Tunisian Model: Analogical Reasoning for Eritrea’s Democratic Transition

“We shall patiently bear the trials that fate impose on us. We shall work for others without rest” [Anton Chekhov, from his letter to Vanya,1899].


Emerging democratic governments in the third world would certainly have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarization, a society with multicultural mistrusts, and underdevelopments, that are caused by incompetent or corrupted governments. Although authoritarian regimes have a number of forms, they are collectively identified by the general models of one party system, personal dictatorship, and military regimes. Hence competitive politics are understood and rejected by such regimes as an imported luxury that has neither national values nor affordable to the society they govern. Our nation “Eritrea” is a representative of these regimes.

Often, postcolonial governments are always evolved into a domination of a single party of “one party system”. They exercise power on an institutional basis, governing collegially by circulating top government positions among the influential elites within the ranks of the party; thereby undermining the potential of a healthy civil societies and the necessary institutions for democracy.

In order to make a transition to democracy, which is a daunting challenge, this author will argue in this post, that power must shift from authoritarian single party rulers to representative leaders who are sensitive to the grievances of our diverse social groups. Those “would be leaders” must chose a move to the protection of civil rights and establishments of an agreed upon mode of governments, with a greater political accountability in order to have a solid footing on the move to democracy. We have seen and heard many “national conferences” and or “consultation process” in our opposition camp to enhance the resistance force against the authoritarian regime of Asmara. Whether we call it “national conference” or a “consultation process”, it in itself is the beginning of an on going struggle towards a transitional democracy. Both scenario should be regarded as part of the broad process resulting from crises of epic proportion, in order to define and classify issues, establish accountabilities, and mobilize a broad cross-section of popular movements. So while we are in the consultation process to unite the resistance force, however it takes its shaping, citizens have the roll to influence the process of the democratic transition – the structural process and the nature of the political engagement during the process after the fall of the regime. This author has studied the Tunisian Democratic Transition government and found an analogical reasoning to our reality in order to facilitate a soft landing to our political crises. In doing so (a) I will give a general glimpse of the Tunisian transition (b) the factors that dictate to the outcome (c) the role of civic societies in the transition (d) the constitutional process (e) the formation of transitional leadership and (f) the transfer of power of the transitional leadership to the popularly elected leadership.

Lessons From The Tunisian Democratic Transition

In January 2011, a spontaneous popular Tunisian movement toppled the authoritarian regime and opened a path for democratic transition. Subsequently Tunisians have formed a “National constituent Assembly” with the task for drafting a new constitution and a Roadmap for a democratic transition. In 2014, despite all the setbacks in the process, Tunisians have ratified a new constitution paving the way for democratic elections. In October 2014, legislative elections and in November 2014, presidential elections undergo successfully. Yet the new leaders have faced with multiple of challenges, such as unemployment, internal security, and disparity of economic development among the regions. To insure steady and continuous democratic transitions, Political parties and civil societies had a significant role in influencing the priorities of the transitional process.

After three interim governments and tumultuous legal and institutional reforming process, the Tunisian people have shown us an exemplary of non-violent transitional phase from dictatorship towards democracy. The fierce debate between the secular parties and moderate Islamist party that brought anxiety and fears of new theocratic dictatorship was eventually mitigated by the role of the dynamic Tunisian civic society.

The notion of transition is often put equal on terms with transition to democracy (O’Donnell, 1986). Any transition in the absence of transformation will let the mechanism of authoritarian regimes to stay in power in different shape or form. Hence forth, “a transitional process should bring the transformation from political singularism to political pluralism that includes re-structural change to generate political, economic, cultural, and social transformation”. The Tunisian political parties and civil societies have managed those daunting challenge masterfully and that is why their democratic transition is often cited as the peaceful democratic transition by the international fora.

During the transitional process, the former ruling party “Rally for constitutional Democracy (RCD)” has been dissolved and its fund also liquidated. The interim government formed a committee that could advise on the political and legal reforms to investigate human right violations in the last two decades or more.

Tunisians had embarked on a complex reformation process under the leadership of “consultative bodies” composed of “independent technocrats”. The New Tunisian civil societies characterized by their fast moving, have influenced immensely on the institutional change by creating new institutionalized frameworks for full public participation.  The new institutional change tackled “the twin tolerance” (a) tolerance of religious citizen towards the state and its laws (b) tolerance of the state and its laws towards religious citizens to express their values within civil society. The new decree law on associations eliminated the barriers that hinder civic society to act as intermediary between the state and the private sectors.

The Tunisian Civil societies with “new spirit of solidarity”, create new norms of engagement to form the “Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet” in the summer of 2013.  The national dialogue comprises (a) Tunisian general labor union (b) Tunisian confederation of industry (c) Tunisian human rights league (d) Tunisian order of lawyers.  On Sept. 17, 2013 the four civic organizations drafted an agreement that will work as a Roadmap for transition. The drafted Roadmap contains (a) resignation of the government and replacing by “independent technocratic government” (b) fixed dates for parliamentary and presidential elections (c) Preserving national identity in the new constitution (d) the steps necessary for the transition to a democratic government. Under the aegis and important role of the quartet, the Tunisians navigated a successful democratic transition, one of the rare peaceful democratic transition. Now the question will be, does the Eritrean reality could have such conducive environment for a peaceful democratic transition? This author will argue Yes, and will try to show the possibilities.

