The recent demonstrations on the streets of many Tunisian cities are the result of tensions among Tunisians and deep anger against the Tunisian state’s economic, social, and political policies.
The parliamentary authority was associated with the highest number of protests calling for the parliament’s dissolution.
Rather than assessing this from a legal or rational perspective, it indicates a deterioration in the relationship between the parliamentarians and the people, which has mainly been caused by an absence of communication between these two parties and the weakness of the accountability structure. This policy brief presents e-democracy as a means to strengthen communication and trust between the people and their representatives.
On social media, especially on Facebook, the alienation of Tunisian citizens by their elected representatives is evident. Daily, Tunisian citizens are quick to condemn the statements made by their legislative representatives and express their astonishment towards behaviour that they feel does not truly represent them.
Considering the legislative election turnout in 2019 was 41.3%  and most deputies do not represent all the people but rather limited representations according to the choices of the voters. The Tunisian people are reluctant towards their deputies. The recent protests revealed the popular anger towards the parliament and dissatisfaction with the deputies’ performance and their neglect of the people’s problems. This points to the problem of representation.
The people need to be in contact with their representatives, as stipulated which is constitutionally recognized in the preamble to the Constitution itself when the constitutional legislator uses the term “participatory democracy” and in Article 50 by instituting a dual exercise of legislative power.
This proposal should not fall within the framework of populism, because the question of participatory democracy is raised about representative democracy as a means of filling the gaps of the latter, and it is, therefore, a right of the Tunisian people and an important pillar for the establishment of a “democratic and participatory republican regime” as laid out in the preamble of the 2014 Constitution.
Electronic democracy can promote and facilitate the concept of participatory democracy. Electronic democracy (E-democracy) is “a means of practising participatory democracy through new information and communication technologies. Electronic democracy in this sense does not represent a new form of democracy but concerns the application of participatory democracy through what new technological tools allow”. The use of this technology can guarantee a participatory parliamentary landscape based mainly on communication and observation between the people and their representatives. To achieve this objective, it is necessary to first identify the causes of the communication crisis and address all the factors which have allowed the parliament to act unilaterally.
The lack of communication between the citizens and the MPs is a multifaceted problem. However, although the political landscape is still sensitive as Tunisia continues to undergo a democratic transition, the introduction of electronic democracy can improve communication problems.
The lack of communication between citizens and representatives: a problem that is present in many fields and concerns various actors.
The Assembly of People’s Representatives: Lack of efforts to set up a communication and control system bringing together the citizen and the representative.
The communication and accountability mechanism to assess the work of the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP) is weak for the following reasons;
- The lack of a legal framework to allow effective cooperation between the ARP and civil society in the context of digitizing communication between citizens and representatives.
- The ARP’s website is not equipped to support e-democracy mechanisms.
Regarding the first point, the Tunisian Constitution preamble emphasizes the principle of participation within the framework of the democratic process, and Articles 81 and 103 of the internal regulations of Parliament recognize the right of civil society and citizens to participate in legislative work; either in person or by submitting reports.
However, these points are not applied because access to the Assembly is not equally applied to all the different components of civil society. Certain associations and organizations benefit from privileged access due to their long standing relationship with parliament, since the National Constituent Assembly period (2011-2013) or because a partnership unites them with the legislative institution.
The lack of digitised data for actors who have access to parliament is another problem as it disrupts direct communication and prevents participatory democracy from becoming a reality. Furthermore, passing laws without specifying how they can be implemented makes the text meaningless. Preserving the right of civil society and citizens to communicate with parliament is pointless without publishing the administrative procedures for organizing entry into parliament.
These practices were observed by the Kawakibi Center’s study on the access of civil society organizations to the parliaments. The study indicates that the ARP allows less virtual access to citizens and civil society than the Moroccan, French, and German parliaments.
Regarding the absence of a legislative framework that guarantees the facilitation of e-democracy, the draft cooperation agreement between the ARP and civil society, published on July 4, 2014, needs to be acknowledged. Its articles are general and it predominantly contains abstract expressions which make it insufficient for establishing a communicative relationship between Parliament and civil society and by extension the people. After two days of open discussion, no consensus between parliament and civil society was reached in the development of this agreement and Mohamed Enaceur, the speaker of the ARP at the time, ended the process. It is no longer expected that an agreement will be reached to facilitate communication between parliamentarians and civil society.
Although the ARP’s website allows visitors to follow the legislative’s work, such as, for example, consulting the calendar of parliamentary work or accessing the minutes of committee meetings, it does not allow communication with this institution because there is not a digital space dedicated to communication with elected officials. This means that, in its current state, the website is unable to ensure e-democracy processes.
On July 4 2018, a digital platform for bringing together parliamentarians and civil society was created. However, the lack of interaction between the two sides made the platform ineffective. This partly shows the lack of awareness of the importance of communication between the two parties to also attract the citizen into this process.
The multiplicity of digital platforms aimed at establishing e-democracy and the absence of a clear, overall vision:
Civil society organisations have attempted to bring the work of the parliament closer to the people. The Marsad Majles project by Al Bawsala (The compass) provides all information and documentation relating to the ARPs work to ensure efficiency, transparency and participation in legislative work. This is a testament to the effort made by civil society to strengthen the Parliament’s external communication with the people. While the Marsad Majles site has made documents, data and statistics available which allows citizens to follow their elected representatives and also allocates a space dedicated to written or oral questions addressed to elected representatives, the Ektbelhom site focuses mainly on communication by providing visitors with the opportunity to directly e-mail ARP representatives. However, citizens have asked very few questions and these sites do not publish statistics on how often the deputies answered the questions. The lack of pressure and control over the communication process has led to its virtual non-existence. The number of websites can also be confusing for citizens. Also, information available and the lack of user-friendly features on the Marsad Majles’ website make it difficult for some people to use. Civil society actors should coordinate their efforts so representatives are not asked the same questions twice. Overall, without a common vision for the establishment of e-democracy, efforts will remain fragmented which will further disrupt the communication process, rather than facilitate it.
