolution in Tunisia carried within it a desire for freedom, dignity, and justice.

On Sunday, October 23 the mood was already palpable in the early morning: people of all ages, social classes, even persons of limited mobility waited on line in front of polling stations under a blistering sun, without complaint, for hours on end.

It was moving to see how deeply each step in the process of democracy took on meaning; the gesture of voting, made for the first time, illustrated the road travelled from the fall of the dictatorship to the emergence of a new Tunisia, and determined that no matter the price, each citizen will have the right of individual sovereignty and will be the master of her own political destiny.

Yet, while the elections ran smoothly for the most part, meeting standards of transparency, veracity, and democratic representativeness, much in terms of real democracy remains to be achieved. Indeed, the constitution itself, that basic law which makes it possible not only to regulate the balance of power among different governing institutions, but to formulate the broad political and philosophical visions of a new social compact that will unite Tunisians, has yet to be drafted.

Human rights are a key foundation of this compact, providing a framework for relations between the individual and the state. Clear advances with respect to civil liberties may have been achieved during the period of transition, thanks in particular to the passage of new laws governing associations and political parties, as well as the media. Nevertheless, the Constituent Assembly will have a free hand not only to write Tunisia’s new constitution, but the laws required to exercise power during the transition period before the presidential and legislative elections. In other words, this is a turning point which will determine Tunisia’s future for many years to come.


Political Forces and Human Rights

The election results announced by the ISIE election commission give the Islamist party Ennahdha 90 seats in the Constituent Assembly. With a comfortable majority, Ennahdha will thus be in a strong position to forge the alliances it needs.

Will Ennahdha maintain its official policy of support for human rights values? Since the fall of the dictatorship and the return from exile of Ennahdha’s leadership, the party has tried to offer pledges of moderation to Tunisian society and adopt the image of a modern, pragmatic political party, allowing it to chase away the shadows of a past the former regime portrayed as violent.

The party’s leaders declare their support for democratic principles, promising to respect Tunisian achievements such as the Code of Personal Status and other fundamental liberties. Their rhetoric with regard to human rights is well-practiced, if rather vague. The political platform they issued on September 16 suggests that there is no conflict between Islam and human rights, and repeats that the system of a republic is the best guarantor of pluralism and respect for individual liberties. No mention is made of the shari’a as a source of law

Although the party’s speeches and platform attempt to reassure Tunisians, it is unclear whether it will be able to stick to this line once it is dominant in the Constituent Assembly. The key issue will be whether Ennahdha will still advocate for human rights or if there will be backsliding towards an interpretation at odds with international standards.

The position adopted by Sadok Charou, one of the party’s most prominent representatives, after the Nessma TV affair, illustrates this danger; he stated that Ennahdha would support inserting a ban on the defamation of religions into the constitution.


Interplay of Alliances and Coalitions

A coalition between Ennahdha, the Congress for the Republic, headed by Moncef Marzouk, and Ettakattol, led by Mustapha Ben Jaafaar, the three major victors in this election, is expected to be formed. The Progressive Democratic Party [PDP] and the modernizing Democratic Modernist Coalition [PDM] will probably have little influence in a future coalition.

The fragmentation of the Tunisian left, an absence of broad coalitions that could unite the so-called “modernist”parties, and divisions on the issue of identity which have deepened the fault lines between secularists and Islamists are some of the factors working to the modernists’disadvantage. This means that these parties cannot represent any real counterbalance in the Constituent Assembly, although their vision of human rights provides firm guarantees against the arbitrariness of varying legal outcomes and grants fundamental rights.

While the Islamist movement’s overwhelming victory and the alliances that will take shape in its wake do not necessarily signify a retreat on rights, it is likely to leave greater room for maneuver to adopt constitutional or legal measures that pose a threat to liberties.

The transition period has demonstrated a very broad consensus among Tunisian parties on a good number of basic principles, making it unlikely that laws will be passed which challenge basic political freedoms such as freedom of association, protections against torture, strong legal guarantees during legal procedures, and an independent judiciary.

But, as the Human Rights Watch questionnaire issued four days before the ballot showed, when one scratches beneath the surface the parties do diverge somewhat on civil liberties, particularly with respect to freedom of expression and individual freedoms, and how they define the principle of non-discrimination.

One danger would be that quite conservative positions, emerging from the interplay of alliances and compromises between the parties in the majority, could pose a threat to a number of rights, distorting their meaning and leaving room, via the manipulation of vague constitutional language, for arbitrary outcomes when those rights are translated into law and interpreted by judges. The new constitution would thus be defining rights but allowing the law to set their limits, which would reduce their scope and diminish their value.

As the Constituent Assembly readies itself to come into being, a political dynamic exists that worries many Tunisians. The parties of both the minority and the majority must not forget, amidst the interplay of alliances and coalitions, that the revolution in Tunisia carried within it a desire for freedom, dignity, and justice that now needs to be translated into a coherent constitutional system, and laws consistent with international standards.

* Amna Guellali is the researcher for Tunisia and Algeria at Human Rights Watch *