The Emergency of New Eritrean Civic Societies

 All the Eritrean civic societies are new, strictly in their infant stages, organizing and maturing to do their civic duties. The emergency of Eritrean civic societies in the diaspora is so important in the formation of the state, being as one pillar of the political structure of the state of Eritrea. The role of Eritrean civic societies at this juncture is therefore (a) as the drivers for democratization, will advocate for freedom of associations and institutional reforms for civic activities and duties on the one hand, and will advocate for the establishment of a constitutional democratic governance on the other (b) act as a bridge (intermediary role) in building the relationship between the state and the society at large (c) as agents for public dialogue, will facilitate a broad and inclusive democratic transition, akin to that of the Tunisian democratic transitional process.

Unfortunately, there are no civic societies as such inside Eritrea so to speak, to organize and engage in the responsibilities of civic duties; and there are no open oppositions inside Eritrea against the regime currently ruling the “state of Eritrea” to bring the necessary change. All the opposing political organizations and civic societies are in the diaspora. These political organizations have deep mistrusts among themselves and could not resolve their differences by themselves without intermediary actors. I believe therefore, that the Eritrean civic societies could play the intermediary role in drafting a roadmap that bring all the oppositions who exist inside and outside Eritrea to establish a transitional democratic governance that end the existing dictatorial regime. The only hope for an exit strategy from the current predicament of our nation is strictly shouldered on our “civic societies” and strong engagement of “our youth” to prepare themselves and take the stock of our nation.

A Call For The Eritrean Civic Societies

History is compelling the Eritrean civic societies to prepare, engage, and build solidarities in order to save the “state of Eritrea” while the dictator is ready to take it down with its demise. I will call for a few significant Eritrean civic societies, that have a true nature of civic characteristics, to build a solidarity, akin to that of the “Tunisian national dialogue quartet” – to prepare and draft “a roadmap” on the scene and behind the scene to save the state of Eritrea from being “a failed state.” The challenge is enormous and an uphill to climb with all the possible resistances from the organized political organizations.

So far the following civic organizations are visible in their civic engagements and are candidates to the call I am making (a) The Eritrean Law Society (ELS) (b) The Eritrean Global Solidarity (EGS) (c) Eritreans Facilitating for National dialogue (EFND) (d) The Eritrean lowland league (ELL) (e) The Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Right (EMDHR) (f) Network of Eritrean women (NEW). These Six civic societies have the know how and the maturity to take the responsibilities upfront with full commitment to the task of bridging the political differences and facilitate the Eritrean democratic transition.

The Eritrean transition may consist of different contradictory process and multi-faceted dynamics that might tear the society apart. It requires wisdom, tolerance, and fair minded civic organizations to avoid such negative outcome. In order to achieve a milestone on establishing a peaceful democratic transitioning, these civic organizations must consider the following crucial points as part of the integral thinking process for the transition (a) the need of independent technocratic leadership for the transitional period (b) The need of legal advisory committee for the provisional leadership (c) The need of legitimate transitional national assembly during the transitional period (d) The need of “constitutional commission” to draft or revise the existing shelved constitutional document during the transitional period (e) The need of a committee for drafting the election law (f) The need of giving ample of time (possibly two years) for the process to evolve and mature, and the parties to organize and prepare for the healthy democratic competition (g) the need of fixed dates for all the stages of the process, and as well as for transferring power from the provisional government to a popularly elected government.

As a starter these civic organizations could take the “internal-working memorandum” of EFND as a platform in their consultation process to build a consensus of solidarity for the task of democratic transitional process. Time is of the essence to tackle this noble national project to save “our state” and emancipate our people from the shackles of the dictatorship.

While I am appreciative and grateful to the spontaneous mass movement organized in different shape or form all over the world, there will not be a feasible formation of leadership through these amalgamated entities built in by members of political organizations (as individual) and independent citizens. Reason: (a) Because the individual members of the political organizations will have always conflict of interest on the process and the strategy of the mass movement. The experience of EGS could be mentioned as an example before it changes the membership requirement in 2011. (b) The leadership that form from this global representation in the diaspora can not be a transitional leadership that come out from these amorphous spontaneous public movements that might have not technocratic skills (c) The movement by its nature does not have organized civic characteristics with specific civic duties (d) such movement can only be the driving force for the change needed, but in itself can not lead the change. Therefore, there is no alternative than the solidarity and networks of the aforementioned civic organizations to tackle and chart the roadmap that bring all the political organizations and civic organizations in particular and the Eritrean public at large in general, as a facilitating agents for the democratic transition of our nation.

Why Talk of Transition Are Needed Ahead of Time?

Two weeks ago EFND warned us about the daunting challenge to save the Eritrean state. Indeed, they have highlighted their message warning us, that with the demise of the dictator, there will be the possibilities of the “collapse of the state and government” leading to a power vacuum in our nation. They have alluded also that “Statelessness can be even more denigrating to a population than an oppressive rule by a dictator.” What could be more frightening than being a statelessness?

EFND’s remarkable farsightedness, to prepare ourselves and do something ahead, before we are stricken with the devil’s plot to take us down with his demise, must be welcomed. It is high time then to think about the democratic transition and challenge the difficulties early on by bridging our differences and channeling all grievances to be resolved through democratic dialogue.

This author is heeding to the challenge and responding to the EFND’s call, thereby channeling the call back to all civic societies to meet the historical challenge, to show “the spirit of solidarity” like that of the Tunisian quartet, and chart out a roadmap for transition before the “Eritrean state” collapse in front of our eyes. EFND or EGS should take the initiative to outreach the aforementioned civic societies to begin a consultative discussion on the issue, and make a collective preparation with the other sister civic organizations. Let us begin the new journey to save the state of Eritrea and the Eritrean people from the clouds of confusion and disintegrations. The know how is there, if it is enhanced with vigor commitment.



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