This event was co-sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Date: Thursday, February 25, 2016
Time: 2:00 – 3:30 pm
Location: National Democratic Institute
455 Massachusetts Ave, NW, 8th Floor
Washington, DC 20001

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) invite you to a discussion with members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) of the Republic of Tunisia. This event will provide an opportunity for the representatives to share their perspectives on the evolving nature of Tunisian politics, as well as the challenges and opportunities they face in trying to meet citizen expectations and address issues of youth employment and engagement. Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director of MENA Programs, NDI, will join as a discussant, and the panel will be moderated by Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, POMED. This event is made possible through a grant from the Institute for Representative Government to NDI and with the support of the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

Join us for a discussion with:

The Hon. Nozha Beyaoui
Representative, Assembly of the Representatives of the People of Tunisia

The Hon. Haikel Ben Belkassem
Representative, Assembly of the Representatives of the People of Tunisia

Les Campbell
Senior Associate and Regional Director, MENA Programs, National Democratic Institute (NDI)

Moderated by:

Stephen McInerney
Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Event Summary

On February 26th, POMED co-hosted an event with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) titled: “Delivering on Democracy: A Discussion with Members of the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People.” Panelists included the Honorable Haigel Belgacem from the Popular Front and the Honorable Nozha Beyaoui from Front du Salut, both members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director of MENA Programs at NDI. The discussion was moderated by Steve McInerney, Executive Director at POMED.

In his opening remarks, Steve McInerney commented on the origins of the Tunisian’s revolution in 2011 and its evolution. He lauded the formation of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted a constitution in 2014, and the elections of 2014, which made the Assembly of the Representatives of the People the most democratically elected parliament in the Middle East. Mr. McInerney added that Tunisia still required economic development in addition to positive political reform.

Steve McInerney asked each of the panelists to offer their own opening remarks. Popular Front Representative Haigel Belgacem talked about the success of the revolution against Ben Ali which led to democratic elections and he discussed the successes and failures of the Constituent Assembly and the Troika. He then praised recent legal reforms, the creation of the Ministry of Civil Service, Governance and Fight Against Corruption, and the fight against corruption. He emphasized three key challenges of the revolution: freedom, work, and dignity. Belgacem explained that freedom had been achieved and increasing employment was underway, but dignity still needed work.

Front du Salut Representative Nozha Beyaoui talked about how the dream of a new democracy in the Arab World had been fulfilled. She stated that Tunisia still needed support in all fields, particularly the economy. She added that economic investments would create opportunity in all sectors and stressed the need for economic partnerships inside and outside the country. She spoke about security issues, noting that terrorism concerned not only Tunisia but also the rest of the world.

Finally, Les Campbell praised the Tunisia expertise of Steve McInerney and POMED and thanked them for their support for NDI’s Tunisian election commission. Campbell characterized Tunisia as the ray of hope in an otherwise depressing region in terms of democracy promotion. He explained that Tunisia needs guidance for its legislative branch, particularly how the parliament should operate. Campbell stressed the importance of relations between representatives and the people who elected them. He noted that the Representatives are aware that Tunisia has done admirably so far but the international community should wonder what they can do to continue this progress and keep the Tunisian dream alive.

Steve McInerney then addressed questions to all of the panelists, starting with Belgacem’s discussion of freedom, work, and dignity and new economic reforms underway. Ennahdha representative the Hon. Zouhayer Rajbi explained that Tunisia was ready to export the ideas of the revolution after defeating Ben Ali’s dictatorship. He added that legislative reforms should be coupled with economic reforms, particularly the establishment of public-private partnerships involving foreign and local investors. He also highlighted growing corruption in Tunisia, hoping that the new Ministry of Civil Service, Governance and Fight Against Corruption, would remedy some of the problems posed by corruption. Belgacem talked about specific laws on finance, particularly a clause regulating taxation and investments, as well as the ongoing fight against corruption.

Steve McInerney asked Beyaoui about the local elections and the processes of decentralization. She responded that without security you cannot talk about decentralization and growth because of the importance of security to the stability of the country. However, she gave details about the local election processes, stating that the minimum age to run for local elections was now 20. She also explained her proposal of a new system in which the president of the local council would be elected directly by the people rather than assume the role by virtue of being the leader of the majority party in the local council. Rajbi also added his thoughts about the creation of a ministry of local affairs which should oversee the move from centralization to decentralization.

Audience members were then invited to ask the panelists questions. The first round of questions was about the causes for radicalization and the influence of marijuana criminalization, about job opportunities for youth, and about reforming the local courts. Belgacem explained that radicalization did not result from any Tunisian values or Tunisian culture. He noted that extremist groups took advantage of new freedoms to radicalize individuals but in no way draw on Tunisian values. Furthermore, Belgacem stressed the need to fight violent extremism while successfully rebuilding the country. On marijuana laws, Belgacem explained that the Assembly was reviewing the text and wanted to avoid condemning first time offenders. He instead proposed going after drug traffickers. Beyaoui reaffirmed the absence of extremism in Tunisian culture and lamented the absence of awareness against terrorism and radicalization in the country. She then talked about court reform, explaining that the Ben Ali regime used the courts as a weapon but the current legislature revised Ben Ali’s practices. She explained that the constitution enshrines a separation of powers, which brings more credibility to the justice system while putting together a legal framework; judges are not subject to executive power over them. For Beyaoui, the reforms need to make the legal codes consistent with the constitution, including first instance tribunals and appeal courts.

Further questions focused on the upcoming free trade agreement with the European Union and about the relationships between different parties. Belgacem voiced his concern with the proposed free trade agreement explaining that his background as a left wing politician and his experience did not make him sympathetic to such an agreement. He claimed that while the Popular Front did not fear partnerships, several sectors of the Tunisian economy were particularly vulnerable, noting for example that agriculture needs protection and cannot afford to compete with European products. He concluded that Tunisian economic sectors first should be up to par with the EU before opening its borders to trade. He gave the example of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which the EU agreed to sign only if they could protect various sectors of its economy from American competition. Rajbi, as a member of the ruling coalition, agreed with the free trade agreement but acknowledged the importance of protecting vulnerable sectors. Regarding the importance of good relationships between parties, Rajbi explained that coalitions were crucial for ruling Tunisia properly and illustrated the importance of the commissions in which party allegiances were set aside for the good of the country. Belgacem explained that while he and Rajbi were good friends they still had their differences, particularly on the mixed results of the Troika. He also explained that his party did not have a similar political agenda to that of the coalition. However, he corroborated his counterpart’s analysis on the importance of coalitions in Tunisia.

Subsequent questions asked about the impact of the Nidaa Tounes break up on the stability of the Assembly and about the overall stability of Tunisia. This round of questions also allowed for brief closing statements at Steve McInerney’s discretion. The representative from Nidaa Tounes, the Hon. Sana Salhi, spoke for the first time regarding the question about her party. She explained that Nidaa did not actually break up and that Al-Horra and Nidaa were still voting very similarly. Furthermore, she classified Nidaa as the party of all Tunisians which best incorporated Tunisian values. Belgacem concluded by saying that despite their differences, all Tunisians want social justice and a democratic future together. Beyaoui called for the American Congress to support them and the democratic process in Tunisia.