Firsthand account by Alex Kerchner '14 of the Constitutional Transitions Clinic's trip to Tunisia

The constitutional courts research team at the Tunisian parliament building. L to R: Lauren Katz ’13, Bieta Andemariam ’14, Kuntal Cholera ’13, Johanna Peet ’14, Cenobar Parker (LL.M. ’13), Katharina Rall (LL.M. ’13)After an overnight flight into Tunis, our first full day in Tunisia immediately showed us the results of our past months of work in NYU Law's Constitutional Transtions Clinic. Each of our three teams of student researchers, focusing on constitutional courts, political party finance, and semi-presidential systems, respectively, presented our key research findings in a full-day session at the University of Tunis Al-Manar’s Faculty of Law and Political Science. The 70 people in attendance were primarily students and faculty, and included Dr. Chafik Sarsar, a prominent professor of constitutional law and advisor to the constitution drafting process, as well as Zaid Al-Ali, a senior advisor for constitution-building at International IDEA, our client organization. The visibly engaged audience posed a variety of probing and challenging questions, and seemed particularly interested in how to make things work on the ground: how to draft constitutional provisions that would really ensure the independence of judicial decision-makers, how specific powers should be divided between the president and the prime minister, and how to motivate political parties to comply with political party finance law. Their questions both demonstrated the clear importance of the topics we’d been asked to research, and suggested ways in which our reports could be further adapted to the current regional context.

The political party finance research team at the University of Tunis al-Manar. L to R: Alex Kerchner ’14, Jennifer Ebling ’13, Marzieh Tofighi Darian (LL.M. ’13), Lisandra Fernandez ’13, and Christine Ernst ’13

The following day, Tuesday, was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia, commemorating the repression of a demonstration against French colonialism in 1938, a reminder of the mixed aspects of the French legacy in Tunisia that still influence political discussions. After the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, Martyrs’ Day also honors those killed in the revolution that began the Arab Spring. A small group of us had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Ambassador Jacob Walles and Public Affairs Officer James Bullock at the U.S. Embassy in the morning. We were provided the opportunity to present our project and to ask questions about their assessment of the unfolding constitution-drafting process in Tunisia.

On Wednesday, we had the incredible honor to meet with several Tunisian political actors, including an audience with the president of Tunisia, Dr. Moncef Marzouki. The president also invited Tunisian students, some of whom are members of his staff, to attend. A longtime human rights activist and political dissident, he wasted no time in throwing the floor open to our questions, giving his views on a range of matters, including how to select the members of the constitutional court, the role of transitional justice in the democratic transition, and political parties in the transitional context. In his answers, the president continually emphasized the need to involve all actors who are committed to a democratic system in the political process; to work across Tunisia’s religious, regional and economic divisions; and to strive for consensus in establishing the broad parameters of the country’s future political system.

President Moncef Marzouki speaks with the students.Following our audience with the president, we were given a tour of the presidential palace, a 19th-century structure originally built for the French secretary-general during the colonial era, and which had been off limits to the public under Ben Ali’s rule. We admired various rooms and visited the extensive promenade overlooking the Mediterranean, which, we were told, the president now opens to children on weekends. We were also shown the relatively small office of the current president, whose wall and shelves include framed photos of important figures in past Tunisian resistance movements, including Mohammed Bouazizi, the unemployed vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolt—the first in the Arab Spring. Finally, we went to the Council of Ministers’ meeting room for a discussion with the senior legal advisor to the president, Ahmed Ouerfelli. Ouerfelli presented the president’s initiative for an International Constitutional Court, which involves establishing a mechanism of distinguished jurists to provide legal opinions regarding adherence to democratic standards, and answered our questions about the proposed court.

Concluding our formal agenda, we were received at the parliament building that afternoon by three members of the Constituent Assembly, representing both the government and the opposition as well as religious and secular parties. We then had the privilege to spend nearly two hours discussing the constitution drafting process, engaging in a detailed discussion on the wide range of issues we have encountered in our clinic research.Meeting with presidential legal advisor Ahmed Ouerfelli.

Our interlocutors were all knowledgeable about the options before them, and were realistic in discussing the obstacles posed by their country’s political divides and economic struggles. Yet we continuously heard from Tunisians that they valued the idea of democracy, even if they did not agree on the details. It is in part this attitude that makes me believe that Tunisia has a good chance of meeting the challenges of the transition successfully. I also hope that my colleagues and I can remain engaged in the regional conversation—both to support individuals working for stable democracy in Tunisia and the broader region, and because as future lawyers or policy advocates, a greater understanding of their challenges and choices enables us to think more deeply about the assumptions we make in approaching our own law and politics as well.

Posted on April 22, 2013