An Interview with Badreddine Abdelkefi : The Role of Civil Society in Drafting the New Constitution

Jasmine Foundation spoke to Badreddine Abdelkefi, member of the National Constituent Assembly in charge of Relations with Civil Society, to discuss the role of Civil Society in drafting the Tunisian constitution and the novel mechanisms established for the inclusion of Civil Society in the process of drafting from the start of its work in late 2011 until its adoption on 27 January 2014.

How did the idea come to welcome Civil Society into the Assembly?

After the formation of the Constituent Assembly (“ANC”), an Assembly Bureau was formed in February 2012 according to the Assembly’s internal regulations. We felt that the relationship with Civil Society is a very important issue – it is essential to guarantee its role in building democracy through opening opportunities to Tunisian citizens and Civil Society representatives to voices their concerns and ensure a dialogue between the people and their representatives.

The first thing I did after my appointment was to establish contact with actors in Civil Society and representatives of NGO’s. Together, we tried to form an idea of how to build relationship between Civil Society and the ANC.

I felt from the beginning that it was necessary to have a team of deputies in charge of relations with Civil Society, even though this wasn’t required by the ANC internal regulations. I believe in teamwork and feel that we should have a fair representation of different political parties in the relationship with Civil Society. I worked to form a team representing all political tendencies. We started building a vision together of how we see our role as a bridge with Civil Society in this very particular post-revolution moment and bringing their views into the heart of the ANC.

We drafted a paper setting out our preliminary vision. The core value was openness to all representatives of Civil Society, trying to accompany them in their activities, to open doors to them, listen to them and benefit from them and to give them the possibility to participate in this foundational phase. We set aims, methods, and mechanisms for the process and submitted the paper to the Bureau of the ANC in order to give them an idea of our plans. After consultation across the ANC, the paper was approved by the Bureau and became the basis of our work.

How was Civil Society involved in drafting the constitution?

We developed a programme to consult and include Civil Society in drafting the constitution. The first phase took place right after the first draft of the constitution was prepared in August 2012. We announced on the ANC website a series of workshops, which we called “Open Days: Towards a Joint Drafting of the Constitution”, in September 2012. These meetings enabled Civil Society representatives to meet with ANC members to discuss the draft and to have direct sessions with the legislative committees in the ANC to give their feedback and suggestions.

The second phase was a “National Dialogue on the Constitution” where we held a full day of public meetings in each of the regions of the country in December 2012 and January 2013. This included Tunisians abroad, in order to make the Constitution a uniting element for all Tunisians around common values.

The six drafting committees of the Constitution also considered constitution drafts prepared by Civil Society organizations, such as the Committee of Experts and the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers).

What was the response from Civil Society?

We found a big response – more than 300 representatives of Civil Society organizations from nearly all regions of Tunisia participated. They had a chance to choose with which of the 6 drafting committees of the ANC they wanted to discuss.

There were very lively and broad-ranging discussions – many comments were particularly focused on freedoms and rights, and also on the preamble and general principles. Each workshop produced detailed reports of the discussions – the head of each constitutional drafting committee, a rapporteur and two assistants from each committee participated in the drafting of reports.

Given its success, we promised the participants that we would organise a bigger round of consultations, a National Dialogue, to get Civil Society input on the second draft of the constitution. The National Dialogue around the Constitution was launched in December 2012 and ran until February 2013.

We had continued direct contact with citizens through physical meetings but also made available an email for direct contact, and we put up the photos and names of the whole team on the ANC website in order to facilitate the relationship with Civil Society.

Did you focus on specific sectors in your consultations with Civil Society?

We were open to all Civil Society representatives and members of the public. We worked in particular to get the views of young people, so we organized a series of regional conferences with high school students who were elected representatives on their school councils. We also organized meetings with university students and organized workshops with Tunisian residents abroad, mainly in France and Italy.

How was the feedback from Civil Society and the public incorporated into the drafts?

At every consultation, we prepared a comprehensive report of comments, and this was presented to the constitutional drafting committees in the ANC. After the National Dialogue, we prepared a very detailed report which was published on the ANC website.

After the National Dialogue on the Constitution, the UN Development Programme conducted an analytical study to measure the influence of the rounds of consultation on the third draft of the Constitution.

For example, during the first stage, we looked at matters like public and free education. One citizen made valuable remarks on the importance of including not just the right to education, but on the quality of education – this made it into the final draft of the Constitution based on that comment.

Another example is the proposal from a member of the public in Ben Arous who proposed to include, in the Preamble, a reference to “Being aware of the necessity of…achieving the will of the people to be the makers of their own history”.

There are many other examples – article 26 on the rights of those enjoying political asylum, for instance, was also added on the basis of comments and proposals by Civil Society.

The input the feedback of Civil Society in the National Dialogue served to strengthen or reword concepts of the universality of rights, the civil nature of the State, women’s rights and many other articles in the final draft of the Constitution.

Did the members of the ANC welcome the consultation process?

There was a big readiness on the part of deputies to get out around the country and hear people’s views on the constitution. We made clear that we were there to listen to people’s views, not to defend ours. We all felt that the sessions were rich and the deputies felt they really added value and new perspectives to the constitution drafting process.

All this process was possible thanks to the cooperation with the UNDP because we had no budget in the internal budget to hold these activities.

Did you face any particular difficulties in your work of reaching out to Civil Society?