Establish a one-sided media landscape:
Since the revolution, the political media landscape has been limited to debates between politicians without the presence of citizens. Therefore, Tunisian society has always adopted unilateral dialogues based mainly on a question-and-answer structure, which has led to a lack of communication between representatives and citizens. This has led to a lack of awareness around the concept of participatory democracy. The media does not call on citizens to participate in the democratic process except in the context of elections, and so the role of the citizen is to vote on election day and then return home to remain silent. He has no space to express himself except on Facebook pages, although his country’s constitution and the rules of procedure of his parliament allow him to participate permanently in the democratic process.
For this reason, the media authority is partly responsible for citizen’s lack of awareness of the concepts of participatory democracy and e-democracy.
Gradually improve the means of communication between representatives and citizens
Create a legal framework to digitalise communication between representatives and citizens
Before implementing the project to digitize communication between citizens and representatives, a legal framework needs to first be established. It should define the source of information on which the digital application is built and clarify the duties and rights of both parties involved in the collaboration, namely the ARP and civil society.
This framework should include the following two solutions.
Articles 81 and 103 of the ARP internal regulations should be unified under a single article called “Civil society access to the Assembly of People’s Representatives”. It should also include the following introductory statement.
“The Assembly of People’s Representatives guarantees the right of associations to access the spaces and structures of the Assembly in order to monitor and contribute to its work on the basis of the principles of impartiality, participation, transparency and equality and according to procedures defined and published on the official website of the Assembly.”
The Kawakibi center submitted this recommendation.
This proposed amendment would first clarify the right of access to the Assembly in a single article. The provision on the need to put in place access procedures will help reduce inequalities between different civil society actors. It would also promote transparency between the ARP and civil society associations or organizations.
The ARP and civil society actors should collaboratively draft a cooperation convention to establish more effective communication between representatives and citizens, supported by civil society. First of all, it is necessary to review the articles of the project to give them a realistic and effective dimension.
Relevant civil actors should collaborate to develop an application (app) that would allow citizens to communicate with and observe their representatives:
The implementation of electronic democracy tools can overcome the rupture between the representatives and the citizens in Tunisia. The creation of an app that ensures communication between representatives and citizens can allow the latter to hold the former accountable.
The application should mainly focus on the following:
- The use of simple and clear audiovisual technology makes it useable by every citizen. The app should enable citizens to ask MPs oral or written questions, highlight problems, and offer proposals or solutions. To ensure that the messages from the citizens reach the MPs, the advisor to the deputy in charge of relations with citizens and civil society should coordinate with MPs and civil society to ensure that MPs are responsive on the app.
- If the citizen is not satisfied with the work of his/her representative, s/he has the right to change the political orientation on the app. This will put pressure on the representative and remind him/her that the electorate is observing his/her actions.
- Publish weekly statistics to highlight the most and least communicative parliamentary representatives and blocs. This could encourage parliamentarians to use the app and interact with citizens frequently.
It is essential to coordinate efforts and establish a unified application. This will make its development easier and will encourage MPs to use the same platform.
Raise public awareness about the concept of e-democracy
The media, as the fourth estate, has a responsibility to make the concept of e-democracy part of popular consciousness. It can achieve this by increasing citizen participation by televising debates between citizens and politicians, which would be moderated by a journalist, in political programs.
This can also be achieved by making citizens aware of their role in the political process and integrating them into the process. The programs can, for example, explain how the constitution includes the role of the citizen as a contributor to the democratic process.
Civil society should cooperate with the media to raise awareness of the available digital platforms and the work of the associations and organizations that seek citizen participation in the democratic system.
Civilian oversight of parliamentarians is a constitutional right of Tunisian citizens. Therefore, promoting electronic democracy to achieve this objective will help Tunisian citizens enjoy their constitutional rights and working towards achieving this objective is their national duty.
- The Assembly of People’s Representatives should continue to digitize its parliamentary function and develop its electronic communication with citizens.
- Civil society must support the establishment of electronic democracy by collaborating to create a unified database and digital platform that facilitates citizen access.
- The media authority should change the stereotypical media presentation of the representative-citizen relationship by shifting political broadcasts from unilateral domination in favor of the politician or MP to a bilateral balance and making the citizen more familiar with the e-democracy concept.
 France 24 (2019) Tunisia-The legislative election turnout reached 41.3%. Available at https://bit.ly/3x6dMWy  Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014. Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Tunisia_2014.pdf Arab Democratic Center (2017) The role of information and communication technologies in establishing a new practice of democracy: electronic democracy. Available at https://democraticac.de/?p=46833#google_vignette Assembly of People’s Representatives (2015) Parliamentary Rules of Procedure. Available at http://www.arp.tn/site/main/AR/docs/reg_int_arp.pdf  Al Kawakibi Center for Democratic Transition Study on the Access of Civil Society Organizations to the Assembly of People’s Representatives.  Projet de convention de coopération entre l’Assemblée des représentants du peuple et la société civile Available at https://bit.ly/3tD6B6b  The platform for managing the relationship between the Assembly of People’s Representatives and civil society. Available at https://societecivile.arp.tn/fr/  Al Bawsala’s Marsad Majles website. Available at https://majles.marsad.tn/fr/  What’s your program? Available at https://ektbelhom.tn/  Al Kawakibi Center for Democratic Transition Study on the Access of Civil Society Organizations to the Assembly of People’s Representatives.