Tunisia tweets its way to democracy

Tags: Op-ed
Tunisia tweets its way to democracy
TECH TAKE: In Tunisia, the children of the Arab Spring are using the full range of tech tools to ensure a degree of transparency never seen before in such political processes
At the Philadelphia convention of 1787, James Madison al­one took complete notes in a rapid shorthand, a self-appointed job that he said almost killed him. But today, constitutional debates are recorded in Twitter bursts — and in Tunisia, where the constituent assembly is compiling that nation’s new constitution, the children of the Arab Spring are using the full range of tech tools to ensure a degree of transparency never seen before in such political processes.

At the heart of the technological openness is a Tunisian nongovernmental group call-ed Al Bawsala, which means, roughly, the compass. Bawsala staffers are 20-something Tun­isians dressed in the same skinny jeans and sweaters worn everywhere by young people too cool to be called hipsters. Their look alone marks a contrast with the formally dressed delegates of the national assembly whom they supervise.

And supervise they do. From the balcony of the main chamber of the national assembly, in the parliament building called the Bardo, the Bawsala posse keeps an eagle eye on every moment of the proceedings. When an assembly member speaks, at least one Bawsala member tweets a precis of the speaker’s comments in real time — translated into French.

The speed and quality of the summaries are amazingly impressive. I’ve been sitting in the balcony myself, and whenever I’ve had trouble following the assembly members’ Arabic — sometimes speakers shift from formal standard Arabic into Tunisian dialect — I would look over a colleague’s shoulder at the Bawsala feed. Invariably, it was already posted and immensely clarifying. Everyone around me was following it, from journalists to international observers. It was the first draft of the first draft of history. It also meant that anyone outside the hall could follow the debates, even without access to television.

Each time the assembly members vote, Bawsala becomes more essential still. The assembly has a computerised system for voting on amendments. But the technology, which creates a visual map of who voted yes or no or abstained, is not indexed to the names of the assembly members. It flashes the voting map on the screen for a split second, then switches to the vote count. By design, then, the official system is not supposed to reveal the assembly members’ particular votes, only the aggregate result.

De facto secrecy may be good for assembly members, but nontransparency is Bawsala’s sworn enemy. Brilliantly (at least it seems to me), the Bawsala members realised they could take a photo — essentially a screenshot — of the screen while it shows the votes without the names. Then they layer that screenshot on their own map of where members sit in their assigned seats. Voila: a full report on who voted, and how, all delivered in seconds.

The record of votes is, of course, wildly useful to constitutional observers and participants alike. From the balcony, you could clearly see assembly members themselves looking at the Bawsala website on their computers and iPads to see what had happened in the votes they had taken just moments before. There was no other way for them to assess the voting patterns.

Voting information also reveals whether members voted or not. On controversial issues, Bawsala could in effect influence members to attend or have to explain their absence. Before the historic vote to adopt Article 45 of the draft constitution, which promises some form of gender parity in elected assemblies, Bawsala tweeted that its website contained a list of members whose absences were “justified”, meaning that they had explained their nonpresence to Bawsala's satisfaction.

This degree of scrutiny is not “neutral” in the bloodless sense of avoiding any influence on the constitutional process — and Bawsala makes no claim to such neutrality. By keeping track of who says what and who votes how, Bawsala is making it harder for assembly members who might want to preserve their own neutrality on a given question or on the constitutional process as a whole. By live-translating the proceedings into French, Bawsala is facilitating international press observation, which means the assembly must consider the international reception of its actions.

Public oversight also mea-ns that members are implicitly pressured to do their jobs and take a stand. When the process is over and the constitution has been ratified, they will have to own the votes they took. The members, who must run for re-election, will have a hard time running away from a constitution for which their votes have been publicly recorded. The American founding fathers, who kept the records of their debates secret for nearly 30 years, would be horrified. But in Tunisia, holding assembly members to their votes has the potential to increase respect for the rule of law among elected politicians over the medium term.

There is plenty to admire in the Tunisian constitutional assembly, which is trying sincerely to reach a workable compromise that will lead to constitutional democracy. But the young Tunisians working at Bawsala are also doing a tremendous service to their country and to the ideals of democracy. They are a new face of civil society in the Arabic-speaking world. And they give you their own kind of hope for Tunisia’s future.

(The writer is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and author of six books, most recently Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.)

— Bloomberg

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