From 16-18 March 2012 International Alert convened a group of 25 civil society leaders from different parts of Tunisia. This roundtable built on six months of preparation during which we came to realise, through discussions with different people, one of the main hurdles between Tunisia’s dynamic uprising in early 2011 which sparked the 'Arab Spring' and the just peace that its citizens hope will follow.
This hurdle is, namely, the ability of Tunisia’s many new non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society groups to sustain their collective voice in the political transition process which is now underway. Without a voice, there will be a deficit in the trust needed to build a strong social contract between those negotiating new political power arrangements and others who will be governed by these new arrangements.
The main vehicle for gathering different views and working out "the new Tunisia" is the recently elected Constituent Assembly (CA), which will sit for one year. Its mandate is to write a new constitution, laying out laws and political processes which its citizens will then adopt. The Deputy President of the CA attended part of our meeting, updating the participants on progress and listening to their views.
The participants discussed many issues during the roundtable, including the extent to which Tunisia should be a secular or Islamic state, the need for jobs and the restoration of dignity, the role of women in politics, transitional justice and how to establish better security arrangements given the continued mistrust of the security forces by civilians , and the need for and nature of dialogue.
Towards the end of the three-day event it had become clear that not only was there a need to strengthen the connections between civil society organisations (CSOs) and the political parties involved in the CA, but these same CSOs also wanted to better understand each other. In addition to differences in attitudes towards Islamism and secularism, CSOs n the capital had different priorities to those in the more peripheral regions, and the younger generations were often at odds with their elders.
Above all, there was a hunger to get to grips with what it means to be part of civil society. Tunisia’s uprising marked an end to 23 years of authoritarian rule by the then President Ben Ali. Few CSOs found the space to operate under his rule. Understanding how best to do so now is going to take time.
Alert has established some preliminary links with some of the organisations and individuals who will help shape Tunisia during the coming years. We aim to support them, providing a space in which they and others can both deepen their understanding of their civil and political role, and in so doing build a meaningful dialogue with the new political power brokers who will ultimately lead them along the still uncertain path towards a just and sustainable peace.