At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, a Tunisian NGO sent out a photograph of the National Constituent Assembly on Twitter. In the photo, two out of Tunisia’s 217 nationally elected officials are seen at their desks. At 10 a.m, one hour after the scheduled starting time for a plenary session that included voting on the establishment of an independent judicial body, the same Twitter feed sent out an update: “38 deputies present in the chamber…”
According to the watchdog organization, Al-Bawsala, this problem of tardiness and absenteeism in Tunisia’s first genuinely democratic body has been relatively constant following the revolution. More than that, the problem gets to the heart of Tunisia’s continuing difficulties in transitional democracy.
“People are angry about this assembly,” says Selim Kharrat, Executive Director of Al-Bawsala.
“We accept that all parliaments suffer from absenteeism, but Tunisia is not normal,” he says, referring to Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition following decades of dictatorship.
Popular anger is compounded by the fact that assembly members have broken several deadlines for completing a new constitution, while they have voted to increase their salaries and benefits so that they now receive between five and ten times the average Tunisian salary.
The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly was democratically elected in October 2011, a landmark accomplishment for the first Arab country to overthrow its despot. The assembly was initially tasked with writing a new constitution within a year before dissolving. However, the body quickly took on the additional role of parliament. Al-Bawsala has been one of the few organizations to monitor nearly all of the assembly’s plenary sessions. They run a website that publishes the attendance and voting records of assembly members. In March, Al-Bawsala presented some of its finding to the assembly’s Commission of Rules and Procedure and Immunity.
“After 22 plenary sessions, held between January 17th and February 25th, 2013, we have recorded an average of 73 minutes of delay per session, with a peak of 2 hours and 45 minutes of delay. The average number of presence is 90 members out of 217,” the president of Al-Bawsala, Amira Yahyaoui told the elected officials.
The damning report caused a stir, garnering scathing criticism from some elected deputies and support from others. According to Kharrat, after their presentation, assembly Vice President Mehrezia Laabidi said: “We understand why people are upset with the assembly.” However, days after the report, the eldest member of the assembly, Tahar Hmila, called for Yahyaoui to be banned from entering the assembly before verbally attacking another Al-Bawsala employee, Myriam Ben Ghazi.
Asked why he confronted Al-Bawsala in this manner, Hmila, formerly the interim president of the assembly due to seniority, accused the NGO of being an agent of French imperialism.
“They are all Francophones… Civil society associations are all there to abort this revolution. They are against this constitution because it doesn’t accord with a French perspective,” he said.
Asked about Al-Bawsala’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability, he responded that “they are little liars.”
But Ben Ghazi says that his anger stems from the fact that Al-Bawsala recently caught him voting in support of the formation of the new government led by Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, despite the fact that, publicly, he opposed its formation.
“All the old guys think they are the ultimate authority in Tunisia and no one should question them. They are so old-fashioned. They feel exposed, with no sense of privacy – and that’s what should happen. They just don’t get it,” says Ben Ghazi.
While Ben Ghazi says she has experienced hostility from some members, many others seek her out for information about their own voting records.
“Even assembly members come up and ask me: ‘What’s my percentage of absences?’ One chased me down the street. Some are worried about their numbers. Some want to brag about it,” she says.
In their initial report to the assembly’s internal rules commission, Al-Bawsala singled out some members for their attendance. They noted that member Mahmoud El May attended only 2 percent of the plenary sessions that focused on dealing with the formation of the independent election committee. El May, in his defense, notes that during those sessions, his time was divided between taking care of his sick wife and going to Turkey as part of an official delegation. He accuses Al-Bawsala of being unprofessional.
“They [Al-Bawsala] don’t try to verify [their information] – not even they didn’t ask me, they throw my name to the public, then my name is taken in the newspapers as 2 percent presence in all the assembly, which is not true, and then, when they see this error in the newspaper, they don’t go and correct. I found this very unprofessional.”
“When they give the name they should yes, he’s 2 percent, but overall he’s 65. Or you don’t give names. Then I checked my presence; I never checked my presence. The [vote] that came after, for the finance law of 2013, I was at 80 percent. They could say this… they are young people that are overpaid to put shit on people that are underpaid.”
Kharrat of Al-Bawsala concedes that El May has an excuse for his absence during this period, but justifies their publishing of the numbers as a way to fight the lack of accountability that plagues the assembly.
“He was on an official visit, but we don’t have access to this information. This assembly is very opaque. We are not asking MPs to be accountable to Al-Bawsala; we are only intermediaries,” says Kharrat.
Even some members of the assembly who publicly support the work of Al-Bawsala and greater transparency have been caught by the NGO’s watchful eye. Lobna Jeribi is an assembly member and part of the OpenGov transparency initiative. She claims (along with former party colleague Karima Souid) to be responsible for a new article in the assembly’s internal regulation that obliges the body to publish attendance figures. The move came after Al-Bawsala made its recommendations to the body’s internal rules commission.
“They push the ANC towards transparency. They stimulate and accelerate transparency,” says Jeribi. “Today, the assembly is the victim of this, that is to say ruled by transparency; it has implemented transparency. It is the victim of transparency in the sense that we are in our first democratic exercise. All institutions are in an apprenticeship.”
Ms. Jeribi herself was caught by Al-Bawsala when she voted on behalf of two of her absent colleagues during one plenary session. She apologized for doing so on her Facebook account after Al-Bawsala published the incident.
“Everybody noticed us since then and kept their distance. Every report we publish, there is a reaction in the assembly the day after,” says Ben Ghazi. “They started being more cautious.”
Surprisingly, the problem of absenteeism falls largely along party lines. Al-Bawsala’s March report initially included the ten assembly members with the best attendance records and the ten with the worst. The ten with the best records are all members of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. While Al-Bawsala quickly removed the names of the worst offenders in preparation for a full re-launch of their watchdog website, the original list included top opposition figures, including Maya Jribi and Ahmed Nejib Chebbi of the Republic Party. Numerous interview requests, including direct phone calls, calls to their press attaché, their secretaries, and a visit to their party headquarters received no response.
Many have accused opposition parties of failing to attend sessions in a bid to see the Ennahdha-led government fall. However, Kharrat is skeptical of this explanation.
“I don’t believe this,” he says, noting that many opposition members are very active at the committee level in the assembly, and that his organization has received support from politicians of all stripes. “The problem is one of responsibility… Some blocs used our report to attack other blocs, but it wasn’t our intention.”
According to Hela Hammi, a member of the assembly’s bureau and of the Ennahda party, the issue is one of discipline.
“Every day we [Ennahda party] pass a sheet, a sheet of presence. We prepare a list to record the absences, and they are published in our own offices.”
For Al-Bawsala, they are happy to see that their work and recommendations are finally being considered seriously by the assembly. Kharrat sees the problems as systemic, but he knows there isn’t much time to get a new constitution right.
“Old habits are very difficult to change. We are fighting against a culture,” says Kharrat. “We want [the assembly members] to respect their duties… This is a historic moment.”