Civil Society in Tunisia is very diverse and that makes it harder to ensure that we reach everyone. We tried to be open to all, regardless of ideology.

A significant part of Civil Society in Tunisia is quite politicized, with many having been prominent in political parties. After decades of repression, we finally have real freedom to be active and to be open about our political engagement. The problem is that many people who are active in Civil Society are also political leaders who mix between the role of political parties and Civil Society.

For example, during our first dialogue workshops, some organizations tried to cast suspicion on our work and a statement signed by 10 organizations claimed that we were trying to create a “parallel Civil Society”.

The ANC was also under constant pressure because of the political agenda and the challenges faced by the country. The ANC faced very high demands, popular protests in front of the Assembly – but these were by members of the public who weren’t so much interested in participating in the constitutional debate but had economic and social grievances.

In this context, the National Dialogue with Civil Society seemed like a luxury to some. There is still a lack of acceptance and conviction by some that citizens have a central role and that bringing them into the heart of the work of the Assembly isn’t populist but a democratic duty. These are challenges inherent to the Tunisian Civil Society itself and the conception of the role of the citizen.

The other issue is resources – we didn’t have enough resources to provide the constant, open door to Civil Society that we would have liked to have. We are deputies – so our first role is to fulfill our responsibilities in the ANC. We weren’t free to focus on the relationship with Civil Society full time. As for me, I have other roles in the Bureau of the ANC as well as taking part in plenaries.

Once, we were in Germany for a visit and we noticed that the Bundestag provided 60 staff members dedicated to the relationship with citizens. I was the sole member of the Assembly, along with one member of staff, in charge of the relationship with outreach to citizens

Luckily we had a good strong team of deputies working together – I insist on the importance of teamwork to enrich ideas, and implement them inclusively away from political partisan interests. Rather than the relationship with Civil Society being managed solely by myself, “the assistant of the President of the ANC”, it was managed by a politically diverse team. This really helped to reduce problems and to diffuse tension.

If we hadn’t worked in a team, we wouldn’t have had such a high impact. This system helped us to be more accepted by other deputies because it was politically balanced.

Since the ANC members see this process of Civil Society engagement as a success, would you consider setting up a permanent council for relations between parliament and Civil Society?

Before the Revolution, there was no clear role for Civil Society in decision-making and no conception of how people should participate in public debates.

When we first started our work in the Assembly on relations with Civil Society, we attended a training course in Belgium on communication to see how the Brussels Parliament conducts its communication at the regional and national levels. We also visited the European Parliament and got to know more about how Civil Society organizations interact with the Assembly and its commissions. It helped us to see and reflect on the many dimensions of communication between parliaments and the public and Civil Society. That was a bonding experience for the team and the choice of Belgium was particularly pertinent for us as there are different communities, languages, ethnicities there that have to search continuously for consensus.

We’re still facing many challenges that we have to deal with before having the possibility to set up a permanent council. We do not have sufficient experience or resources and we need to make sure to address this for the coming parliament to be able to do its work.

Despite the big challenges, I think that it is essential for the coming parliament to set up mechanisms for building strong relations with Civil Society and to ensure a continuous dialogue, especially on economic and social demands.

After the closing of the National Dialogue, I can affirm that we gained the confidence of the Tunisian Civil Society. We brought people closer. People have learned to listen to each other. In cafes, leftists and conservatives sit alone – in the framework of the National Dialogue, they started to talked to each other. I can see a culture of dialogue emerging.

What’s next for your team?

We have two remaining steps. We insisted that the Bureau facilitate Civil Society participation in the final debate of the Constitution. They have participated throughout, so we felt they should be here to witness the historic last moments. We opened registration online through an open contact form and organized their access to the Assembly. We considered it symbolic after Civil Society’s efforts, that they be there when deputies would be voting on the articles.

This actually helped Civil Society to be more confident and to see their ability to influence. The media presence and the permanent studio of the Tunisian National TV inside the Assembly also contributed to opening up the debate and spreading information.

The next step is to make people aware of the importance of the Constitution. We have a whole plan on how to inform the public about it, in coordination with the UNDP. We are also going to support the UNDP programmes on the “Simplification of the Constitution” which gives funding to Civil Society organizations to raise awareness of the Constitution, especially among those who are disenfranchised or far from politics.

How do you plan to evaluate this experience and pass it on to the next Assembly?

As a preliminary evaluation of our work, we have the UNDP study and a book of best practices. Obviously, we still have to work hard to summarize this experience, to present to the world our story, to explain all its phases and details but more importantly, the spirit that led it.

We have issued some recordings of the experience. Now we have a documentary of 26 minutes to present all the work that took place in the National Dialogue.

We need to build a real parliament for Tunisia. The original chamber in which the ANC is housed was created only to implement specific decisions coming from the President; it was never a place for discussion or debate before the Revolution. This is apparent even in the architecture of the building – it doesn’t allow for offices for deputies, meeting rooms for the public, and a fully functioning effective administration. All that needs to be built now.

The main recommendation is that these deficiencies and needs should be the concern of all the members of the assembly and not only a small team. The future parliament should dedicate a bigger team and more advisors to work on the relationship with the citizen.

We need to leave a detailed evaluation of this experience in order to help the future parliament not to make the same mistakes as us and to benefit from the best practices we adopted. If there is a shared belief and concern by the assembly and the Civil Society in the importance of the inclusion of the citizen in decision-making, we can do it.

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