It's been two years since Mohamed Bouazizi, a young vendor living in the Tunisian interior city of Sidi Bouzid, immolated himself following the confiscation of his produce and scale by the police. Since then, Tunisians have experienced a wave of withering disappointment. Their courageous uprising deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked a region-wide assault on tyranny. Yet for many Tunisians disenchantment has replaced hope. While the freely elected Constituent Assembly draws up a new constitution, citizens grapple with a crime wave induced in part by the escape or release of over 10,000 prisoners, including common criminals, during the revolt that toppled the dictatorship. Citizens' distrust of police forces that abused protesters during the uprising, as well as an influx of refugees from war-torn Libya, has sparked the growth of local militias. Tourism falters while unemployment, strikes, and migration to Europe swell, raising the specter of a crippling brain drain.
Yet a fact of great weight remains: Tunisia has made remarkable progress toward democracy. To a greater extent than any other country, it has shaken the perception that Arabs are destined to suffer the tutelage of monarchs, militaries, or mullahs. Why is Tunisia leading the way? Institutions -- and especially the constitutional order -- are a big part of the story. Much press coverage has focused on whether Tunisia's new constitution will contain a blasphemy clause. Of far greater import will be how the new fundamental law distributes power between the executive and the legislature. On this vital matter, Tunisia is getting it right. According to a recent empirical study we conducted, Tunisia's decision to create a system with a strong parliament and a constrained president is a recipe for robust democracy. Other countries in the Arab world can learn from Tunisia's example.
In Tunisia, the Arab Spring has already produced a revolution. Immediately following Ben Ali's departure on January 14, 2011, an interim government filled with his appointees called for a snap presidential election, but sustained mass protests forced the creation of the Ben Achour Commission, which agreed on the procedures to produce an elected government based on the vote for a new legislative body. In October 2011, a new government came to power following the first free election in Tunisia's post-independence history. The Ennahda party won a plurality of seats in the 217-member Constituent Assembly. It formed a coalition with the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (Ettakatol). The assembly then set about its primary task, creating a new constitution. As of this writing, the document is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013, setting the stage for parliamentary elections later in the year.
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Tunisia's ace-in-the-hole for maintaining its exemplary progress is the formidable power vested in the legislature. The elections for the Constituent Assembly served as the basis for establishing the new government, and the Constituent Assembly itself is on course to create a parliamentary system. Assemblies, rather than executives, have commanded political power from the onset of Tunisia's revolution and are likely to continue to do so.
Tunisians are uprooting dictatorship, not merely expelling the dictator. They are not only changing the rulers but also fixing the rules. Rather than replacing the old autocrat with a legitimately elected but still dominant president, Tunisians are tackling the problem of overweening executive power head-on. They are betting on good institutions rather than on a strong, wise ruler. Their farsighted choice will yield benefits for decades to come.