The Middle East Channel

Ben Ali may be gone but his constitution is not yet forgotten

Tunisia, which had two presidents since becoming independent in 1956, has now had a series of three people claiming the post in less than 24 hours. What is going on?

Yesterday,President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country a bit too hurriedly to either resign or leave instructions. So the prime minister stepped in front of television cameras and claimed he would temporarily assume presidential duties. He cited Article 56 of the Tunisian constitution. Its provisions allow the prime minister to assume the role of acting president when the president is temporarily unable to serve and issues a decree deputizing the premier.

Politically Ben Ali may have been dead, but constitutionally he was just on vacation. Opposition leaders cried foul.  In legalistic terms, where was the required decree? And in practical terms, this was a partial step at best. The regime stood as it had before, minus its head. There was no time limit to the "temporary" measure, and no new elections were scheduled.


So today,under continuing pressure, the scrambling and panicking regime moved down to Article 57, covering vacancy in the presidency. The Constitutional Council can declare the president incompetent to serve, allowing the speaker of the parliament to take the post as long as new elections are held within 60 days.

Do constitutional provisions really matter in a place like this? Can't rulers just do what they like? Is the opposition likely to accept a set of rules tailor-made for an authoritarian regime? The answer to the first two questions is yes. Constitutions can matter even in a place like Tunisia. The answer to the third question is more difficult -- use of the constitution would be a mixed bag for the opposition.

In normal times, constitutional provisions matter in a place like Tunisia because they give the rulers the tools to do whatever they want. Even authoritarian regimes need clear chains of command and authoritative structures just as much as liberal democratic ones. So they almost always issue constitutions and generally follow them -- it is just that the constitutional provisions are neither liberal nor democratic (and what seemingly liberal and democratic provisions exist are qualified out of meaningful existence). Of course, they do not want to have that constitutional language that will restrict them in any way. If that happens, they will show fewer scruples. But that is why Article 56 was so handy. By relying on it, Tunisia's remaining rulers seemed to be saying: "We are still in charge and we can still do what we want." That was why the step was less than satisfying.

But that also leads us to understand why constitutions can matter even in times of crisis. Today in Tunisia the constitution provides the only framework for the interim regime and the opposition to negotiate. Of course, revolutions in which constitutions are completely forgotten certainly occur. But not all regime changes happen that way -- sometimes they can be negotiated through existing constitutional mechanisms. That often happened in 1989 when communism fell in Eastern Europe, for instance. And in a case like Tunisia, in which decades of political repression have led to an opposition with weak leadership that has little ability to develop a detailed and unifying program, following the constitution may give it the breathing spell it needs while allowing state institutions to continue to function in the vacuum.

But Article 57 -- if that is what is used -- is a very mixed blessing for the opposition. The problems start when you read the fine print. The presidential elections have to be held according to the current constitutional provisions, and those allow only the Potemkin parliament (and a few other officials) the ability to nominate candidates. And while the acting president is serving, no constitutional amendments are allowed. In other words, invocation of Article 57 kicks into gear a process that was carefully designed for Ben Ali. It is designed for a figure handpicked by current top leaders, not for a truly open election.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.


Marc Lynch

Tunisia and the New Arab Media Space

An interesting discussion has already broken out over whether Tunisia should be considered a "Twitter Revolution" -- a far more interesting and relevant discussion than whether it was a "WikiLeaks Revolution" (it wasn't). I've seen some great points already by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, Luke Allnut, Jillian York, and others. I'm looking forward to being one of the social scientists digging into the data, where I suspect that both enthusiasts and skeptics will find support for their arguments. For now, I would just argue that it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions. That feels like a sentence which I've written a hundred times over the last decade… and one which has never felt truer than the last month in Tunisia.


Calling Tunisia a "Twitter Revolution" is simplistic, but even skeptics have to recognize that the new media environment mattered. I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition ("Twitter vs. Al Jazeera"), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space. Without the new social media, the amazing images of Tunisian protestors might never have escaped the blanket repression of the Ben Ali regime --- but it was the airing of these videos on Al Jazeera, even after its office had been shuttered, which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realized what was happening around their country. This is similar to how the new media empowered Egyptian "Kefaya" protestors in the early 2000s and Lebanese protestors in 2005, but in a significantly changed media space.

Al Jazeera may be so 2005, but it is still by far the most watched and most influential single media outlet in the Arab world. It has also embraced the new media environment, creatively and rapidly adopting user generated content to overcome official crackdowns on its coverage of various countries -- a practice perfected in Iraq, where it had to rely on locally-generated content after its office was closed down in 2004. Other satellite television stations have followed suit, leading to genuine and highly significant integration among new and slightly-less-new Arab media. All of these media platforms and individual contributors layer together to collectively challenge the ability of states to control the flow of information, images, and opinion. This is the latest stage in the new media revolution in the Arab world about which I've been writing since the early 2000s, and it's profoundly exciting to watch.

I'd point to one other aspect of this which often gets overlooked. Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information -- they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves. For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance. Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest ---the "Al Jazeera narrative" of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike. Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative. From Al Jazeera's talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.

Al Jazeera's role may not fit the current passion for the internet, but overlooking it will lead to some serious misunderstandings of how the media works in today's Arab world and how the Tunisian events might matter outside of that country over the longer term.

Al-Jazeera Screen Capture, January 14, 2011